A History of Minnesota’s Interstates, Part One

Previously I’ve written a six part series of Minnesota’s trunk highway system. Now it’s time to go back periodically for topics that were skipped as outside the main story arc, or that were deserving of separate articles. One of these is the story of our interstate system.

The Dawn of the Dream

As late as 1919 Lt. colonel Eisenhower had indescribable difficulty on his cross country road trip trip. He was part of a military convoy from Washington, DC to San Francisco.  The endeavor took 62 days, and eventually trucks started getting stuck on a daily basis for hours at a time. (Today the total driving time is 41 hours). Here’s some photos from the Eisenhower Presidential Library.

Eisehower Road Trip


The convoy bogged down in muck and mire

Lt Col Eisenhower (left)

By the end of the trip there was no question in Eisenhower and the other participants minds that the federal government needed to be involved in transcontinental highways, and that’s what happened. The federal government did get involved in funding, setting standards, and a US branded highway system. Within two decades you could drive just about everywhere on pavement, and the biggest impairment to mobility wasn’t intractable mud, but traffic signals and traffic congestion. Road advocates started to dream big- of a national system of high quality highways. The idea was to provide a sink for government programs labor, ease civilian congestion, and facilitate military transportation.

Toll Roads and Free Roads

With the development of the Pennsylvania Turnpike in the 1930s the idea for a national system of tollways was tossed around. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1938, approved June 8, 1938 commissioned a national study by the US Bureau of Public Roads, predecessor agency of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).

The Chief of the Bureau of Public Roads is hereby directed to investigate and make a report of his findings and recommend to the Congress not later than February 1, 1939, with respect to the feasibility of funding, and cost of, superhighways not exceeding three in number, running in a general direction from the eastern to the western portion of the United States, and not exceeding three in number, running in a general direction from the northern to the southern portion of the United States, including the feasibility of a toll system on such roads

The report “Toll Roads and Free Roads” was presented April 27, 1939 to Congress. Here’s a map from the document.

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1939 Proposed Tollway System.


Here’s another map with proposed widths, I’ve highlighted the four-lane sections to make it legible.  Four lanes were considered justified at 1500 daily vehicles predicted by 1960.

Interstate 2 Vs 4 Lanes R

Roadway widths planned for selected system.

And proposed cross section. Lane widths are the 12 feet standard that’s still in effect today, but look at how close those trees are to the road.

Interstate Layout

Typical cross-sections proposed for toll-highway system

The study found the proposed system wouldn’t come even close paying for itself, being $1.7 billion short over the next 30 years (costs of $2,964,896,936, revenues $1,154,236,525) . Besides being ridiculously precise, we now know those numbers are ridiculous in general. Not even 1500 vehicles a day in western Ohio? They didn’t realize how much induced demand (or as I prefer to call it, latent economic activity) there was waiting to be realized with high quality roads. Although in my opinion it would have been unfortunate to have a system of tollways, it wouldn’t be so unfeasible as was presented. But having presented that, and on the theory that the report should be constructive as well as negative, a proposal for a more extensive system of free highways was made.


1939 free highway proposal

Reading the report it should also be clear freeways were envisioned in the cities from the very beginning. They were called “connecting routes”- not yet an integral part of the system. And there seems to have been a different amount of emphasis on them at different times and by different people, Eisenhower himself clearly envisioned something more along the lines of the Autobahns which did not go into the cities. The early technical distinction, the idea that the Autobahns were the prototype, and Eisenhower’s vision are likely where the myth that “we weren’t originally going to build freeways into the cities” came about. But this picture of a proposed “connecting route” should make it clear what was envisioned.

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Depressed urban freeway Proposal

In the end Eisenhower was overruled by the FHWA. It was felt that a system that didn’t serve the people with cars that lived in or needed to travel to the city was a poor model for America’s future.

The War Years and After

Soon after war came to the U.S, and our priorities shifted away from building up our infrastructure. The idea never died though, and planning for a national system continued. On April 14, 1941, Roosevelt appointed a National Interregional Highway Committee to study the need for a limited system of national inter-state highways. The report was substantially completed in 1941 but with the war going on there was no hurry to make the final revisions and wasn’t finally submitted to Congress until Jan 12 1944 (this report doesn’t seem to be available online).

The report recommended a 39,000 mile system. This wouldn’t have been all freeway or even all divided highway. Cross roads were allowed where the daily traffic was under 5000 vehicles, or basically just about anywhere in the country. A single carriageway was allowed with traffic under 3000. Amid the debate in Congress was the issue of the name, previously it had been known at the “Express” or “Interregional” system.  But Reps. Hugh Peterson (D-Georgia) and Leon H. Gavin (R-Pennsylvania) particularity disliked the term “Interregional”. It implied a country broken down into regions and de-emphasized the transcontinental nature of the highways.  The name “Interstate” came with the formal legislation to establish the system, the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944 that was passed on Dec 20, 1944. Here’s some illustrations from the report:

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1944 proposed Interregional Highway system . The dark blobs are population centers.


Relief Map

Relief map showing traffic volume of the proposed system.


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Proposed elevated highway


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Proposed highway to the city center.


The Federal Highway Act provided 50% federal funding for and established the system. Since we had other things to spend money on at the time, actual appropriations under the act were to come later. As it turns out they never did. President Truman worried the program would be inflationary and over-tax the construction industry, and his focus was more on housing programs. Another issue was that more rural states balked at only 50% federal funding. But planning continued on paper.

Interstate Highway Plan August 2, 1947 Big Text R


Note the I-29 between Fargo and Sioux Falls didn’t exist, it was a late addition to the system. Other than that the Midwest is identical to what was built. Here’s a 1951 map in the Twin Cities from the “Yellow Book”, which showed proposed intra-city routings.

Yellow Book R2

1951 Twin Cities interstate proposal

You’ll notice what became I-35W was intended to be along closer to Lyndale Ave. as opposed to halfway between Nicollet Ave. and Portland Ave. As  I noted in Part Two of The History of Minnesota’s Trunk Highways, Minneapolis business interests wanted the main trunk highway to the south to be along Lyndale Ave rather than Cedar or anywhere else, so there may have been some continuity of thought here.

The route of what became I-94 was the subject of much discussion. The diagonal to the northwest  was moved to be along the river. What is now Bottineau Blvd had been the main highway out of town since the auto trail days. But due to Minneapolis’s dream of building a vast industrial powerhouse with the St Anthony Falls locks and Upper Harbor Terminal the city wanted the freeway to directly serve those. In downtown Minneapolis a routing along Washington Ave was shown, putting it there was still under discussion into the 1950s. Between the cities the routing along University that’s shown is the one that got built, but there were alternative proposals. It would have been better to build it in the railroad corridor, but University Ave business interests and the desire for synergy with urban renewal dictated otherwise.

The Dream Becomes Reality

With the change of administration, the interstates had a champion. Eisenhower saw how much easier the interstates made military operations in Germany, here’s a famous photograph the U.S. army entering Germany over four lanes of smooth concrete instead of muck and mire, as well as the utility the had for civilians.


U.S. Army advances into Germany on wide concrete.

Although legislation failed in 1955, it succeeded in the following year and the 1956 Federal Highway act was passed in June 29, 1956. It formalized the name as the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, and much more importantly it provided for 90% federal funding for a 41,000 mile system. This is also where the concept of  the entire system being full freeway standard was cemented. Though I-90 in Montana does not justify a freeway based on traffic volume, it does from a standpoint of having a consistent national system, and reducing long-haul motorist fatigue. Two lane interstates for volumes under 3000 were still allowed per the 1944 standard for a while, and in fact a number of two lane interstates got built in the western states and were not twinned until the 1980s.

The original concept was to maintain the existing numbering system with US designated highways, in 1957 came the idea for a separate numbering and branding for the system. Here’s a map of the numbers.

Interstate Highway Plan August 14, 1957 R

State employees were invited to submit designs for the shield. Quite popular were cutout “I”s, and also eagle motifs. Here’s a couple of photo-shopped submissions  And here’s a submission by a Minnesota Department of Highways employee. Minnesota at the time was just phasing out it’s star in a circle route markers, and at triangle in a circle is a civil defense symbol. The triangle was also supposed represent the highways spanning the U.S. and touching Mexico and Canada.

Minnesota Shield

The final design was a combination of a submission from Texas (which had the same basic shape and format but black and white and “I” instead of spelling out “Interstate”), with the red, white, and blue of the submissions from Missouri and North Carolina. I have no problems with the design selected. A shield motif has been associated with the federal government, and the design is distinctive yet legible and easily reproducible.

With all the pieces together it was time to get down to work and turn loose the bulldozers. Part Two will conclude with a decade by decade look at actual construction in Minnesota and a few thoughts about any potential future interstates.

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.

16 thoughts on “A History of Minnesota’s Interstates, Part One

  1. Frank Phelan

    Wait, what?

    “…and in fact a number of two lane interstates got built in the western states and were not twinned until the 1980s.”

    There were two lane, undivided Interstates until the 80’s? Am I reading that right?

    Amazing. I’d love to see photos of those.

    1. Monte Castleman Post author

      Yes, that’s correct, particularly in Idaho and Montana. As well there was a long stretch out east in northern Maine and the WV Turnpike. Although the standard allowing two lanes got pulled in the late 1960s and no more were built, with the very low traffic volumes then and still there wasn’t any kind of rush to twin the ones already built. I didn’t get too much into oddities due to space constraints and not being Minnesota specific, but there still exist…

      A short two lane undivded stretch (the Thousand Islands Bridge)
      Interstates on surface streets with traffic signals (Cheyenne, WO, Jersey City, NJ, Philadelphia and Breezwood PA.
      A two lane divided stretch (Franconia Notch, NH)
      At grade intersections, essentially ranch driveways, out west.

      …Due to various combinations of funding, politics, pre-existing highways incorporated into the system, temporary situations that wound up permanent, and design exceptions.

      There used to be a few railroad crossings but those have all been removed. I don’t have and haven’t seen a picture, but I imagine the two lane interstates would look a lot like the US 12 two lane freeway did before they built the median barrier- a two lane road but with overpasses and a bit of a buffer space between the lanes.

      1. Frank Phelan

        Wow, that’s crazy. Understandable given the particulars you mentioned, but still crazy to think about.

        Using Google Maps, I did see that I-180 does look like it has a couple of at grade crossings as it nears beautiful downtown Cheyenne.

        And I did find this from Google Maps for Franconia Notch, PA: https://www.google.com/maps/@44.1477946,-71.6804779,3a,60y,90t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sCKwTBWCasiRX5vouGFkY9A!2e0!7i13312!8i6656 It looks like it is called US-3 & I – 93

        When I was younger my family did a fair amount of car/camper travel. I wonder if I was on any of these roads. I would have been way too young to appreciate; I can no longer ask my Dad about it and Mom was probably too to occupied keeping the peace between us kids to notice.

        1. Adam FroehligAdam Froehlig

          I live about an hour from Franconia Notch (which is in New Hampshire, BTW, not Pennsylvania). It’s a special case, and was approved as a two-lane divided Interstate due to the sensitive nature of the canyon it passes through (which had long been a state park within a National Forest) and that, at the time, the Old Man of the Mountain existed next to the top of the notch.

          There was one two-lane Interstate built here in Vermont…the northernmost leg of I-91 near the Canadian border. Photos of the time showed it as basically a regular two lane highway with shoulders. It was twinned ca. 1973.

          The 1967 Highway Act is what mandated that all Interstate highways built after that point be four lanes, and also provided funding to widen those Interstates that had initially been built as two lanes.

  2. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    Monte, just sharing what I understand about the point about cities “through” rather than “to” urban centers… One book with information about that that I’ve seen was The Power Broker, where Caro describes a debate within early freeway planners about whether and how freeways should interact with urban cores. Moses, of course, demolished vast swaths of urban neighborhoods for freeway construction, and was famous for it. It was my understanding that, before he did that, it was not thought to be realistic or politically feasible.

    The other one might have been Clay McShane’s Down the Asphalt Path, where he describes an early highway engineer named McDonald (I think) who took a very rural perspective on how roads should be planned through cities. Just because there were renderings showing urban freeway designs does not mean that they were considered part of the official plan, just one option among many. Canada, famously, did not have limited-access grade-separated freeway designs for most of its urban cores, so I do not believe it was a fait accompli to have urban freeway designs work in the destructive way that they do today.

    Link to some info about McDonald: https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/infrastructure/firing.cfm

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele


      President Eisenhower said, in 1960:
      “[The President] went on to say that the matter of running Interstate routes through the congested parts of the cities was entirely against his original concept and wishes; that he never anticipated that the program would turn out this way . . . and that he was certainly not aware of any concept of using the program to build up an extensive intra-city route network as part of the program he sponsored. He added that those who had not advised him that such was being done, and those who steered the program in such a direction, had not followed his wishes.”


  3. Adam FroehligAdam Froehlig

    Two minor quibbles with the article:

    It wasn’t FHWA that overruled Eisenhower regarding urban Interstate routes…it was Congress. If Ike wasn’t aware of the urban routes that were being proposed and built, then either he didn’t read the reports from 1955 and 1956 himself, or his advisors failed to note it. I also find it odd that (per the 1960 meeting PDF that Matt posted) he considered the Interstate system HIS idea, despite planning for it predating his inauguration by over 12 years.
    The 1944 report (Interregional Highways) recommended a system of 33,900 miles, not 39,000.

    1. Monte Castleman Post author

      The 39,000 figure came from this snippet on the FHWA web site (which I relied on because I couldn’t find a copy of the actual document online).

      “The urban mileage did not include circumferential or distributing routes needed at the larger cities for the “dual purpose of bypassing through traffic and of distributing and assembling other traffic to and from the several quarters of the city.” In the absence of detailed study, the report did not attempt to identify where these routes would be placed, but did estimate that the mileage would not exceed 5,000 miles, bringing the total interregional system to about 39,000 miles.”

    2. Frank Phelan

      Old joke from the Eisenhower era:

      Mr. President, what should we do about the tax bill?

      Ike: Pay it!

  4. sheldon mains

    Any thoughts or knowledge on how I-90 got moved from northern Iowa to southern Minnesota. I heard it was Hubert Humphrey.

  5. sheldon mains

    Also, 35 W and 35 E in Mpls/St Paul are the only interstates with direction suffixes other than 35 W and 35 E in Fort Worth/Dallas. Any info on that?

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