A History of Minnesota’s Interstates, Part Two

This is the second part of the history of Interstate Highways in Minnesota. Part One covered the early plans and conceptions of the interstate system, from the 1930s to the Interstate Highway Act of 1956. This concludes with the realization of the system. First, here’s some maps showing the completion of the interstates by decade.

Map of Interstates construction by year, metro

Interstates construction by year, metro


Map of Interstate Construction by Year, Greater Minnesota

Interstate Construction by Year, Greater Minnesota

The 1950s

With the passing of the Interstate Highway Act in 1956, and planning completed, the only thing left was to actually turn loose bulldozers and get to work. An obvious question is “What was the first interstate?”. There’s no clear answer due to the overlap between “non-interstate” and “interstate” since the interstates were more an evolution

The MN 100 Beltway was established in 1933 in the southern metro and in 1942 in the northern metro (See “A History of Minnesota’s Trunk Highways, Part Four) “. The plan was to eventually build it as an expressway all around the metro. Most of the development occurred on the western leg, and the interstate went farther west.  But the old Lyndale Ave overpass and the old eastbound I-694 Mississippi River Bridge were incorporated into the interstate system. The Lyndale Ave overpass lasted until a few years ago, while the I-694 bridge was replaced in 1988.

Map of MN 100 Beltway overlaid by I-694

The MN 100 Beltway in the 1950s with the eventual route of I-694 highlighted.


Another early section was Interstate 35W in Bloomington and Richfield, opened as an interstate but was planned before then. As such it opened with two at-grade crossings, at 58th Street and 73rd Street. The one at 73rd street was closed early on, but the one at 58th remains as an artifact on the bypassed stub that’s now MN 121.

One thing to look for in Bloomington: The original art deco-like elements on the 94th Street overpass.  There were  six original local street crossings of this section, of which the 94th Street overpass is the last one that hasn’t been razed or dramatically altered.  As such it’s now considered historic, and when it came time to rehabilitate the bridge, they raised but kept the original beams, and kept the original railing (supplemented with chain link to meet modern safety standards.)

Picture of Bridge Railings on 94th Street Overpass

Bridge Railings on 94th Street Overpass


Another contender for the first interstate would be the the Austin Bypass. The Minnesota Highway Department- one of the predecessor agencies to MnDOT- newsletters awarded it the title of “Minnesota’s first freeway”. Although planned before the Interstate Act Minnesota Highways it was clear it was meant to be part of the system.

Map of Austin Bypass from Minnesota Highways magazine

Austin Bypass


Despite these pre-existing elements, the Minnesota Department of Highways awarded the title of the “first interstate” to I-35 around Medford, opened to traffic by late 1958. Here’s the ribbon cutting with a number of dignitaries. Coincidentally this was later the site of Minnesota’s first roundabout.

Minnesota Department of Highways. Minnesota Highways, September 1958. 1958-09. Minnesota Department of Transportation, Mn Dot Library, reflections.mndigital.org/catalog/mdt:2055 Accessed 3 Mar. 2019.

Ribbon Cutting on I-35. Governor Orville Freeman is the man behind the scissors.

Minnesota Department of Highway employees posting by the sign.

Minnesota Department of Highway employees posting by the sign.


A photo from the 1959 Official Highway Map. The original concrete remains today, buried under a layer of asphalt.

Interstate 35 at Medford

Interstate 35 at Medford


The Wakota and Minnesota River Bridges also opened by 1960. Both were planned pre-interstate but opened as part of the system. Here’s the front page of the Minnesota Highways Magazine (and internal newsletter of Minnesota Department of Highways) showcasing the Minnesota River Bridge. Also note the star in the circle. Although this was abandoned as the highway marker design by the late 1950s, it remained the logo of the agency until it was folded into MnDOT in 1976.

I-35W Minnesota River Bridge

I-35W Minnesota River Bridge


The 1960s

The 1960s were the zenith of interstate construction. Commenting on specific projects would be vast and thus pointless, so instead here’s a few of my favorite vintage pictures from Minnesota Highways

Interstates 1960s 1

I-94 Bridge over Swede Hollow, 1961


Interstates 1960s 2

I-35 Lakeville, 1967


Interstates 1960s 3

I-35W Minneapolis. 1965


Interstates 1960s 4

I-90, Dresbach, 1965


Interstates 1960s 5

Dresbach Bridge, 1966


Interstates 1960s 6

I-94 at Brandon, 1966

By the end of the decade you could drive from the Twin Cities to Duluth  on freeway, and almost to Fargo on freeway and expressway. Just 40 years prior the milestone was to be able to do that on paved roads.

The 1970s Through the 1980s

Rapid construction continued into the early 1970s, Here’s another picture I like, this was actually an alteration to the just built I-35W. Jersey barriers and high pressure sodium vapor lighting had just been invented, and was retrofitted to I-35W.

Installing Jersey Barriers on I-35W beween 35th and 36th, 1975

Installing Jersey Barriers on I-35W beween 35th and 36th, 1975

Another major milestone was the Lowry Tunnel.

Lowry Tunnel

Lowry Tunnel

Then in 1975 came a law commonly called the “Freeway Moratorium”. Although not an actual moratorium, it placed severe restrictions on what could be built in several key corridors. Some of the key points:

  • Construction of the I-35E corridor as a parkway, provided it did not connect to I-94, allowed.
  • Construction of up to six lanes on I-394 allowed
  • Construction of up to six lanes on Hiawatha allowed
  • Dartmouth interchange work not allowed
  • Construction of I-335 as a parkway, was allowed
1975 Freeway Moratorium, affected corridors

1975 Freeway Moratorium, affected corridors

The moratorium had mixed results with respect to the interstates.

  • The Dartmouth interchange (I’ve not seen a layout but apparently a system interchange to directly connect I-94 with University Ave) was cancelled entirely. The city of Minneapolis was always more enthusiastic about this one than the Minnesota Department of Highways
  • I-335 was cancelled. A later conception (added in 1964), it got pushed well into the NIMBY area and it seems the MDH lost interest in pushing to build it. In it’s final proposal it would easily have been the least useful of our urban interstates.
  • The current design of I-35E through St. Paul has only four lanes with an arbitrary 45 mph speed limit and truck ban,  and a now decrepit planter in the middle, as compromise in exchange for allowing a connection to I-94.
  • I-394 was built with the legislative limit of six through lanes. That’s why the the 3rd lane in each direction originally ended on either side of Penn Ave for no good reason. MnDOT seems to have anticipated the public outcry about this, so they built the shoulder extra wide under the overpass. Eventually a compromise was reached where they could re-stripe it for a through lane in exchange for doing an asphalt overlay to cut down on the road noise.


In Greater Minnesota, the last of the rural sections were finished. I-90 (with very low traffic volumes) and I-94 from the Twin Cities to St Cloud (where a four lane expressway already existed) both went through expensive farmland and seemed to be lower priorities.

Something to notice on I-90 if you travel in the area- look for the gold tinted cement slab at the Blue Earth Rest Area (they’ve now done an asphalt overlay on the road, but left the slab uncovered on the shoulder.) This was the last slab poured on I-90 in Minnesota, and in fact the last slab poured between Boston and Coeur d’Alene, ID.

Gold tinted cement slab, Blue Earth

Gold tinted cement slab, Blue Earth

One thing noteworthy about I-94: It got built a lot farther from St. Cloud than was originally intended. Note the fine red dashed line in the map below.  It’s possible they didn’t want local traffic in St. Cloud mixing with through traffic, but although it took a generation, the city of St. Cloud has reached the freeway anyway.

It might have been better just to acknowledge the inevitable and build it closer and with capacity for local traffic, like was done at Fargo-Moorhead. The way it was built both encouraged very low density growth, made it useless for people in the dense part of the city, and ultimately didn’t prevent the problem.

Proposed I-94 Layout, St. Cloud

Proposed I-94 Layout, St. Cloud

The final section of interstate to be completed  in Minnesota was I-35 in downtown Duluth, opened 1992. With the freeway caps it demonstrates the right way to build a freeway. It allowed people that had no interest in taking their cars through the downtown area while at the same time the tunnels add new parkland to connect the downtown to the waterfront. It’s fortunate it was saved to last, as a more typical elevated freeway was originally planned.

Proposed Elevated I-35, Duluth

Proposed Elevated I-35, Duluth


A Symbol of Freedom

Finally, let me share a picture of one of my favorite signs. After 6 hours of driving through the Minnesota and Iowa countryside, with two hours to go to my destination south of Galesburg, I saw it at the Illinois border.  I reflected on the freedom cars , interstates, and highways in general give us as Americans.  Freedom  to travel wherever I choose. Freedom from stoplights, crossroads and to not be limited to going only where rail stations happen to be. And freedom from the bandits, crooked government officials looking for a bribe, and internal border controls that exist in other countries.

As far back as 1823 the United States Supreme Court ruled the right to travel was a fundamental constitutional right, and even the Magna Carta addressed the issue in 1215.

Today the interstate system has been successful at promoting freedom beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. The original proposal for toll roads envisioned 4.5 billion vehicle miles traveled. Today, with less than three times the population, the interstates carry 805 billion.

Interstate Sign, A Symbol of Freedom

A Symbol of Freedom

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.

7 thoughts on “A History of Minnesota’s Interstates, Part Two

  1. Dave Carlson

    Monte, I enjoyed both of your Interstate highway articles. I remember the I-35 section at Medford as we drove up to Minnesota in the summer from Iowa and how “exciting” it was! I also grew up in Davenport, Iowa as I-80 was being constructed north of the city, taking the cross-country truck traffic off of narrow two-lane U.S. 6 Kimberly Road. I remember hearing about the original plan to have I-35W placed in the Lyndale Avenue corridor in south Minneapolis, which is why the current “58th St.” exit north of the Crosstown has freeway attributes for a few blocks… and that alignment would have connected to I-94 right at the present-day Lowry Hill Tunnel. I think the proposed I-335 connection is also partially why I-35W north of downtown weaves to the west at Johnson Street instead of following the old NE diagonal U.S. 8.

    I also remember watching an episode of “Car 54 Where Are You” where officers Toody and Muldoon had to evict an old lady refusing to leave her apartment in the heart of NYC to make room for a freeway… at least I think that was why (or for “urban renewal”) but for some reason it stuck with me and I could see early on the displacement problems caused by ramming freeways through congested urban areas (even though I was fascinated by freeways, I even incorporated a four lane freeway and interchange into my large model train layout!).

  2. Jeffrey Klein

    Good points about St. Cloud and Duluth. One can only wonder the state Duluth would be in today if it were cut off from the lake front by a nasty raised freeway.

    1. Dave Carlson

      Although not an official part of the Interstate highway system, the city of Seattle had the Alaskan Way Viaduct, a raised freeway (U.S. 99) between downtown and the Puget Sound from 1953 until its demolition this year. The highway was replaced by a tunnel that cost more than 4.25 Billion (with a B) dollars. But it will allow Seattle to reclaim a much better direct connection to the waterfront and spur a lot of new development and parkland on top of this new tunnel. Duluth was very fortunate to have I-35 tunneled rather than elevated through their city and Lake Superior!

  3. Adam FroehligAdam Froehlig

    I’m going to weigh in here on the 1975 “freeway moratorium” because what Monte posted is missing a few things.

    The law was, at the time, commonly called the Gas Tax Law because it increased the state’s gas tax by 2 cents, in addition to including the moratorium and other transportation-related measures. Monte was incorrect in saying it “wasn’t an actual moratorium.” Though it did allow for alternative construction as Monte noted, it was a moratorium in that it expressly prohibited the then-Minnesota Highway Department from spending money on right-of-way purchase or construction on the freeway projects in question. Furthermore, it did not allow actual construction on I-394…just that then-US 12/Wayzata Blvd could be widened to 6 lanes within the existing right-of-way. Not mentioned by Monte is that it also allowed, as an alternative to I-35E, “a roadway generally along the alignment of Shepard Rd from I-35E to I-94.”

    The law also required the Met Council to conduct a study and review of the then-uncompleted segments of the Interstate system within the Metro. In addition to the above-mentioned segments, the study included I-94 in North Minneapolis and Washington County and most of I-35E and I-494 within Dakota County. I have more details on the study, as well as what the study mentioned of the moratorium, here: http://www.ajfroggie.com/roads/minnesota/rant/1975study/index.htm

  4. Tom Clarke

    You may wish to do more research on your reference to I-90 construction in southern MN, last part to be finished between Boston and Coeur d’Alene ID

    From Wiki for Wallace Idaho
    Interstate 90
    Interstate 90 passes through Wallace on an elevated freeway viaduct, completed in 1991. Until then, I-90 traffic used a surface highway previously designated U.S. Route 10 and used the main city streets through downtown. Wallace had the last traffic light on a coast-to-coast Interstate highway,[43][44] a fact that is displayed on signage in downtown Wallace proclaiming it to be “The Last Stoplight.” In September 1991, the Idaho Department of Transportation moved I-90 to a freeway viaduct above the north side of town.[45] Prior to this the interstate turned into arterial streets on the western outskirts of town and followed the main road through town before becoming a highway again on Wallace’s east side. At the time, an Associated Press (AP) story made the rounds about the spoof funeral to be held for the light. They planned to place the fixture in a coffin and drive it away in a hearse for a mock burial. A few days later it was to be put back into operation.[46] The section of US 10 through Wallace is now designated Interstate 90 Business.

    The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) originally planned to build I-90 as an at-grade freeway. This plan would have demolished most of downtown Wallace. In the 1970s, city leaders undertook an effort to list downtown on the National Register of Historic Places with the result that now every building in downtown Wallace is on the National Register of Historic Places. The FHWA had to redesign I-90 to bypass downtown because federal law protects historic places from negative effects of highway construction.[32][33][34] The elevated viaduct is the FHWA’s solution to this problem.

    1. Monte Castleman Post author

      I’m aware the break was actually in Wallace, ID. I used Couer d’Alene as a nearby larger city that would be more familiar to MInnesota readers.

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