Sometimes the fun is the journey, not the destination, and thus my series of phototours of scenic, notable, or historic highways and the sights found on or nearby. After a few much shorter ones for my former North Star Highways site, I did a full one on US 14 across southern Minnesota. Next up is the old road to Duluth.
For a comprehensive history and more background of Minnesota’s trunk highway system see my series “A History of Minnesota’s Trunk Highways“; I’ll just skim over it with respect to the road to Duluth here. Originally the road to Duluth was the Mississippi Valley Highway Auto Trail, marked with orange and white signs on utility poles. Despite the name and markings however, it could still only be called a “road” in a charitable sense.
Here’s a road trip fail along it from the early 1920s:
Substantial improvement was soon to come however. In 1920 the state created a system of trunk highways, and of course the road to Duluth was included. The road to Duluth, as probably the most important one in the state, was given the marquee number 1, and paving still followed. In the early days paving was invariably concrete as asphalt was not yet ready for prime time, usually just a thin layer over gravel to keep the dust down. And asphalt was more expensive back in the day; nowadays it’s essentially a waste product left over after the much more valuable liquid fuels are refined from crude oil. After a very brief experiment with a single 9 foot lane, requiring one of the vehicles to pull off into the muck if you met an oncoming vehicle, a pair of 9 foot lanes was standard. Over time this gradually increased to today’s standard of 12 feet, preferably with paved shoulders, as speeds got faster, vehicles larger, and traffic volumes heavier.
Unsurprisingly Highway 1 was one of the first roads paved. Although in 1925 only St Paul to Forest Lake and Carlton to Duluth were paved, by the end of 1927 paving was complete. Also in 1927 another major change came to the road with the coming of the U.S numbered highway system; US 61 was overlaid on Route 1 (the Route 1 designation was removed from signs in 1934 with a statewide renumbering and expansion but is still the road’s legal number except within the city limits of St. Paul and Duluth). From the early paving to the 1960s were a series of alignment changes as the road was improved and modernized here and there, including some upgrades to four lane expressway. Keeping track of all these changes is a real task, and to that I give credit to a fellow area roadgeek who goes by the internet name “Deadpioneer“. He has an interactive map of all the old alignments. Finally I-35 came, the US 61 / Constitutional Route 1 was moved onto it north of Wyoming.
So now it’s time to start exploring the old road. This isn’t meant to be a photograph of every small town sign, every abandoned stretch of road, every roadside motel, but just a selection of what caught my eye. Also please note: although presented as a single narrative, the photos are actually from two complete trips and a couple of shorter supplemental ones.
St. Paul to White Bear Lake
Highway 61 doesn’t and never has gone into the downtown St. Paul area, so a logical place to pick it up is at the freeway exit closest to downtown. 6th Street used to be the main route of downtown (now obliterated by I-94). Constitutional Route 1, coming from Albert Lea not La Crescent, followed 6th Street out of downtown, but Old Highway 61 instead came in from the left on Mounds Blvd before turning to the northeast towards me. (The current Highway 61 goes left to right). It looks like this portion of 6th Street has been semi-permanently closed to redirect traffic around Metropolitan State University.
6th Street curves to the north at Arcade St, and as Arcade street crosses 7th we pick up the current US 61
Here’s a map of the area.
Following Highway 61 north on Arcade Street, it struck me as a blue-collar commercial strip that had seen better days. I’m sure other writers have posts about Arcade Street, but I was eager to move on, stopping only once for a quick picture.
Right at the St. Paul City limits the expressway segment begins. There was a plan to extend the expressway all the way to downtown. It’s unfortunate that this never happened since it would have done much to relieve the nightmarish congestion on I-35E. In some areas the original alignment of Old Highway 61 differ notably from the expressway, in some cases rebuilt as local streets, in one case as part of the Keller Golf Course access road, in some cases obliterated
A little later, at the junction MN 36. If you look closely you can see the old, long abandoned fluorescent sign lights that were used briefly in the 1970s as opposed to the mercury vapor lights before and after. Overhead sign lighting started to be turned off as unnecessary in the early 1990s when new reflective sign panels were installed.
86.5% of St. Paul households own a car, yet there’s not a single franchised new car dealer within city limits. In a phenomenon I’ve noted before, city residents tend to flock to low value land uses like car dealers in the suburbs without having to deal with them in city limits. Highway 61 through the various cities from MN 36 to White Bear Lake seems to be one long string of car dealers, for the residents of St. Paul and the northern suburbs to buy their cars.
White Bear Lake
Down the road a bit we enter the city of White Bear Lake. The name “White Bear Lake” comes from a Native American legend involving a man saving his lover from a great white bear.
Where Old Highway 61 took a turn to the right here onto Lake Ave.
HISTORIC LAKE AVENUE
Lake Avenue, one of the most historic streets in White Bear, was one the most traveled path of residents and visitors alike. State Highway 1 followed roughly the route of today’s Highway 61 from the south and curved around this corner to follow the shore of the lake until it met present-day Stewart Avenue where it again veered north and continued on it’s way out of town. The highway was re-routed in 1935 and then was renamed Highway 61. [Note: this is incorrect, US 61 was overlaid on Route 1 in 1927 and then Route 1 was removed in the 1934 great renumbering]
The St. Paul and Duluth Railroad completed the line from St. Paul to White Bear in the fall of 1868 and connected to Duluth by 1871 which triggered the beginning of White Bear’s golden resort era. People cam via train from St. Paul and farther south, often traveling to Minnesota on steamboat and then on from rail there. Several depots or stations alongside numerous sets of track, were located in this area, including the Lakeshore depot near what is now Veteran’s Park, the main depot at Fourth Street and the today’s Highway 61; a small stop at Tenth Street and the Bald Eagle depot at the junction with the Soo Line just north of downtown.
White Bear-Minnesota’s First Resort Town-featured grand lakeside resorts that could accommodate up to 300 guests in their hotels and cottages. From the 1870s until about 1910 Lake Avenue was was the site of many lakeside cottages as well as several of the area’s larger resorts including the Williams house and the Chateaugay. It was common to see steamers trolling the water between this spot and Manitou Island often with orchestras on their decks to entertain the hotel guests.
Evidence of this early leisure time remains today in the steep drop-off under the water where the bottom of the lake was dredged to allow the steamers to get close to shore
Over the years the use of the recreational trail along Lake Avenue has increased but the draw of the beautiful views and fresh air have remained the same.
People would come and spend a day; a week, or a summer on the shores of the lake. Back in the day, Wildwood Amusement Park was the marquee attraction. The streetcar companies, in order to drum up traffic on would build “trolley parks” on their lines. In 1899 they built Wildwood Amusement Park on the southeast shore of the lake. There were a few rides including one of the first Tilt-A-Whirls, a roller coaster[ the Pippin, a swimming beach with bathhouses, a concert pavilion, and a ballroom. Here’s a postcard about 1910, with a toboggan ride into the lake in the background; notice the splash behind the people to the left.
Ultimately although the dawn of the motoring era brought a different way to reach White Bear Lake, it spelled the end of Wildwood as the streetcar company could no longer subsidize it. With the freedom cars brought people were no longer limited to to distance a horse and buggy could travel or that the streetcars and railroads happened to go to. The roller coaster was moved to the new Excelsior Amusement park and the rest razed in the 1930s. (And the local urban legend that the Excelsior roller coaster became the High Roller at Valleyfair is not true, although the 1925 Carousal was saved and moved ). Today’s amusement parks are generally difficult for people to reach in anything but a car.
Here’s two postcards from the early days of motoring in White Bear Lake, a street scene and motel along Washington Ave. It’s notable that in the early days White Bear Lake is where the road from MInneapolis , Constitutional Route 63, met the road from St. Paul, Constitutional Route 1, where Route 1 continued to Duluth and beyond.
Back to the present, a view farther down Lake Avenue. It looks nothing like it did when it was part of Highway 61, all the old pavement has been removed and the northbound lane has been replaced with a bicycle trail.
After we rejoin the current expressway at the north end of White Bear Lake, there are about 10 miles of unremarkable exurbia before the city of Forest Lake. Part Two will continue with Forest Lake through Hinckley.
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