Previously I covered the history of Minnesota’s trunk highway system. At it’s inception in 1920 the system contained what still is the core of the system. But the new governor, Floyd. B. Olson, championed a massive increase in size and scope of the state government, including a proposal to vastly increase the mileage of the system. Minnesota Highway Department commissioner and father of our trunk highway system Charles Babcock refused to agree, citing questions of their statewide importance and availability of resources to maintain them. As a result he was unceremoniously fired by Olson and replaced with N. Elsberg and what I call the “1933 Great Expansion and Renumbering” proceeded.
Along with this came a special highway with a special number, Highway 100. Conceived as a bypass of the Twin Cities, it happened at the time where two separate movements were occurring. First was a move towards building expressways for speed, The second was a move to beautify our highways and parks as a sink for New Deal labor, primarily the Works Project Administration (WPA). Driving just for the fun of it has of course existed since the dawn of the automobile with taking the Model T out into the country for a picnic, and the beginnings of the now nationally recognized Grand Rounds Scenic Byway in Minneapolis. With a combination of these movements, Highway 100 became something unique that has not been seen before or since.
To the extent a specific time is required in these articles, I’ve generally used the 1950s. Pleasure motoring had returned after taking a hiatus during the war and Highway 100 had not yet had any original elements destroyed or been eclipsed by the interstates.
The Beginning of the Highway
At it’s inception, Highway 100 was laid out on existing surface streets and country roads, and parts of it were eve gravel. But soon the western leg would become Minnesota’s first expressway. The man behind it was Carl Graeser (pronounced Grazer), a German immigrant who was inspired by the Autobahns of his homeland. He became a project engineer in 1922, and successful lobbied Governor Floyd Olson for WPA labor. And Olson was the reason Highway 100 was created in the first place, having fired the early advocate for and first director of the Department of Highways Charles Babcock, for refusing to accept the 1933 Great Expansion, of which Highway 100 was part. Although most of the southern and western legs of the highway eventually became an expressway, the earliest and most intensive development was along a section that became known as Lilac Way.
Since the object was to employ men rather than use money efficiently, in many cases modern construction equipment was dispensed with in favor of manual labor. Primary construction proceeded south to north, with the primary development between 50th an what is now Bottineau Blvd. 50th was the main route out of town to the southwest, and Bottineau Blvd was the main route out of town to the northwest.
Graeser was apparently quite a character, and there are rumors that lack of development south of 50th St was due to a petty spat between him and the city of Edina. More likely lack of development was just due to traffic volumes being a lot lower. The main road from the southwest to Minneapolis, US 169 and 212, joined Highway 100 from 50th to Excelsior Blvd. From there to what is now Bottineau Blvd, although not a freeway, there were four lanes of traffic, and multiple overpasses and interchanges.
Construction paused with the war and the end of the New Deal project. After the war upgrades continued on MN 100 in a piecemeal fashion for the next 50 years. An interchange here, an widening there. Riding along it with my father in the 1980s, he had lived in the Twin Cities for close to 20 years at the time, and remarked that the road was “always under construction”. A major improvement came in 1968 when the Excelsior Blvd interchange opened, replacing a notorious bottleneck, but the last stoplight south of I-394, at 36th, wasn’t removed until the late 1980s. Part of the delay in this area was uncertainty about the proposed Southwest Diagonal, a freeway that would have led from downtown directly to the new town of Jonathan.
Two new interchanges came in Brooklyn Center in the 1970s. In Edina, Highway 100 was essentially a surface street in 1970, but by 1980 was a divided freeway with two interchanges and an overpass. Then two major projects came about. In the early 2000s came a reconstruction from I-394 to Brooklyn Blvd, removing the last of the stoplights. Then in the mid 2010s the section from Excelsior Blvd to Cedar Lake Road was reconstructed. These removed the last historic, original elements. and original parks and landscaping. Over time it became obvious that a modern, safe, high volume roadway fitting the needs of people today was incompatible with a roadway for leisure driving or preserving history.
The Rest of the Beltway
In it’s original form the beltway was actually “U” shaped it ended at what is now Bottineau Blvd, before the interstate era the main route out of town to St. Coud and points northwest. But it appears plans for completing it were in place at least by the late 1930s. The expressway started to curve to the east at Bottineau Blvd, and it was completed to serve several war-related factories in the 1940s. In the 1950s, the expressway section was extended north to Brooklyn Blvd and south to the turn at the junction of Highway 5. In the southeast a new expressway section was built from the Mendota Bridge across a new river crossing, the Wakota Bridge.
By this time the nation had the political will to build the interstates, and planning shifted instead towards them. (See “The History of Our Interstates, Part 1 and Part 2). The Wakota Bridge was actually opened as part of I-494. And soon I-494, and I-694, originally called the “Super Beltway”, began to eclipse Highway 100 both physically and in prominence. Then in 1965 with the interstate beltway nearing completion, the 100 number was removed when segments that directly overlapped the interstates and the existing MN 96. What was left is MN 110 on what remained of the south segment, and MN 120 on the east segment. Even these artifacts are now disappearing as MN 110 has been renumbered as part of MN 62, and MN 120 is being turned back to Washington County.
One notabble element of the early highway was the cloverleaf interchanges, with three built and one more planned but not built (at what is now Bottinoau Blvd). Cloverleafs were patented in 1916 and the first one opened on the Lincoln Highway in Amboy, NJ in 1929, and Highway 100 was their introduction in Minnesota. These were so novel that the newspaper printed instructions on how to use them, but there were still issues with confused people heading the wrong way down ramps. City people would taken their visiting country relatives to go see them.
There were originally three cloverleafs- at MN 7, US 12 and MN 55. None are left, the one at US 12 was scraped to the ground and completely rebuilt when I-394 was built over it in the late 1980s. Highway 100 now goes over the crossroad instead of under like it used to. The ones at MN 7 and MN 55 were rebuilt into different interchange types. It seems the extension into a complete loop was planned even in the 1930s, there were plans for a fourth cloverleaf at what is now Bottineau Blvd that was never implemented. Another early cloverleaf in Minnesota, at what was then MN 55 and Robert Street, was removed in the 1980s leaving all the cloverleafs in Minnesota as post-war, interstate era construction.
The Parks of Lilac Way
But the original Highway 100 wasn’t just concrete and bridges, it was landscaping and parks. Working with Graeser, the overall landscape design and the roadside parks were done by of Arthur Nichols, who also worked on the Capital Mall, The Congdon Estate, and the University of Minnesota. The name “Lilac Way” and idea for the lilac came from the Minneapolis Journal (since absorbed by the StarTribune). They were inspired by the Washington, DC cherry trees, but selected lilacs instead as being longer lasting. The Golden Valley Garden Club raised money by selling lilac bushes, and over 8,000 lilacs were planted along the road.
For a long time there was an abrupt change in landscaping when you crossed what is now Bottineau Blvd, from the WPA era landscaping with lilac bushes to the more traditional highway landscaping that tended to feature large trees. This is no longer the case as many original lilacs have been moved north of the original demarcation line, and most of the WPA landscaping has been obliterated by construction. Today Lilac Way, to the extent it exists at all, seems to be the entire length of Highway 100.
You see different numbers cited for the total of roadside parks; there were 6, 7, 9, or 10 units depending on if you count the later additions or only the original WPA parks, and if you count count Graeser Park South as a distinct unit or part of the larger Graeser Park. Also the names vary and depending on the time period, agency, and size of the unit, they’ve been variously referred to as “Waysides”, “Parks”, “Roadside Parks”, “Roadside Parking Areas”, and “Picnic Areas”. Originally there were two units that were some variation of the name “St Louis Park”, and the name “Lilac Park” was recently moved to a different unit. Hereafter I’ll count all the parks that existed at the height, lets say 1955, use the names at the time, and refer to the smaller of the original units as “Roadside Parking Areas” and the rest as “Parks”.
Rather than typical waysides of today, the original parks all had hand-crafted stone features- picnic tables, council rings, flagpoles, concourses, etc. The more elaborate of these had ponds, fountains, and rock gardens.
Here’s a map of the parks, lets say 1955. Part Two will be a detailed look at each park and what, if anything, remains.