Road Trip Fail.

A History of Minnesota’s Highways: Part Three

The Construction Programs of the 1920s

Previously, Part 1 of this series discussed some early roads in Minnesota’s pioneer era and the privately maintained auto trails in the early motoring era. Part 2 discussed the generation-long ramp-up of state involvement in highway construction, culminating with the inauguration of a system both owned and maintained by the state: the trunk highways.

Road trip fail, somewhere on C.R. 1 to Duluth

Road Trip Fail

They now existed on paper, and you could follow well-marked signs in the field. However most of them were little more than dirt paths like the roads of the previous three generations.

At the start so few highways were paved that mapmakers didn’t even bother with a special symbol.

Hudson Minnesota Map, 1922

Hudson Minnesota Map, 1922

When roads started to be paved they initially just noted it in text on the map before moving to solid lines for paved, dashed for gravel and earth. In the early days only concrete was considered “real” pavement, and the official Minnesota maps differentiated between concrete and the paper-thin coatings of asphalt by solid lines vs alternating solid and dashed. Interesting enough this distinction between “Pavement” and Bituminous” on official state maps continued on, although much blurred, as “High Type” and “Intermediate Type” until the 1990 edition.

Early on the MHD published “Condition Report” maps. These were pretty useless for navigation, rather they were to show off progress in improving the trunk highway system.

1922 Trunk Highway Map

1922 Trunk Highway Improvement Map

Early pavement consisted of a pair of 9 foot traffic lanes with no shoulders. This was obviously an improvement over a single 9 foot lane or no pavement at all, and acceptable when the bulk of America’s freight still moved by rail and traffic volumes were light.

Abandoned section of US 52 at Zumbrota

But as a motorist you still warily surveyed any oncoming vehicle for any tendency towards drifting or road-hogging. Soon the standards increased to 10 feet, then eventually to today’s standard of 12 feet.. Most of the early narrow pavement has long since been torn up or buried under asphalt, but there are some segments still visible, serving as local access roads or else completely abandoned when the main highway was realigned.

A few major bridges of the later part of this 1920s construction boom remain with us too- The Mendota Bridge, the Ferry Street Bridge, the 10th Ave bridge, the beautifully restored Holmes Street bridge to name a few.

Mendota Bridge

Holmes Street Bridge, Shakopee

The Coming of the U.S. Numbered Routes

The previous article shifted focus from the federal involvement to the state government involvement, and the formation of the trunk highway system. But The federal government never went away and went beyond just cutting checks.  In 1893 the Office of Road Inquiry, the predecessor organization to today’s Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) was formed. The problem with state route markings is that they would usually change numbers abruptly at the state line (the situation on Minnesota’s southern border is unique since Iowa changed all of their numbers to match neighboring states in the 1960s). The concept of a nationwide system with consistent numbers and it’s own branding debuted: The U.S. Highway System.

Some things on the map to note:

  • The first U.S. 59 later became U.S. 63, with the number reused for a new addition. It did not extend into Wisconsin and lasted only a very short time. The temporary extensions also lasted a very short time.
  • U.S.169 was an early addition. The initial routing continued on from Virginia to International Falls before being cut back to Virginia  replaced with part of U.S. 53. For a long time U.S. 169 was erroneously marked between Virginia and where MN 169 split off towards Ely, but the signs were removed when I pointed out this was an error.
  • U.S. 212 originally went to Willmar.
  • The U.S. 10N / 10S split. When they decided to end this arrangement what is now U.S. 10 was originally going to be numbered as and extension of US 218, but ultimately it became the only U.S. 10, and U.S. 10S was replaced with U.S. 52

The initial system in the metro



This is recognizable, and yet not. We see US 12 and US 169, but US 65 goes to St. Paul rather than Minneapolis. For something more recognizable, lets temporarily jump ahead to the U.S. system at it’s height in 1934

1934-1935 U.S. HIghways in the Twin Cities

Some things on the map to note:

  • U.S. 10 was moved to go through Prescott in 1935.
  • We see the main routes out of town to the southwest switch from Minnetonka Blvd and Old Shakopee Road (a route that predates European settlement) to Flying Cloud Drive. It would remain there for 60 years until the U.S. 169 Shakopee bypass and the new U.S. 212 were built.
  • To go south out of Minneapolis, you no longer had to go all the way to the High Bridge, but after crossing the Lyndale Ave bridge you followed what is now CSAH 5 and CSAH 50 to Farmington, then along what is not MN 3 through Northfield to Faribault.
  • There were some very minor tweaks to U.S. 169 (going straight through Jordan instead of bypassing it, and U.S. 8

It should be mentioned that contrary to popular belief, US Highways are not owned by the federal government, nor do they get special funding. They’re just state routes with a national marker on, used with approval of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). There is a system of routes that qualifies for extra federal funding today, called the National Highway System (NHS), but it has no special marker. All interstates are NHS, as are many US routes. But some state and even county routes are also NHS, and many US routes, especially in the north and west parts of the state, are not.

The federal government has never owned any highway. Their role has always been collecting federal taxes and directing funds at states that can’t afford their highways by themselves, like the Dakotas, and projects that have nationwide significance. We talk about the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (the MUTCD) here a lot; ensuring national standards in traffic control is another federal role so we don’t say stumble on a pink square flashing light in rural Iowa and wonder what it means. But now back to discussion on Minnesota.

The End of the Auto Trails

With the implementation of state maintained trunk highways, the private association marked auto trails discussed in the last part faded away. Some legacies survive. U.S. 75 is the “King of Trails Scenic Byway”.

King of Trails sign

North and south of Osseo the former routing maintains the street name “Jefferson Highway”. And “Yellowstone Trail” is a city street name south of Lake Minnetonka.


U.S. 14 has some nice new “Black and Yellow Trail” signs.

And as a coda to the auto trails era, there’s a nice marker where the Jefferson Highway crossed the Iowa border.

The plaque reads:

This marker, dedicated October 28, 1930 by Minnesota Governor Theodore Christianson and Iowa Governor John Hamill commemorates the completion of the Jefferson Highway across their states.

In the background is a 1930s historic entrance monument. Part Three will look at the dramatic changes to Minnesota’s Highways in the 1930s.


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.

5 thoughts on “A History of Minnesota’s Highways: Part Three

  1. Matt SteeleMatt

    Thanks for another great post. I make a point to check out as many of the old sections of original 1920s-1930s concrete roads whenever I can. Deadpioneer digs into the detail of many of these roads and their evolution over time. An excellent compliment for the Minnesota roadgeek who was intrigued by your article.

  2. Scott Walters

    Iowa also renamed/renumbered all of its county highways in 1969. The convention is also very logical and uniform state-wide. Almost all roads have a letter-number. A-10 is the northern most east/west road, and J-90 the southernmost. A roads are the northern tier of counties, B the second tier, C the third, and the number is how far north or south within the tier – 10 is the northernmost county road, 90 the southernmost.
    It starts over with K in the west, up to Y in the east. So, the intersection of A-10 and K-10 would be at the Iowa/Minnesota/South Dakota border, while Y-90 would be in the little point that sticks down into Missouri.
    It’s not quite that clean or perfect, but it’s pretty close. Numbers are consistent across the state, and don’t change or end at county lines.

  3. Adam FroehligAdam Froehlig

    “The federal government has never owned any highway. “

    Strictly speaking, this is not true. Most highways through National Parks (Yellowstone in particular), some roads in the DC area, and what was initially built as an Interstate highway bridge in DC were owned by the Federal government. While the bridge in question reverted to Virginia and Maryland upon the recent completion of the replacement, there are some highways that the Feds own…granted, they’re not numbered and are not located in Minnesota.

  4. Mikey

    Historical question for you. I’ve long wondered whether Hwy 1 (the 1930’s version) was originally supposed to continue east from Ely and Winton over Fernberg Rd and the Gunflint Trail to Grand Marais before the Forest Service mandated no new roads through what became the Boundary Waters. I’ve heard that the Kekekabic hiking trail was originally a logging road and access to fire towers in the area, and would have been the likely route to connect the highway through.

    Of course, I’m glad it didn’t happen, but curious none the less

    1. Monte Castleman Post author

      I’m confident MN 1 never was intended to follow Fernberg / Kekekabic / Gunflint Trails (Called the Ely-Gunflint Route back then). The idea of a through road was killed several years before the inception of MN 1.

      Conflict between local civic leaders and local business interests vs conservationists (most not from the area) has been going on for 100 year to date- witness the recent spat over a proposed mine and a recent assault on canoers by local teenagers. The history of the preservation and bickering about the area doesn’t seem to me to be really on topic for this site, but for those interested, there’s a 1970s MHS Press book called “Saving Quetico Superior: A Land Set Apart” that I recommend.

      But to summarize, in the early 1920s you had business interests and civic that wanted to build a road to every lake for development vs conservationists that wanted to preserve it in a natural state. The forest service was ambivalent, since they knew they had something special, but patrolling, fire watching and suppression, and public access presented practical difficulties in areas that had neither roads (except for some rough logging trails) nor canoe routes.

      Besides road from Ely to the rest of the iron range that had existed for many years, in the early 1920s the Ely-Two Harbors Road, what became MN 1, was built and regarded as a success. Other roads were proposed- the Ely-Buyck Road, three spurs off the Ely-Buyck Road, and the Ely-Gunflint Road. As part of a 1926 compromise, the Ely-Buyck Road was built as the Echo Trail, the three spurs were not. The east section (an extension of the Gunflint Trail) and west section (The Fernberg Road) of the Ely-Gunflint Road were built, but the center section over what is now the Kekekabic Trail was not.

      MN 1 didn’t come until 1933 by which time it was obvious the only through route would be it’s present route. Marking the MN 169 spur over part of the Fernberg Trail was an even later conception, part of quite a few other “dead end routes” created in 1949 and was never intended to be more than what it is.

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