A History of Minnesota’s Highways Part Five

This is Part Five 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. And Part Four covered the great expansion of 1933 and start of the concepts of expressways and pleasure driving.

The 1950 Expansion: The Small-Town Spurs

After the 1933 wave of expansion, focus once again became on improving and paving the existing system.  Only three new routes were added to the system from 1933 to 1949. L.R. 213 and L.R. 214, signed as MN 39 and an extension of MN 60, were very short routes connecting the trunk highway system to bridges to Wisconsin. More significant was L.R. 212, which authorized the remainder of the MN 100 beltway. Then another wave of expansion came in 1950.

If a lot of the 1934 routes were near worthless, this second wave as a whole was even worse. I previously have called these the “pork barrel routes” in discussions with other roadgeeks online, but the problem is that highway projects as  political plums for local politicians rather than transportation merit (as well as politicians thinking they’re highway engineers) happened both before and after this. So it’s unfair to single these out, even if they’re the most obvious and egregious examples in Minnesota. Here’s a map with the legislative route number noted.

1949 Trunk Highway Additions in Minnesota

You can see the numbering pattern in an “S” shape starting at L.R. 215 (marked as an extension of MN 23) at Duluth, than working the way around and ending at MN 277 in west central Minnesota. Then a jump with 278-287 at random locations. This makes me think it was possible that they originally stopped at 287, but then decided to add a few more for good measure.

There’s been several streets.mn articles on these in the past. There was an article against improvements for L.R 256 / MN 66. And an article on a pedestrian fatality on L.R. 270 / MN 270. Understandably Mn/DOT has very little interest in maintaining these roads, and started in the early 1980s trying to get rid of them. The word used to describe this process is “turnback”. But there’s a limited amount of turnback money (separate from other highway money) to bribe local counties into taking them, and sometimes they demand pretty extravagant expensive improvements before taking them, as was the case with MN 66.

So the process of removing these from the trunk highway system tends to drag out slowly at about one a year or so. Iowa had a similar situation and even included spur roads to most of the state parks as well as the tiny towns. Iowa started trying to dump the spur routes earlier and more persistently. Eventually in 2003 Iowa was able to dump all 100 or so of the spur routes in one swoop by an action of the legislature, with no compensation to the counties. This should be something to consider for Minnesota.

Here’s the end of MN 267 in Iona. Seems like a really important trunk highway, no?

South end of MN 267

In a change from assigning arbitrary numbers, for the most part these assumed the same number as the legislative route. That’s why when you look at a map or a list of trunk highways, there’s such a huge gap in marked numbers from the 120s (where the arbitrary numbers from 1934 ended, to 215 (where the 1950 marked numbers matching the legislative route numbers began). There’s a few marked numbers between, but they’re special cases.

Here’s a map with respect to the Twin Cities:

The 1951 Institutional Routes

After the 1950 legislature decided just about every tiny hamlet deserved trunk highway status, a year later for good measure they decided just about every state institution deserved a trunk highway too. These were numbered 288-303, the marked number matching the legislative route in most cases. A few stragglers fitting this category were added after 1951. Mn/DOT has been turning back these at a very slow rate, especially when the institution it served closes.

Yes, this is a state trunk highway, MN 309 (L.R. 309)

There’s quite a few roadgeek oddballs in this category:

  • The discrepancy between the marked number MN 333 and legislative number L.R. 335
  • A few that were never actually marked in the field like L.R 309
  • MN 297, after the US 59 through Fergus Falls was turned back did not touch a trunk highway on either end,
  • A trunk highway the public is not allowed to drive on a portion of because of a prison expansion (MN 289 at Moose Lake).

Travel this trunk highway and get detained, MN 289 Moose Lake


Statewide Changes after 1951

New highways continued to be authorized by the legislature, and now it gets a bit dry and confusing. Three new sections of state statutes were created with their own numbering sequence. So routes were now authorized under five different sections:

  • Section 116.114 Constitutional Trunk Highways. (1-70) These are the original constitutional routes. Although the routes are still part of the constitution, and the state must put it to the voters in a referendum if they for example decide to reroute MN 25 away from Watertown, the actual descriptions were bumped to this statute in a 1974 constitutional cleanup effort to simply the verbiage.
  • Section 116.115 Additional Trunk Highways. (71+) These were the regularly added legislative routes from 1922 onward.
  • Section 116.117, Trunk Highways; Additional Routes. (380-385) Authorized the creation of routes from the 1970s through 1980s in the metro environs.  These would not be effective until the commissioner of transportation agreed to them. L.R 380 would be Shepard Road. In the late 1970s there was serious talk about having I-35E routed over the Lafayette Freeway; L.R 381 would have been a parkway style freeway in the already acquired I-35E right-of-way that would have ended at Kellogg Blvd. L.R. 383 is US 169 between I-494 and I-694 (the other segments are relocated constitutional routes). L.R. 384 is the Crosstown. L.R. 385 was the Washington Ave bridge and the short almost a freeway, after US 12 and 52 were removed from the city streets west of I-35W.
  • Section, 116.12 Additional Routes Added, Federal Aid. (391-396). The interstates were given their own special number series. I-35 (most of it), I-35E, and I-535 are L.R. 390 while the portions of I-35 northeast of I-535 are L.R 395 and L.R. 396. I-90 is L.R. 391. I-94 is L.R. 392. I-494 and I-694 are L.R. 393, I-35W is L.R. 394. This is likely why the exit numbers for I-35 follow I-35E, and is a continuation of the theme dating back to 1920 where the main highway, C.R. 1, went through St. Paul.
  • Section 161.13, Connecting Routes (no specific numbers) which around 1965 authorized trunk highway spurs to connect towns with interstates at Geneva, Medford, White Bear, Rush City, Pine City, and Wyoming. Only one new route was ever created, MN 324 at Pine City. It was redundant with C.R 1 and was later removed when the city limits of Pine City and Rush City reached the interstate, allowing the constitutional route segment to move onto the interstate and the local routes to be turned back. The entire section was removed from the statutes in 2014.

(I’ve used the post 1961 numbering above. In 1961 a reorganization of the statutes moved the lists of legislative routes from Chapter 160 to Chapter 161)

First: the changes due to the interstates. Remember the constitutional routes were required to travel through certain cities, which created an issue when the new interstate replacement did not touch the municipal boundaries. In these cases the MHD was required to continue to maintain the old route through the city, and the constitutional route designation left the interstate. How to mark the numbers on these old routes was dealt with in three different ways.

  • The existing marked number was left on the old road, as US 59 through Fergus Falls,
  • Nearby marked routes were extended onto the constitutional route, as in Moose Lake.
  • A new marked route was created on the original constitutional route, MN 17 at Luverne and MN 361 from Rush City to Pine City.

The Rush City / Pine City situation is confusing because 161.13 connecting routes were authorized to each as well. The one at Pine City was implemented; that’s why the east-west segment of C.R. 1 at Pine City was numbered MN 324. The one at Rush City never was. At any rate both city boundaries now touch the new interstate, so C.R. 1 was moved to the interstate and the old routing removed from the trunk highway system.

Interstate Related Changes to Minnesota Routes

Now back the the regular addition of routes. A bunch were added towards the end of the 1950s, then things slowed down considerably, with only six new routes authorized since the 1970s. Here’s a map. The initial marked number, if different from the legislative route number, is shown in parenthesis.

Minnesota Trunk Highways Since 1951

Some of these are true new routes and extensions of existing routes, while some are bypasses or business routes created due to trunk highway rerouting. Also some routes were authorized but never created:

  • L.R. 306: When a new route of MN 135 was planned between Gilbert and Biwabik, this was so the state could maintain both of them. Although authorized in the 1950s it wasn’t actually constructed until the 1970s. State highway maps show that the old Gilbert-McKinley segment as being a trunk highway until the 1990s, but I suspect that by this was due to a lack of an agreement to convey it to a local government agency rather than keeping it as a trunk highway.
  • L.R. 311: Apparently they wanted a direct interstate exit to what was then the Moose Lake State Hospital.
  • L.R. 312: This was an extension of MN 42 to I-90. It was never actually implemented, then reauthorized as 338 much, much later.
  • L.R. 315: Apparently for a never-built new bridge on the east side of International Falls.
  • L.R. 314: This was an east-west road due to a proposed major airport in Bethel. Unlike the others this one was never removed from the statutes.
  • L.R. 327:  The unfortunately cancelled I-335

The final new route created was L.R. 339 in 2015, which is the Saint Croix Crossing. The state constitution specifies the ending of C.R. 45 must be “The west bank of the St. Croix River in Stillwater”. Since the new bridge is in Oak Park Heights, a new route had to be created for the bridge, with C.R. 45 continuing along MN 95 to downtown Stillwater.

Minnesota’s newest trunk Highway on opening night, Legislative Route 339 (signed as part of MN 36)

Part Six will conclude this series with a look at the trunk highway removed from the system, the secret trunk highways, and changes to the metro since 1950.

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.