This is Part Three of a photour along Old Highway 61 from St. Paul to Duluth. Part One covered St. Paul to White Bear Lake, and Part Two left off just before Hinckley. Now it’s time to enter the town and beyond.
Most travelers know Hinckley as the place with the casino, Tobie’s bakery, and a place to stop to feed yourself and feed your car at the usual chains at the interstate exit, but the town’s identity is tied to the fire of 1894. For 40 years centered on the turn of the last century the clear-cutting of the north woods was in full swing, and loggers simply left the worthless branches and leaves, the “slash”, on the ground. This was naturally extremely flammable and eventually the inevitable happened, with the fire burning 300 square miles including the entire town. There were 418 official fatalities but the toll was certainly higher due to incomplete record keeping- just about everyone in the country lived “off the grid” in those days.
The Hinckley fire museum, in a former railroad depot, is one of those places that you see signs for on the interstate but don’t stop.
Besides the fire museum Old Highway 61 stays in the old railroad corridor, now the Munger State Trail, and isn’t particularly interesting , so I ventured into town a bit, to the right of Old Highway 61. The downtown is halfway between what I’d term as “decrepit” and “lively”.
By the interstate exit is Cassidy’s Gold Pine Restaurant, that’s almost as old as the interstate itself. I-35 from Hinckley to Sandstone was the first segment of the interstate to replace the old road.
Cassidy’s Gold Pine Restaurant back in the day Herb Ditbrenner
Here’s the view today from the reverse angle, with a new sign and crossover SUVs in front instead of full sized sedans. The postcard is the building in the background, It appears they built a new restaurant building next door and the old restaurant is a lounge for the motel. It’s currently for sale so now’s your chance to own a piece of Americana.
Across the interstate is Tobie’s Bakery as well as the highway commercial strip. The price of gasoline isn’t too bad but fast food is expensive relative to other places so I normally just get a carmel-pecan roll and coffee from Tobie’s and stop for fast food at one of the other towns if I’m hungry on road trips down I-35. Heading west from the interstate, as the fast food restaurants and gasoline stations end, there is Lutheran Memorial Cemetery, home to the Hinckley Fire Monument marking the mass grave of 248. Here’s a postcard mailed in 1911 by a family on their way up to Cass Lake, and today, taken from a slightly different angle since standing in the middle of what is now Highway 48 is no longer safe.
The monument mentions 418 deaths, but the actual toll was probably much higher considering what we would now call living “off the grid” was common in the countryside back then. There’s also a veteran’s memorial at the cemetery.
Farther down is the casino, but that’s not of interest to me so I doubled back along MN 48 to pick up Old Highway 61 again and headed north out of town. Leaving town is a small parking area with a plaque.
Hinckley to Duluth
An old hotel sign that has seen better days. Rather than repair the neon tubing they simply installed floodlights, but now the message itself is wearing off. I have a love of neon signs. Too many of our classic neon signs- the 1st Bank sign, the Grain Belt sign, are being desecrated with LEDs. Or else simply removed. Remember the classic neon animated neon ValleyFair sign or the Holiday Inn signs? LEDs should be used as their own art form, not to mimic incandescent bulbs or neon tubing just as an electronic synth should be used for it’s own unique sound, and should not be used to mimic violins or piccolos.
Here’s a farmstead north of Hinckley with a “St. Croix Scenic Byway” sign. At one point it was envisioned that the entire state would be converted to agriculture, but the acidic soil in the northeastern part of the state provided proved ill-suited, and most of it has returned to pine forests.
Sandstone has a sign made of stone
Although it never carried Highway 61, on the east end of town is the Kettle River bridge. This is the last remaining deck truss bridge on the trunk highway system. MN 123 was added to the trunk highway due to political reasons in the 1933 “Great Expansion”, (See A History of Minnesota’s Highways: Part Four) and the first crossing was a decrepit old wagon bridge. Building a new bridge on such an unimportant route wasn’t a priority, and it wasn’t until after World War II, with additional pressure from the federal government that needed to get supplies to Sandstone Prison. Like the Rush City prison, I chose not to loiter around taking pictures because I had no desire to have a conversation with security and besides it’s not particularly interesting. The prison is notable as holding Vietnam draft-dodgers as well as Tim Allen doing a stint here in 1979 for drug trafficking. It’s now classified as low security so criminals here tend to be the older, nonviolent types, like an accountant doing a few years for some creative bookkeeping and fictional tax returns.
North of Sandstone the 61 Motel still exists. Here’s what it looked like back in the day.
And today. The main difference is a new neon sign replacing the old back-lit fluorescent sign. Back in the day you often chose a motel for the night based on how attractive the sign and property were, not making a reservation on the internet in advance or checking out TripAdvisor. The kids will be happy with the color, cable TV, none of that old fashioned black and white over the air stuff.
North of Sandstone there are a series of small towns, some of which have nice welcome signs:
The road though General C.C. Andrews State Forest. General Christopher Columbus Andrews was a Civil War general and the state’s first fire warden. As you can see, despite the “clear” forecast the weather started significantly clouding up at times.
Going north out of the forest there’s another neon sign
And a nice sign for Sturgeon Lake.
I drove straight through Moose Lake; Old Highway 61 goes through a nondescript commercial strip, but here’s a railroad trestle on the north side. The nearby Moose Lake State Park is also nondescript. Yes, it’s a nice lake in the new growth forest in the north woods, but just another nice lake in the north woods. Unlike parks like say Jay Cooke, Interstate, Banning, or Itasca there’s nothing that really jumps out at you.
The town of Barnum, MN, “The Gateway to the North Woods”.
Mahtowa is a tiny unincorporated town, but the name is interesting, from the Dakota “mahto” and Ojibwe “makwa”, both meaning bear. Originally the road went through the center of town, but it was soon bypassed to the west, then of course the bypass was bypassed with I-35. Here’s the old road in town:
New Old US 61, the Mahtowa bypass
Closeup of the sign at left.
A couple of miles later, Old Highway 61 crosses I-35, we’re now back on the east side.
Once you’re on the Canadian Shield geographical region the scenery gets rougher and the scattered farms all but disappear.
After following I-35 on the east side for a few miles, I reached the junction of MN 210. Here the old route veers east through Carlton then north to Cloquet. The more direct path I-35 takes did not predate the interstate. Here’s another motel at the junction of Old Highway 61 and MN 210
Here’s the expressway leaving Cloquet. Before the interstates were built, there was an effort to build expressways on key corridors. Highway 61 was built from the St. Paul city limits to White Bear Lake and from Cloquet to Duluth. In some cases these expressways got overlaid with the interstates, but here it was bypassed, resulting in an expressway provided for only 5000 vehicles a day.
Old Highway 61 Expressway
Closer to Duluth, there’s a rest area where since the beginning of the motoring era there was a stop here to admire the view. Later it was rebuilt in the WPA era, but as the freeway directly replaced the expressway it was now illegal and dangerous to stop here. The ruins are still visible though, and there is a modern version with the same view in the form of the Thompson Hill Rest area.
Beyond the rest area, part of the old, pre-expressway road has been obliterated and cannot be followed, so I got on the freeway. Cody street is where the old expressway diverges from I-35 and enters Duluth. As the former expressway entrance into Duluth, Cody Street is grossly overbuilt for current needs. This is at the height of Duluth’s rush hour, and I had the road pretty much to myself.
Cody Street, Duluth
Backtracking up the hill from Cody Street and I-35 exists a commemorative plaque, a pre-interstate motel and a pre-expressway stretch of road, maintained as an informal hiking trail by area residents.
For most of the duration of Old Highway 61, the route followed Cody Street, Grand Ave, Carlton Street, and Superior Street, but for a brief time from 1978 to 1989 it was on the one way pair of 2nd and 3rd Streets downtown. Here’s a railroad trestle on Carlton Street.
Now we’re in the downtown area. Here are some old postcards of Superior Street.
Superior Street today.
And a closeup of the streetlights
In probably the best outcome for urban freeways, I-35 did get built downtown, so city streets aren’t burdened with the horrible congestion costs of not having it, and people in cars don’t have a slow, tedious drive. Yet the freeway is mostly out of sight, out of mind for people not in cars. The freeway goes through a series of highway lids with new parkland connecting the waterfront with downtown. Just across the lids from here is the Aerial Lift Bridge. Since there’s a Duluth city ordinance requiring all articles about Duluth to include a shout out to it with at least one photo, I’ll get that out of the way now.
Finally we’re where I-35 ends. Neighborhood opposition prevented the freeway from reaching the existing expressway northeast of the city, making motorists forever put up with the tedium of using London Road on trips to the North Shore. Old Highway 61 comes in from the right, intersects with I-35, and then becomes current Highway 61, London Road, off to the left. After all day driving and taking pictures, it was time to head home on I-35. Taking the freeway all the way, I arrived home in just over two hours including a stop for food and fuel.
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