Minnesota Highway History Primer: 1917-1934

What follows is a short history of the creation and early development of Minnesota's Trunk Highway System between 1916 and 1934.

During the late 19th century the railroad provided the primary means of overland transportation for most Americans. The hegemony of the railroad during this period resulted in a gross neglect of America's roads, which remained undeveloped. By the turn of the century, demand for improved roads was growing nation wide. First the bicycle, and then the automobile, increased public demand. Road conditions in the United States were generally terrible, with most roads being nothing more than dirt trails. Farmers had an especially difficult time getting their crops to shipping points, and were searching for any advantage they could get over what they saw as the evil, monopolistic business practices of the railroads. These conditions led to the formation of the "Good Roads Movement". The various organizations that sprouted up all over the nation combined into what would become the highway lobby, which was funded by bicycle , and later, automobile manufacturers.

The Department of Highways and the Babcock Amendment

In 1916, the pressure from the automobile lobby resulted in the federal government passing a highway bill that provided funding to states to improve their road networks, provided they had some form of government agency to provide control over the funding and development. In compliance with the federal highway act, the Minnesota legislature passed a highway bill in 1917 (Minnesota Laws, Ch. 119, SF No 609) that abolished the old highway commission and replaced it with the Minnesota Department of Highways (MnDOH). The bill also created the position of "Commissioner of Highways", which was filled by Charles Babcock, a merchant from Elk River who had risen to fame promoting the construction of good roads to aid commerce in his home town.

Rather than improving routes, between 1917 and 1921 the state provided funding to counties and local governments to improve certain important local roadways, known as "State Roads" in a system not unlike the County State-Aid Highways of today. The emphasis at this time was not on providing long distance routes, but rather to improve problem roads to aid local farm-to-market travel, and to aid in the delivery of mail.

An example of a registration for a motor
trail, in this case for the Jefferson Trail.

In 1917, the only system of routes to aid travelers in Minnesota were the marked motor trails, which were organized and promoted by private associations. Trails in Minnesota included the the Jefferson Highway, the "King of Trails", The Mississippi River Scenic Highway, and many many more. MnDOH required that these trails be registered and approved by the highway commissioner (the registrations of these trails can be seen at the Minnesota Digital Library under the MnDOT collection, an example of which is displayed, right). The trails were marked with distinctive symbols painted on telephone poles and the like.

in 1917, Wisconsin had not only created a highway department to secure federal funding, but had also created the first unified system of marked, numbered trunk routes in the country. Not to be outdone by its neighbor to the east, Commissioner Babcock proposed an amendment to the state constitution to provide a state-maintained network of 70 numbered routes, (referred to as "The Constitutional Routes" throughout this site). The Minnesota legislature passed the proposal, known as the 'Babcock Amendment' with the caveat that the legislature could not create new routes until 75% of the new routes had been permanently improved. The amendment went to the voters on election day, November 2, in 1920, and was voted into law.

During the 1921 legislative session, another highway bill was passed (Minnesota Laws, ch 323, approved April 18, 1921) which provided the full legality for the construction of Minnesota's first trunk highway system. Grading and paving of the new system took place throughout the 1920's and early 1930's.

The early construction program set in motion by the 1920/1921 amendment had several primary road improvement goals in mind, including:

An example of a 1920's era concrete highway - a stretch of old U.S. 61
south of Weaver in southeastern Minnesota.

The most important routes were generally paved with portland cement concrete. These concrete pavements were at first only 18 feet wide, but were later widened to 20 feet (the press was already calling MnDOH short-sighted for building such narrow roads in 1926). These paved highways generally had earthen shoulders, and sometimes strange integrated lip-curbs. Many examples of this early pavement still exist in various places around the state today.

Articles from the 1920's in the Winona Republican Herald seem to indicate that the early motorists got a little over excited at the prospect of driving on the first modern paved highways. The paper printed warnings for motorists to slow down, especially if the shoulders were not yet completed. People apparently had no idea how fast their cars could go, or the consequences of an accident at such high speeds.

The U.S. Highways

In 1925 the AASHO (American Association of State Highway Officials) created the U.S. highway system to provide consistent interstate routes , which would allow for national automobile travel, replacing the marked auto trails. Although the U.S. routes weren't officially approved until November 11, 1926, press releases from September indicate that the U.S. highway markers were already going up in Minnesota.

The original routes in Minnesota included: U.S. 2, U.S. 8, U.S. 10, U.S. 12, U.S. 14, U.S. 16, U.S. 55, U.S. 61, U.S. 65, U.S. 71, U.S. 75, U.S. 210, U.S. 212, and U.S. 218.

The new U.S. routes were treated as a separate system from the already existing constitutional routes by MnDOH. The assumption was that the state routes would be used for local travel, while the U.S. routes would be used for interstate travel. For example, U.S. 61 ran on the same road as State Route 3 from La Crescent to St. Paul, with both numbers displayed along the highway. There was no attempt to avoid duplication between the two systems. For example, State Route 12 ran on the same road as U.S. 12 between Hudson and St. Paul!

The End of the Babcock Era and the Legislative Routes

In December 1932, Babcock was removed from his position as Highway Commissioner by Governor Floyd B. Olson , the first DFL governor of Minnesota. This was apparently a time of great political turmoil - Olson had won election with the support of farmers and labor during the early days of the great depression. He was best known as an advocate for state control of many utilities and industries, which got him branded as a socialist. His interests apparently included highways.

Babcock had warned against any expansion of the trunk system, urging to not take on more routes in a 1932 press release shortly after being ousted. Olson's chosen successor, a Minneapolis city engineer named Elsberg, apparently had no problem with a system expansion. In 1933, the legislature passed an additional 140 legislative routes to the trunk highway system, effectively creating the basis of the modern network (Minnesota Laws, 1933, ch 440). These new routes could be altered by simple legislative action in contrast to the earlier constitutional routes, which could only be changed by another amendment. The legislation also empowered the commissioner to "consolidate routes", and "avoid duplication" in the numbering system.

The system expansion and mandate to consolidate the route system culminated on May 4, 1934, when road crews accomplished the transition to the new system in a single day. The U.S. routes were fully integrated into the system, removing any duplication with state routes.

The system created in 1934 continued to evolve and expand, and with the addition of the Interstate Highways starting in the late 1950's, eventually became the modern trunk highway network still in use today.


Gutfreund, Owen D. 20th Century Sprawl: Highways and the Reshaping of the American Landscape. Oxford University Press,    2004.

Reiner, Steve. "The Unofficial Minnesota Highways Page". http://www.steve-riner.com/mnhighways/mnhome.htm

Wingroff, Richard F. "Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956: Creating the Interstate System".    http://www.tfhrc.gov/pubrds/summer96/p96su10.htm






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