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