A History of Minnesota’s Highways Part Two

Previously this series covered federal and private involvement in Minnesota’s highways from the pioneer days into the 1920s. Now it’s time to cover the involvement of the state. As early as 1890 there was state involvement in highways, with the state contributing funds towards the Old Cedar and Bloomington Ferry Bridges. A 1898 constitutional amendment allowed the state to directly be involved in road and bridge construction, which started with the establishment of the State Highway Commission in 1905. By the 1910s it was obvious the auto was the wave of the future for personal travel and trucks for commerce was imminent, so demand for more and better roads continued. The Good Roads Movement, initially formed by bicyclists in the 1870s, turned towards lobbying for roads for automobiles in the early part of the last century.

In 1912 the Dunn Amendment was passed. This separated Minnesota’s roads into:

  • “State Roads”: to be constructed by the counties with state aid, under rules of the State Highway Commission.
  • County Roads: to be constructed by the counties with their own funding, under rules of the State Highway Commission, to be maintained by the townships
  • Township Roads: to be constructed and maintained by the townships.

I use scare quotes around “state roads” because they were more along the lines of what we would call County State Aid Highways (CSAHs) in funding sources, jurisdiction, and function today. There was still a strong farm to market emphasis rather than on long distance travel.

"State Roads" around Brainerd

“State Roads” around Brainerd

"State Roads", Twin Cities Metro

“State Roads”, Twin Cities Metro

“State roads” were no solution for long distance motoring. So momentum grew for a cohesive system truly under state control.

Charles Babcock

In 1917 the direct predecessor agency to Mn/DOT, the Minnesota Department of Highways was formed. (Generally they seemed to have called themselves just the “Department of Highways” or the “Minnesota Highway Department” [MHD] so I’ll refer to them as such for the remainder of this series). Charles M. Babcock, an Elk River businessman who saw the economic importance of highways to his town and to the state, was the first commissioner.  He had been appointed as a member of the State Highway Commission back in 1910. Besides being the first commissioner, he was active nationally in the American Road Builders Association, the American Association of State Highway Officials, and the National Safety Council, and represented the United States at the Pan American Congress of Highways. In 1920 Babcock authored the Babcock Amendment to the Minnesota Constitution. When approved by state voters on November 2, the Minnesota Trunk Highway system was authorized. Enabling legislation passed (Minnesota Laws, Chapter 323, the “Public Highway Act”) passed the legislature in 1921, and the system, with the first 70 “Constitutional Routes” was established.

Constitutional Routes in Minnesota 1920

A few notes:

  • The numbering is arbitrary, except for that fact that the lower numbers were the longest, most important routes, with Constitutional Route (C.R.) 1 being probably the most important of all, today I-35 and MN 61.
  • Due to space constraints on the map I’ve only labeled 1-15 and a few others. If you want to see all the route numbers I suggest looking at one of the digitized old official Minnesota state maps, for example the one from 1926.
  • There are a few that still have the same marked number and extent that they did in 1920, for example C.R./MN 58, and many more where the original number is part of a longer or shorter route.
  • As a system, one is struck by the extent to which they are what is still the core of our trunk highway system,  our most important highways then and now.
  • Although there were several border to border trunk highways both north to south and east to west (and notice how long C.R. 11 was), what is now I-94 and US 10 did not have a single number. The only major change is the southwestern half of MN 23 did not exist as a concept.
  • The obvious question is why were so many of the numbers are so different than today. That will be covered in Part Four of this series.

Here’s the metro map.

Marked Routes in the Twin Cities 1920

A few notes:

  • As described in the legend, constitutional routes did not exist inside Minneapolis and St. Paul. They were marked, but not under state jurisdiction. (I’ll refer to them subsequently as “marked connecting routes” or just “routes”)
  • The marquee route, C.R. 1, goes to St. Paul, not Minneapolis. This theme has continued in a minor way by having I-35E the designated through route (I-35W is marked as an “exit” of I-35, and exit numbering sequence for I-35 continuing on I-35E).
  • The main route to the south from Minneapolis, C.R. 50, was built as an extension of Lyndale Ave with a new bridge, not the existing bridge at Cedar Ave as originally intended, due to pressure from Minneapolis business interests. It didn’t exist at all until the mid 1920s and the idea of the main route being straight south, rather than through Farmington and Northfield is much much later, not really until I-35 was built in the 1960s.
  • The concept of what is now US 52 didn’t really exist in the southeast suburbs. C.R. 20 covered most of it south of Cannon Falls. , and then C.R 50 for a bit north of Cannon Falls, but as you can see it veered west at Hampton to go to Minneapolis.  The main route to the southeast went along the river, CR 3/US 61 to Winona, which was a lot more important relative to Rochester than it is now. Rochester eventually got the complete high speed expressway; the one to Winona was never finished, with plans to build a Red Wing bypass cancelled years ago.
  • Concord Blvd was part of a very old wagon road that went to the town of Concord, where several such roads converged. However it’s importance was not kept in the auto trails era and was not kept here. It seems to be mainly a minor back door route to Hastings.
  • The lack of paving on C.R. 5 and C.R. 12 very close to the city was undoubtedly due to plans to consolidate C.R. 5 and C.R. 12 on a new diagonal alignment between them, today’s Flying Cloud Drive, now known as CSAH 61 but for close to 70 years a major part of the trunk highway system. There was a “state road” on more or less Flying Cloud Drive’s alignment that didn’t make the cut as an initial trunk highway, but it seemed more oriented towards enabling farmers in Eden Prairie to get to Shakopee than as a through route.
The Trunk Highway System layout in Minneapolis and St. Paul, 1920s

Inset from the 1927 Official Highway Map, the trunk highway system layout in Minneapolis and St. Paul, early 1920s

A few notes:

  • Route 12 takes a weird jog at Mississippi River Blvd to go down Summit Ave instead of Marshall Ave. By the late 1920s Marshall Ave was indicated as a designated truck route west of Lexington before the entire highway was moved there during the great expansion and renumbering we’ll discuss in a later article.
  • C.R. 1 has the label “Jefferson Highway” rather than “Dodd Road”. Apparently there’s disagreement as to if the 1853 Dodd Road, as mentioned in Part One, went all the way to the High Bridge or not. The source I used, a publication by the Dakota County Historical Society, stated clearly that it did not, but apparently other historical sources differ. I’ll just leave it at that.
  • C.R. 50 was not yet built south of town, so is not marked as Route 50 in the city.
  • In keeping with the times of putting the trunk highway down the main street, Route 5 went down Nicollet Ave, which until the Gateway Redevelopment fed directly into the Hennepin Ave Bridge.
  • A late 1920s modification in downtown Minneapolis moved Route 3 to Washington Ave and extended Route 10 over Hennepin Ave.

In St. Paul the routes also went straight through downtown, but is wasn’t long before the wisdom of routing traffic around the core of the downtowns came about. Congestion was a big problem in downtown St. Paul, due to the narrower streets, and St Paul has even resorted to chopping off the facades of buildings to widen streets.  In the early 1930s Kellogg Blvd was overlaid on the old 3rd Street and the marked routes moved onto it. Kellogg Blvd foreshadowed the ambivalent results of much bigger urban renewal and highway projects to come. Although entire blocks worth of buildings were lost on the south side, it did much to alleviate traffic congestion and also opened up views of the river from the rest of downtown.

Part Three of this series will cover the rapid construction programs of the 1920s and the first major change to the route numbers: the addition of the U.S. numbered highway system.

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2 Responses to A History of Minnesota’s Highways Part Two

  1. Cobo Rodregas March 9, 2018 at 10:01 pm #

    Thanks Monte, I love this series.

  2. Tom Harper March 15, 2018 at 10:20 am #

    Going back to Part 1, There is an excellent paper about the Dodd Road in the MSU Mankato library titled “Dodd Road: The Story of a Frontier Highway” written by Janice Olson Gawtry.

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