A History of Minnesota’s Highways Part One

This is the first part of a new series on the history of Minnesota’s highway system. This is not intended to be exhaustive or strictly chronological. Rather the idea is to present certain milestones and points where source material is available and that I think readers will find informative or interesting. There’s also a few topics I will only touch briefly as they are tangential to the main flow and are worthy of articles in themselves. These include things like Minnesota in maps, the idea of traffic management, motoring for pleasure instead of transportation, and a topic I have already covered: the I-35W bridge collapse and associated politics will likewise be brief.  The series will start off from the early days to the implementation of the state highway system and  continue on with additions and contractions to the system since then. Next it will take a step back to cover the conception and reality of our expressways and freeways, ending with a few thoughts on the future.

Highways of the Pioneer Era

Even in the territorial days roads were being built in Minnesota. On July, 18 1850 U.S. Congress, with the Minnesota Road Act,  authorized a series of military roads.

  • The Point Douglas and St. Louis River (later Superior) Road
  • The Point Douglas and Fort Gaines (later Camp Ripley) Road
  • The Big Sioux and Mendota Road
  • The Swan River and Long Prairie Road
  • The Wabashaw  and Mendota Road

In the following map I noted the Dodd Road section of the Big Sioux and Mendota Road, which we’ll discuss soon.

1850 Authorized Military Roads in Minnesota Territory

1850 Authorized Military Roads in Minnesota Territory

Justification of roads for their military value is a theme that would continue. The authorization for part of Highway 100 happened in the middle of WWII to connect the western part of the Twin Cities with the Twin Cities Arsenal. The interstate system was justified partly by military value too; the official name is the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways and of course Dwight D. Eisenhower, the system’s champion, had a military background. But as with the interstates, use by civilians was vastly more than use by the military.

Along with government roads, private enterprise also built roads. Road work in the pioneer days looked often like the picture below. At the time able bodied men were required to work two days on the roads. Particularly in the southeast “MInnesota Triangle” there was a network of private stagecoach roads.

Territorial Road Work

Territorial Road Work

In the northwest were the Red River Oxcart trails, created by a man from Pembina, Joe Rolette, in 1842.

Joe Rolette

Joe Rolette

They ran from a part of Manitoba then called the Red River colony to Mendota. Furs were the usual cargo southbound, with miscellaneous supplies the northbound cargo. Portions one of the trails is still visible in Crow Wing State Park.

The Red River Oxcart Trails

The Red River Oxcart Trails

Another prominent early private road was the Dodd Road. Captain William Bigellow Dodd was a pioneer who staked a 160 acre claim and founded the town of Rock Bend, later renamed St. Peter. Realizing the economic development potential of the road (sound familiar?), Dodd got together with Aguste Larpenteur, son of St. Paul businessman Charles Larpenteur, who helped with financing, and Dodd began laying out the road in 1853. One of the military roads, the Mendota-Big Sioux Road (to what is now Sioux City, IA), was to be in more or less the general area, but it was last on the government’s priority list and Dodd wanted to make sure it didn’t bypass his town. Dodd was paid $3270 by the military for his contribution. Ultimately though he didn’t have long to enjoy his creation, in 1862 he was killed defending his town in the Dakota Conflict.

Captain William B. Dodd

Captain William B. Dodd

With the help of the road, St. Peter became a major trading post, and at one point was under consideration as a new state capitol. There was in fact a bill in the territorial legislature to “rob Paul to pay Peter” and move the State Capitol to St. Peter. Joe Rolette was by now a legislator and was opposed to the bill. In one of the more amusing anecdotes of Minnesota history, he literally took the law into his own hands and took the bill and disappeared with it, not returning until it was to late for it to be passed. Ultimately the new state of Minnesota left Pembina outside it’s borders and Rolette died having lost his fortune and been forgotten in 1871.

Despite the early roadbuilding efforts on the Dodd Road and elsewhere, for the most part, in the old days, you avoided travel by land if at all possible. This became even more true with the coming of the railroads and roads were only a path through the muck to get from your farm to the nearest station or nearest town. Long distance road trips beyond a days drive to the county seats were unthinkable. But with the coming of automobile (first shown to Minnesotans in 1895), this had to change. There was no point in owning a car that could  give you the freedom to jump in and travel from Minneapolis to California if there were no roads to do so. Here’s a not uncommon view of early motoring.

A major milestone was the introduction of concrete to rural roads in 1911. A single 9 foot strip of concrete was laid down near Red Wing. At the speeds and traffic volumes of the the day, one driver would simply move off the road in the rare event of meeting someone coming the other direction.

First concrete pavement, near Red Wing, 1911

Legacies of the Early Days

A portion of the Point Douglas to Superior Military Road  still exists, as the old stone bridge off the Brown’s Creek State Trail in Stillwater. Right now it’s on private property, barely visible from the Browns Creek State Trail.

Another section is visible in Wild River State Park.

Point Douglas to Superior Military Road, Wild River State park

This is in an out-of-the way spot on an already quiet and secluded park. You can just sit among the birches and imagine the history that happened so long ago.

A piece of the Point Douglas to Camp Ripley military road survives as a depression (and a street name) in Cottage Grove

Depression marking the route of the Point Douglas to Camp Ripley Military Roads

The most famous legacy of course is the Zumbrota covered bridge, built for an old stagecoach road.

Zumbrota Covered Bridge

Zumbrota Covered Bridge

Zumbrota Covered Bridge undergoing repair in 1932

In 1932 a new modern bridge was constructed for the highway and then moved and plopped down in a field on the fairgrounds for the next 65 years. Finally in 1997 it was moved again next to its old location to once again span the river, this time as a bicycle and pedestrian crossing. The next year the worst flood in 100 years struck. The water came inches from the bottom at the new location, and totally inundated the old field at the fairgrounds. Had it not been moved it would have undoubtedly been destroyed.

The Silverdale Bridge, built of iron at Sauk Center in 1890, it was moved to a very remote area of the north woods in 1932, where it remained until 2010 when it was moved and restored for use on the Browns Creek Trail over Manning Ave.

Silverdale Bridge

Silverdale Bridge

Silverdale Bridge

Silverdale Bridge

Legacies also still exist in the form of old names. “Military Road” in Cottage Grove. Sections of “Dodd Road” in Dakota County (although north of MN 55 it actually wasn’t the original Dodd Road, which veered west to Mendota). In the early days numbers the road to Pleasantville would simply be called Pleasantville Road. In the Twin Cities we have Rockford Road (the modern MN 55 is a much, much later creation), Hudson Road, Bloomington Road, Eden Prairie Road, Old Shakopee Road, and Anoka Blvd, to name a few. Old Shakopee Road in fact predates European settlement and was known as an old road even back in pioneer days.

The Auto Trail Era

With the dawn of the automobile, private associations and local chambers of commerce formed with the intent of marking and promoting the best route for motorists, the “auto trails”. The most famous of these are still in popular culture: the Dixie Highway, the Lincoln Highway, the Yellowstone Trail, the Jefferson Highway. Some of these associations are still active to promote the history of their highway.  Markers tended to be abbreviations and color blocks, easy to paint on utility poles rather than having metal signs. A map of Minnesota circa 1920, shows select national auto trails in colors and other auto trails in grey.

Things to note:

  • Although the concept of a Twin Cities to Winnipeg route through Bemidji didn’t last, most of these routes are still recognizable as today’s major highways
  • A few others: The North Shore Drive was the Scott Highway I-90 / MN 16 was the Southern Minnesota Air Line.
  • The idea that motoring for pleasure dates back to the early days. The Mississippi Valley Scenic Highway seems to be the spiritual predecessor to the Great River Road.

Especially in the metro environs, sources are conflicting on the exact routing. I also used various sources at slightly different times, so it should be regarded as not a snapshot of a specific year, but a compilation of some early routings.

Twin Cities Auto Trails

Twin Cities Auto Trails

Things to note:

  • Although there was an established route across the Bloomington Ferry Bridge and up Old Shakopee Road and W 7th street, the Daniel Boone Trail instead crossed the Shakopee Bridge, followed the river bottoms before emerging and following Eden Prairie road through the village of Eden Prairie to meet up with the Yellowstone Trail. The routing along the river bottoms has been abandoned for decades (my 1982 Hudson’s atlas notes it as “road closed”), but is visible on Google Earth.
  • The Mississippi Valley Highway splits to go to both Minneapolis and St. Paul. An idea that would be ressurected years later as I-35W and I-35E.
  • What is now Broadway Ave and Bottineau Blvd is the main route of town to the northwest, and the Mississippi Valley Highway was the main route out of town from St. Paul to the north. But we can see the concept of cutoff routes, where you could head northwest out of St. Paul through New Brighton to bypass downtown Minneapolis, and northeast out of downtown Minneapolis.
  • The concept of a cutoff route from the Old Cedar Bridge to meet the Jefferson Highway at Farmington was never quite a reality. If the weather wasn’t too bad you could probably navigate it over local farm roads, but an improved, marked road never happened in the auto trail era.

The state of Minnesota acknowledged and even officially registered the auto trails.

The page registering the Jefferson Highway on 9 Aug 1917.

Auto trails definately served their purpose for way-finding. But there were two fatal flaws:

  • The roads themselves were still maintained and improved at the whim of and by whatever resources could be had by local governments. Conditions varied wildly; just because it was the “best” route didn’t necessarily mean it was anything close to resembling “good”.
  • Some unscrupulous associations would direct motorists to their own town rather than the best way for through traffic.

In light of these flaws, momentum grew for a state system of trunk highways. In part two we will jump back to the 1890s to focus this ramp-up of state involvement in our roads, the establishment of the trunk highway system, early construction programs, and the coming of U.S. numbered highways.

About Monte Castleman

Monte is a long time "roadgeek" who lives in Bloomington. He's interested in all aspects of roads and design, but particularly traffic signals, major bridges, and lighting. He works as an insurance adjuster, and likes to collect maps and traffic signals, travel, recreational bicycling, and visiting amusement parks.

13 thoughts on “A History of Minnesota’s Highways Part One

  1. Justin D

    This is really cool. Love seeing those old pioneer highway remnants and I should go and see them in person. Also I like the idea of “auto trails,” just makes driving seem so different than it is today.

  2. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    I grew up on Dodd Road and love reading about its history. You really poured some cold water on my oatmeal, though, when you said that the North of 55 route isn’t the original route. I guess that makes sense, as Mendota would have had to have been a destination. So where does the odd route through Mendota Heights come from?

    1. Monte Castleman Post author

      Sometimes you’ll read online that “Dodd Road went from St. Peter to St. Paul”. But perhaps it’s confusion in that is the street name extends farther beyond the actual road, and Mendota could loosely be considered “St. Paul”

      But the source document I used for the Dodd Road section came from the Dakota County Historical Society. It says it veered east at Westcott (today’s MN 55 and MN 149) to follow the pre-existing Mendota-Wabashaw road to Mendota. I’m assuming they know what they’re talking about so I went with that.

      Explaining that there’s “Dodd Road” and there’s “Dodd Road” was too much into the weeds so I skipped it, but the article suggests two theories:

      1) Someone just decided to name the road north of there that to further honor William Dodd

      2) The road north of there was actually coincidentally named to honor a “John Dodd” an early lawyer and state representative who lived nearby.

      My own theory is that commercial traffic, much of which would have come from St. Paul, vastly outnumbered military traffic, so the route between the High Bridge, long the major route south out of the Twin Cities, to Westcott got considered as part of it even if it wasn’t technically correct.

      1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

        I also think St. Peter was the original name for Mendota? There’s St. Peter’s church there, still.

        I did research this once. Dodd Road from the West Side up to where 110 is now IS the original alignment I think. An historian took me on a walk around the Saint Paul (west side) area of Dodd Road once.

        1. Max HailperinMax Hailperin

          I can’t address whether Mendota might have once been another St. Peter, but William Dodd is definitely associated with the St. Peter in Nicollet County. We even have the grave to prove it. The city was named after what is now the Minnesota River, but was at the time the St. Peter, or originally St. Pierre, River. So conceivably another city at the mouth of that same river could have taken the same name.

        2. Adam FroehligAdam Froehlig

          Per Minnesota Place Names (which was taken offline but I have the 2001 version of the book), Mendota was originally called “St. Peter’s” (with the apostraphe-S on the end). It was renamed Mendota ca. 1837.

            1. Monte Castleman Post author

              Then you have the St. Croix River, which was called “River of the Grave” prior to about 1688.

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