A History of Minnesota’s Highways: Part Four

This is Part Four of an ongoing series of the history of Minnesota’s trunk highway system. Part One covered the early days of government and privately built roads. Part Two covered the events leading up to the establishment of the trunk highway system in 1920. Part Three covered the coming of the U.S. numbered highways and the 1920s improvement projects.

The 1933 Expansion and Renumbering

Throughout the 1920s, focus was on improving the existing trunk highways. But beyond the original 1920 Constitutional Routes, the legislature was given authority to add routes via ordinary statutes. In the 1920s one route was added, and an attempt was made to add a second but was declared unconstitutional due to a technicality in the way the statute was written. But the drips being added to the system soon became a torrent.

In the early 1930s the initial improvement program was nearing completion and with the coming of the Depression, Governor Floyd Olson championed a massive increase in the size and scope of government, including a mammoth expansion of the state trunk highway system. This put him at odds with Charles Babcock, who was reluctant to take on new routes, both because of their dubious value for statewide mobility and due to the resources required to maintain them. Ultimately Babcock was forced out of his position as commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Highways, the agency he did so much to create.  Olson appointed a new commissioner who agreed to accept the expansions, which were authorized in 1933 and signed by 1934.

With the new highways came new numbers. Originally the marked numbers matched exactly the legal numbers. But with the expansion came the opportunity to redo it in a less legalistic, more pragmatic manner. The new routes were assigned arbitrary marked numbers from 73-121, and existing routes were renumbered to incorporate the new highways into the system in a logical manner and eliminate duplication of U.S. routes. Until then, U.S routes had both the new U.S. and old constitutional route numbers.

Here’s a map of the state showing the 1933 expansion and the changes since the 1920s.

1933 Minnesota Trunk Highway Expansion

1933 Minnesota Trunk Highway Expansion.

I have left out route numbers for legibility and because with a few exceptions they are the same as today. Notable exceptions are that part of what is now MN 30 was then MN 47, part of what is now MN 47 was then an extension of MN 56, and part of today’s MN 18 was then MN 66. Here is a map of the Twin Cities metro showing the 1933 additions after they had been established in 1934. Since the map in the previous post showed the temporary 1934-1935 extensions of U.S. 65, 212, and 218, I’ve chosen to show them in their longer lasting configuration here.

Notes on the map:

  • There used to be two routes east from downtown Shakopee. One followed the railroad to the Bloomington Ferry Bridge, and one followed what is now Eagle Creek Blvd to the southeast. MN 13 and MN 101 originally followed Eagle Creek until the connection between the Bloomington Ferry Bridge and CSAH 5 was built later.
  • I’ve called out the MN 100 belt line for special attention. It was originally “U” shaped. The top was closed 10 years later by following the existing MN 96 (which I have also shown in solid yellow on the overview map) and some newly constructed roadway (dashed yellow). With the coming of the interstates that replaced portions of it, the numbers were broken up. The longest section in the western suburbs remained MN 100, with MN 110 in the southeast and MN 120 in the east. The section overlaid on MN 96 just reverted to that.
  • Note also MN 101 and MN 110 in the western suburbs—it’s possible that these were anticipated as a series of belt lines. At any rate neither was extended, and in fact the original MN 110 was the first highway removed from the system in the mid 1950s and MN 101 is now mostly gone.
  • MN 94 only lasted a year or two before it was replaced with a reroute of US 10.
  • MN 56 originally went all through the metro and continued to Lake Mille Lacs. It was broken up by deleting redundant sections between the downtowns and renumbering the northern segment MN 47, then by ending it at Hampton and renumbering the part of Concord Blvd remaining as a trunk highway as MN 156.
  • MN 218 went north from Owatonna to Brainerd, and was replaced with MN 3 and an extension of MN 25.
  • Note the sequence of numbers 94, 95, 96, 97, and 98 around the western suburbs.
  • MN 55 followed Rockford Road (so named because it was the main road from town west to Rockford in the early days). The Olson Highway expressway much farther south was a 1950s  conception.
  • MN 212 is the route that continues through Stillwater and over the bridge to Wisconsin.

Here are some closer maps that incorporate some changes from 1935 on, including the final pre-interstate alignment of the Belt Line, 1941-c1958. Dashed lines are where a preexisting marked connecting route was moved onto a new alignment when it became controlled by the state.

Notes on the maps:

  • MN 7 comes all the way into Minneapolis and ends at Washington Ave.
  • The intersection of Third Ave and Washington Ave in front of the Milwaukee Depot was sort of the crossroads of Minneapolis.
  • US 212 has been moved to Marshall Ave, where it will stay for 50 years.
  • The High Bridge route is MN 88. Later, MN 49 was extended south over it, then it was reverted back to two separate routes, renumbering to the current MN 149. Then the original MN 49 on Rice Street was removed.
  • MN 218 goes right over what is now part of the grassy area in front of the state capitol.
  • I’m not going to get into the whole long convoluted history of MN 90 (and its successor MN 190) and MN 121 in south Minneapolis. If anyone wants to hear about it we can go out for coffee sometime.

Overall the value of these new trunk highways was mixed. Some of these were extremely valuable, for example the Twin Cities Beltline, MN 100, and MN 36. But many were marginal to worthless, including some roads in the northern wilderness that still average only a couple dozen vehicles a day, as well as LR 199 / MN 105, which parallels US 218 and then ends at the Iowa border.

As for Charles Babcock, he returned to his family affairs in Elk River, passing in 1936. The Babcock family is still involved in the affairs of Elk River. Some of the staff Babcock hired to help lead the Department of Highways lasted into the early 1960s before retiring. There are a few public legacies of his involvement:  the street name “Babcock Trail” in the southeastern suburbs and a wayside in Elk River.

Motoring: Fun or Fast?

Two practically opposed ideas that really started to gel in the 1930s were that motoring could be fun and that motoring could be fast. The idea of motoring for fun has spanned the years—from a picnic excursion in a 1918 Ford Model T to a Sunday drive on the Grand Rounds in a 2018 Ford Escape. It first became practical in the 1930s because car ownership was common and you could take a pleasure drive without a real risk of getting stuck or breaking down.

The Depression put traditional benefit/cost analysis for government projects on hold, allowing for the creation of roadways that encouraged pleasure driving. Parts of MN 100 were built with with hand labor, rather than the mechanized equipment that was widely available, just so more people could be paid to work. In the 1930s the New Deal agencies built a series of roadside retaining walls, bridges, waysides, and entry monument signs out of hand-set stones. Although the modern rest area is mainly a place to use the restroom and get out of the car for a few minutes, the early waysides could also be destinations for a picnic after a pleasure drive. On MN 100 a series of 9 of them were built, featuring rock gardens, picnic areas, and landscaping. The highway itself was extensively landscaped, notably with 7000 lilac bushes giving it a secondary name: Lilac Way.

1960s era map showing west metro waysides.

Lilac Way at Minnetonka Blvd looking southwest in 1941. (Note the overpass in the background.)

The second legacy of the period is the idea that motoring can be fast. Traffic signals and city congestion were fast becoming as big an infringement on the freedom that autos brought as the mud and rocks of only a decade or so before. MN 100 was the beginning of the idea that you could get around without having to go into city congestion. Although parts were still gravel when incorporated into the trunk highway system, this would soon change and some of first interchanges and stretches of expressway were built on MN 100 in the mid to late 1930s when German immigrant engineer Carl Graeser got to work.

Ultimately it became clear that the two concepts really couldn’t exist in the same time and place. Speeds and traffic volumes got higher and higher, making waysides unpleasant to picnic in and dangerous to pull into and out of. In the case of MN 100, fast unquestionably won over fun. Most of the original landscaping and waysides along MN 100 have been obliterated by capacity improvements over the years, and few people aside from roadgeeks drive it for pleasure. Here’s an approximate modern view of the place pictured above, taken from Google Street View since I can’t legally and safely stop to photograph a high-speed freeway entrance ramp. Only the location of the overpass in the background gives you a clue it’s the same location.

The idea that motoring could be fast and efficient was of course much, much bigger than the MN 100 belt line in both Minnesota and the nation. Additional expressways were being built here and there; Hudson Road was another early one. By the late 1930s the idea for a national system of such high speed expressways came about which would become the interstates. It would take decades to realize the dream. There was no workable mechanism for funding, and then the U.S. got involved in a little kerfuffle in Europe and the Pacific. But the dream was still there, and it’s surprising how similar the 1930s proposals were to what became reality.

Such topics as Lilac Way, driving for pleasure, and the dawn of the interstates are topics that easily deserve their own articles, so for now this series will narrow to focus on the changes to the non-interstate routes. Part Five will cover two much more minor waves of expansion in the 1950s and statewide additions since then. Part Six will conclude the series with the reverse wave of highways removed from the system, changes to the metro since the 1950s, a discussion of the secret highway numbers, and possible changes in the future.

Late 1930s national expressway proposal.

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.