This is Part Two of a phototour of Old Highway 61 to Duluth. Previously we covered St. Paul to White Bear Lake, now we continue north at Forest Lake.
Early on the cutoff to where the road from Minneapolis met the road from St. Paul to Duluth moved from White Bear Lake to Forest Lake. Originally just south of the roundabout here, then to the modern equivalent, the junction of I-35E and I-35W with I-35.
Here’s another roundabout in downtown Forest Lake, Highway 61 northbound goes from right to left
A vintage postcard view of Forest Lake. There’s no “Main Street” in Forest Lake, at least not now, but I believe that they’re referring to Broadway Ave, which would make it the same intersection as above. Nearly all the buildings in the foreground are gone, including the Red Owl at left center. Google Street view shows me they were gone before the roundabout was built, possibly when turn lanes were added to US 61. But Forest Lake seems to not have had the level of impressive two story turn of the last century commerical architecture that characterizes Stillwater, Hastings, or even many smaller towns.
Here’s one from a bit farther back and earlier, showing the Chevy dealership. Old postcards are a fascinating look into a bygone area since they often included vernacular buildings and street scenes and most are public domain due to being published prior to March 1, 1989 without a copyright notice or else being so old the copyright has expired.
Another old postcard. This one was mailed back in 1908 to let family back in Minneapolis know that they had arrived in Forest Lake. Swimming suits were sure a lot different back then. In the late railroad and early motoring era Forest Lake, like White Bear Lake, was a major resort area with a number of now vanished grand resorts and hotels. President Grover Cleveland and future president William McKinley spent time here, as well as some notorious gangsters like Ma Barker and Bugs Moran. During the gangster era it was well known that their presence was tolerated in St. Paul (provided they didn’t engage in criminal activity here) if they needed to lay low for a while. So it’s not surprising they made trips up to the lakes like everyone else.
Flash forward back to the present and Forest Lake is becoming more quiet, safe, generic suburbia, and the railroad that brought vacationers to town has been replaced with a bicycle trail. The Sunrise Prairie Trail has an overpass one block from the roundabout.
Forest Lake street lights have been (badly) retrofitted with corncob LEDs.
On the north side of Forest Lake the original routing of the highway stayed next to the railroad tracks, on 1st Ave Northwest. Here the original 18 foot pavement is still in service as a local street.
By contrast the old route route north of US 8 has been essentially lost to the elements. This is still highway right-of-way so is fair game for exurban explorers.
Forest Lake to Wyoming
Highway 61 from Forest Lake to Wyoming is the Trooper Glen A. Skalman Memorial Highway. Skalman was gunned down during a traffic stop on I-35 near Forest Lake in 1964, but it was 50 years before being memorialized by this highway; two of his three children were still alive to attend the dedication. The criminal, Charles Brown, was caught in Minneapolis and in a plea bargain was sentenced to 40 years for 2nd Degree murder.
The town of Wyoming was not named after the state, but both the state and the town were named after Wyoming Valley, PA, a now heavy industrial area near Pittsburgh. In Wyoming, US 61 makes an sharp turn to the west, then abruptly and unceremoniously ends a few blocks later at the interchange with I-35. The reason for this is that after the interstate was built Mn/DOT is constitutionally obligated to maintain trunk highways through certain cities, including White Bear Lake and Wyoming.
So the old route stayed under state control up to Wyoming. Mn/DOT doesn’t like to maintain the old routes parallel to interstates since they no longer have regional significance. They also don’t like to maintain signs for US routes along interstate highways since they cost money and serve no real navigational purpose, so US 61 was cut back to this point with the surviving section north of Duluth was renumbered to MN 61. Wyoming has expanded to touch I-35, so the reason for this stretch of US 61 existing is now gone, and the entire section of US 61 north of downtown St. Paul is a candidate to transfer from state to local jurisdiction.
Doubling back to the previous intersection and continuing north of Wyoming we’re now on Old Highway 61, now CSAH (County State Aid Highway) 30. Chisago County has recently switched to blue pentagons, the current national standard for their own county road signs, while the Mn/DOT signs are still the old state standard, the white squares. I expect them to be updated during the next sign replacement.
And now we have the first “Old 61” Sign.
Wyoming to Pine City
Welcome sign for the city of Stacy
In Stacy there is an abandoned section of road and bridge. Many bypassed segments have been reconstructed as local roads and are unrecognizable or just obliterated, But this and other segments survive because there’s no particular reason to spend money removing them.
The plaque is barely legible but it reads
Bridge No 4029
Traveling north, North Branch is the next town. Here’s what the junction of Highway 61 and Main Street looked like back in the day.
The streetlights in the picture are GE Form 109. In the 1950s the streetlight manufacturers put out newfangled “clamshell” mercury vapor streetlights, but the ballasts of the time could not fit in the housing, so they mounted on the post tops. Form 109s are odd looking because unlike the other manufacturers, they made use of a NEMA standard housing and could fit a vertical incandescent lamp as well as a horizontal mercury lamp. GE marketed these as an upgrade path; cities could buy economical incandescent streetlights now and then upgrade them to high-tech mercury vapor later. See my article “The Overhead Streetlights of The Local Streets” for more.
Most of North Branch’s street lights have been converted into the “fake history” retro styled ones, but here’s one of the mid-century modern ones they missed.
In Rush City Constitutional Route 1 originally followed Alger Ave. This didn’t even last into the paved Highway 61 era as the initial 1920s paving projected routed it one block to the west on Bremer Ave, (where there was already a much better bridge) where it remains. The old route is a not-up-to standards trail over a culvert.
On the north side of Rush City there is an abandoned section where a curve was straightened in the early 1960s. This one has reverted to private property so I didn’t get out and go exploring, though I figured the VFW Post wouldn’t mind me taking a quick photo from their parking lot.
North on Rush City some people have apparently turned their farmstead into an homage to Highway 61
Almost immediately off the road, Rush City Public works has a nice display
On a darker note, a lot of Minnesota’s worst criminals reside along Old Highway 61 at the Rush City prison. I didn’t photograph the prison since it is not visible from public property, but here’s the sign at the turnoff.
At the Pine County line the old road officially assumes the number 61, as CSAH 61.
The junction at MN 70 was changed substantially in one of the last pre-intersate improvements. Highway 61 formerly made a jog to the east a half mile following MN 70, resulting in two sharp turns. In the early 1960s this was straightened out, leaving behind sections of the old road. The straight sections remain as local access roads- Fairview and Freedom Aves, but there were curves at each intersection that have been obliterated (west) or abandoned and just about reclaimed by the elements (east).
At the southern outskirts of Pine City, one of several motels from the pre-interstate days that somehow still survives. Having stayed at a number of them and talked to the owners, it seems small motels like this can survive if they’re run mainly by the family without employees. One person will hang out in the office; there’s either the full living quarters behind the front office or at least a bed, TV, and computer while the other does chores around the house and maintenance around the property. Cleaning is done by an outside service rather than having housekeepers on the payroll. During the winter the owners might live someplace else and either rent out rooms cheaply on a long-term basis or simply close down. They were also a popular subject for postcards; they’d print up a bunch and leave them in a drawer for people to use as a form of promotion, these now provide a fascinating view of bygone age of motoring.
Closeup of the sign. One of the “Gails” is missing even though her feet are still there above the “E”. It’s a sign of our times that the motel advertises “24 hour security”, where people are more worried about crime than if it has a TV set and pool.
Inside Pine City there existed another motel under various names- the Midway Motel, The Schwartzwald Motel, and finally the Old Oak Inn. The layout was a bit different in that you drove though a covered passageway in front of the office, then the motel faced away from the busy highway towards a grove of oak trees. The site is now unrecognizable as a Casey’s General Store so taking a photo showing nothing but the side of that would have been pointless.
Instead here’s a view of the old highway in Pine City with a giant flag in front of a strip mall. Pine City is the county seat of Pine County, despite being on the extreme southern end. Pine County is also one of the larger counties in the heavily populated southern half of Minnesota, leading to friction between the northern and southern halves over allocations of county resources. In 2000 there was a referendum to split the county, basically expelling the northern half into a new “Pioneer County”, the first new county in Minnesota since Lake of the Woods County split from Beltrami County in 1923. The referendum was defeated with a 78% “No” vote, nearly all of the “Yes” votes coming from the Pine City area.
North of Pine City was a random pretty tree. This was a terrible year for fall colors so my options for photographing pretty trees were quite limited
And now it’s time for an article break. Part Three will cover Hinckley to Duluth.
Streets.mn is a non-profit and is volunteer run. We rely on your support to keep the servers running. If you value what you read, please consider becoming a member.