The Birth of a Metro Highway (Interstate 94)

(Interstate 94 in 1967 via MNHS)

The idea to connect the Twin Cities was first approached by city officials in the 1920s, but took hold in 1944 due in part to a proposal by the National Inter-Regional Highways Committee – a creation of then president Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The Commission was tasked with adding 34,000 miles of “rural and urban highways” throughout the United States in an effort to links cities with populations greater than 300 thousand. The roads would alleviate concerns about finding work for soon to be returning soldiers, would give the military a way to easily move men and equipment if needed, and would be beneficial to a rapidly increasing group of automobile drivers.

After World War II, the country shifted away from mass transit use to automobiles. This was brought on by the increase in personal finances (people had more disposable income), and urban sprawl (people were moving out of the cities into first ring suburbs). The Twin Cities saw automobile registrations increase 58 percent from 1947-1950, and the additional traffic was finding itself stuck in growing levels of gridlock. This requirement for additional roadway options, born out of a simple need to help more people get to their increasingly further away destinations, brought on the highway systems.

The November 1, 1945 issue of the Pioneer Press wrote that the new highway should be accessible to the University of Minnesota as well as designed to offer Minneapolis residents the ability to “reach the State Capitol with more ease.” Any decisions going forward would have to take into account the ease of travel between the two cities, and almost immediately a route was chosen to run between University and Marshall Avenues. Saint Anthony Avenue, the only viable existing street option that was platted through to Minneapolis, ran parallel to these two streets stretching from downtown Saint Paul to the western city line and was considered the best option almost immediately. A picture shown in the November 4, 1945 edition of the Saint Paul Dispatch explaining this route would end up being nearly identical to the finished product. However, the discussion had really only just begun.

By 1945 Saint Paul’s eighty-two year old “founder of city planning” George Herrold, considered in local political circles to be an “unbending idealist” was voicing what he considered to be significant concerns about the use of Saint Anthony Avenue (at this point known as the St. Anthony Route). Using the proposed route would decimate the long established Prospect Park and Rondo neighborhoods, essentially cutting the life out of them. With twenty two different railroad lines already chopping the city into small “islands” Herrold felt adding an additional highway system in this way would make things worse. He recommended that the highway run a mile north of University Avenue adjacent to the railroad lines that were already there (this would come to be known as the Northern Route).

Proposed Northern and St. Anthony Routes – from “The City Planning Process: a Political Analysis”)

City officials never seriously considered Herrold’s plan. The majority of the traffic that would use the new highway came from the south of University Avenue and the additional travel inconvenience for drivers meant that the Northern Route would most likely carry less traffic than their plan. Also, because people would spend additional drive time to get the Herrold’s route, the assumption was that the streets would need to be repaired more often – costing the city more money. Highway Department officials felt the unfortunate reality of their task was that they needed to place convenience above the social impact of their plan and that their decision was the best one for the growth of the area. In their opinion the desire lines (defined as the shortest or most easily navigated path between two points) created by their plan would best serve the people that used the new highway.

Herrold believed that the social impact of what they were doing should take precedent over everything else. The predominantly African-American communities affected would have a hard time finding new homes in other city communities, and putting the highway through their neighborhood would cause significant crowding issues. He felt the city had an opportunity to create entirely new desire lines with his plan without having to displace entire neighborhoods. While this was his most significant problem with the planned Highway Department’s route, it wasn’t his only one.

In separating the Capitol building from downtown, Herrold felt that city officials were making a “serious engineering blunder.” He couldn’t believe that Highway Department hadn’t considered the economic ramifications of “placing the hundreds of employees of the Capitol and highway department… outside of the commercial and recreational districts” in downtown. As the longtime city planner for the city, Herrold’s voice carried weight – but he wasn’t alone in expressing concerns about the decision making of the Highway Department officials.

While route discussions was taking place, the citizens of Prospect Park in Minneapolis sent a proposal to Governor Orville Freeman (a former Prospect Park resident) to get the path of the highway moved from their neighborhood to a nearby railroad spur (a place where cars are left for loading and unloading). Freeman, realizing that the railroad had the right to the land and most likely wouldn’t be interested in dual use scenarios, wrote the Highway Commissioner and suggested that they consider an “elevated road above the spur line.” He was told that it wasn’t considered to be an economically viable option. Over the length of discussions between planners, engineers, and the Prospect Park neighborhood group concessions were made – however they were forced to deal with the reality that their neighborhood would forever be changed.

The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 made the new highway an absolute reality for the area. The federal government would pay 90 percent of the costs associated with highway construction, leaving states required to deal with only the additional 10 percent. It was no longer a matter of “if” but “when” it would happen. Those affected had precious little time to make their case for any changes. Concerns about ongoing movement to the suburbs meant that a decision had to be put in place sooner rather than later. This fear kept the project moving forward.

Downtown Saint Paul businesses saw the highway as the answer to their significant sales decline (driven by road congestion) from 1948-1954. They felt that a highway into downtown would help to deliver them significant sales traffic and as a whole were a proponent from the onset. A mid-decade study showed that while traffic levels would indeed rise substantially, it would only bring a nominal increase in foot traffic. This study, coupled with the seemingly sudden realization that the new highway ran within a quarter mile of Montgomery Ward’s and the soon to be built Sears Roebuck, caused them to change their tune. In 1958 business owners hired Victor Gruen to help sell city officials on the idea of moving the highway path to the west and north of the capitol grounds (cutting through the open 24 acres of land that would house the yet to be built Sears Roebuck). Gruen believed that the current route would “aim people away from the business district”, but his concerns fell on deaf ears. Realizing that their requested changes would never take place, downtown businesses soon gave up their fight.

The Rondo neighborhood would see significant losses due to the new highway (and when people discuss the history of I-94 in the area they frequently discuss its effects on Rondo). Residents were forced to give up their “homes, churches, schools, neighbors, and valued social contracts” to make way for the new highway. While city officials would later laud the generous prices the people of Rondo were paid for their homes, their rosy picture would only tell half of the story. African American residents would see one seventh of their population in the neighborhood displaced and were the owners of 300 of the 400 homes that were destroyed. The city depressed the highway through this area in an effort to alleviate noise, but cutting the community in half was a blow from which it would never completely recover.

After nearly a decade of construction and many more years of planning, on Monday Dec 9, 1968 at 2:15 in the afternoon the Twin Cities were finally linked with the dedication of the $80 million stretch of Interstate 94. A coalition of leaders from Saint Paul drove east to meet a westward bound Minneapolis coalition in front of Highway 280. After a short ceremony (attended by approx. 200 people) representatives from each of the “twins” tied ribbons together to signify the linking of the two cities. By 4:00 pm that day the roads were “officially” open to the public.

Works Cited:

Pioneer Press (Saint Paul), November 1, 1945.

Pioneer Press (Saint Paul), December 8. 1968.

Pioneer Press (Saint Paul), December 10, 1968.

Altshuler, Alan A.. The city planning process: a political analysis. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press, 1965.

Kunz, Virginia Brainard, and Robert Orr Baker. St. Paul, saga of an American city. Woodland Hills, Calif.: Windsor Publications, 1977.

“Official fought freeway route near Capitol.” Session Weekly: A Non-Partisan Publication of the Minnesota House of Representatives 16, no. 12 (1999): 4, 17.

Matt Reicher

About Matt Reicher

Matt Reicher is a historical researcher currently working toward a B.A. in History at Metropolitan State University. He volunteers at the Minnesota Historical Society and writes for his blog “The Streets of Saint Paul” in his free time. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @streetsofstpaul.

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