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George Herrold and the 'Northern Route'

Discussions to build a connecting roadway between Minneapolis and St. Paul began in the early 1920s and gained considerable momentum after World War II. Rapidly increasing automobile use post-war compelled city officials to consider ways to overcome traffic gridlock on city streets. Significant debate ensued, pitting the needs of the car-driving public against potentially negatively-impacted communities.

Highway department officials proposed the "St. Anthony Route," maintaining that St. Anthony Avenue, which ran parallel to University and Marshall from downtown to the western city line, was the best option for the new highway. On November 1, 1945, the St. Paul Pioneer Press offered support for a new roadway, one accessible to the University of Minnesota and designed to offer Minneapolis residents a way to “reach the State Capitol with more ease.”

St. Paul’s eighty-two-year-old “founder of city planning” George Herrold, city planner since 1920 and regarded in local political circles to be an “unbending idealist,” voiced concerns about a placing a new highway on St. Anthony Avenue. If built to the scale considered by officials, it would cut the life out of the long-established Prospect Park and Rondo neighborhoods. Herrold felt that it was the city’s civic duty to protect the interests of those citizens.

He agreed that the highway would carry more vehicles more quickly, but felt that the automobile shouldn’t “dominate cities.” Herrold believed that the proposed route would be nothing more than a “gigantic ditch … and an unwelcome concentrator of exhaust fumes.” He considered his role to be an independent adviser for the community as well as his political superiors. Beholden to neither, Herrold believed that presenting the pros and cons of multiple options was a crucial part of planning policy.

While this was his most significant problem with the department’s planned route, it wasn’t his only one. The Highway Department’s proposed route separated the State Capitol and surrounding government buildings from downtown, a move Herrold considered to be a “serious engineering blunder.” He couldn’t believe that officials hadn’t considered the economic ramifications of “placing the hundreds of employees of the Capitol and highway department… outside of the commercial and recreational districts” of downtown.

Herrold suggested an alternative that came to be known as “The Northern Route,” recommending a four-lane roadway that ran a mile north of University Avenue along existing railroad lines. He relied on his experience and understanding of the “heart” of the city (two things he felt were integral to the planning process) in offering his route. Putting the freeway next to rail lines would minimize the impact felt by neighborhoods and businesses in the area.

Herrold’s route ranged from three-quarters of a mile to one-quarter of a mile north of the St. Anthony Route. It bypassed the Rondo neighborhood entirely and only minimally impacted Prospect Park. It also traveled behind the Capitol grounds, allowing government offices to remain a direct part of downtown St. Paul. Though it added to commute times in and out of the city, the difference was negligible. Herrold believed having drivers go a little out of their way was a better option than destroying the make-up of existing neighborhoods in the metro.

Neither the Highway Department nor St. Paul city officials seriously considered Herrold's plan. Their studies showed that the majority of traffic that would use the highway lived south of University Avenue. The additional travel time beyond St. Anthony Avenue meant that Herrold’s option would carry less traffic than their plan. The Northern Route also added to growing traffic levels on connecting streets. Increased use meant that these streets would need to be repaired more often — costing the city more money. In the end, Highway Department officials felt that convenience trumped their plan's negative social impact.

A large part of the decision was born in the economics of the period. The passage of President Eisenhower’s 1956 Federal Aid Highway Act meant that the Federal Government would carry ninety percent of the cost of building the new highway. Herrold’s route didn’t qualify for federal financial support. In the end, city leaders never wavered from their original plan. In 1956 construction began on Interstate 94 between St. Paul and Minneapolis along the St. Anthony Route, cutting off a section of Prospect Park and ripping through the heart of the Rondo neighborhood.

On Monday, Dec 9, 1968, at 2:15 in the afternoon, after many years of planning and nearly a decade of construction, the Twin Cities were linked with the dedication of the $80 million section of I-94. A coalition of leaders came from St. Paul and Minneapolis and met in front of Highway 280. After a short ceremony attended by around two hundred people, representatives from each of the “twins” tied ribbons together to signify the linking of the two cities. By 4:00 pm that day the road was officially open to the public.

Bibliography available here.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial-No Derivatives 4.0 International License.

Matt Reicher

Matt has a BA in history from Metropolitan State University and a MA in museum studies from Oklahoma University.

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