/ Bicycles

Minnesota's First Good Roads Movement

The May 1880 formation of the League of American Wheelmen was the impetus behind a campaign to improve the quality of US public roadways. Made up of high society bicyclists, they championed wheelmen's rights nationwide. In June 1888 L.A.W. began a national movement to convince communities to improve road conditions for a rapidly increasing population of riders.

In the 1880s there were more than one-hundred-thousand miles of rail lines connecting people and goods throughout the country. Since its inception, continuous improvements had both lowered the cost and increased the speed of rail travel. At the same time, using city and country roads was considered a second-class alternative. Traversing them was a challenge in the best conditions and nearly impossible in the worst. U.S. railroads, thought to be “most perfect in the world,” were the undisputed transportation leaders.

On January 25, 1893, L.A.W.'s Minnesota Division welcomed two-hundred delegates to Saint Paul to consider the substandard state roadways and discuss potential improvements. In the eyes of the delegation, an improved road system benefited everyone — not just cyclists. The two-day event praised improving road building technologies and highlighted states that used them well. It also laid out a series of issues that hindered the growth of Minnesota’s road system, the state's current laws, country farmers, and railroad companies.

The state’s inaugural constitution, mirroring laws throughout the country, didn't allow Minnesota to incur debt to fund road development. Each town determined their needs and local boards found the money for improvements on their own. This created inconsistencies in the quality of travel as people went from place to place. Many roads traveled a winding path that lacked any discernible direction. Even in Saint Paul, the state’s capital, it was said that you needed a guide to get from downtown to Lake Phalen.

Country road improvements remained stagnant due in part to the state’s road tax system. The tax, determined by property values, could be offset with labor instead of monetary payment. Farmers were allowed to work off their tax debts on the roads instead of paying them. Many lacked the skill to do adequate work, and their labor contributed no monetary value to improvement funds.

Railroad companies were another significant barrier to better state roadways. Lands had been provided to them virtually tax-free through various Land-Grant Acts. Also, they’d been exempted from any assessments that took place on roads along rail lines. Only a small portion of their total profits was returned to the state coffer. This agreement had allowed the railroads to thrive at the cost of other modes of transportation.

The event closed with the formation of “The Minnesota State Road Improvement Association.” Tasked with creating interest in improving public travel, they believed that good roads allowed the “wand of progress” to touch all. Farmers, with a less physically taxing way to transport goods to market, would pass any financial savings to consumers. Better roads would give farmers better access to mail from the postal service. Industries could also expand into areas once deemed unreachable.

While most understood the need to improve roadways, conversations became vague whenever the question of paying for upgrades arose. The state couldn't get financially involved, and general interest varied from community to community. Rural Minnesota felt that the improvements were mainly for bicyclists from the city, and had little place in the country. Being taxed according to real estate values also meant that these same farmers, with land holdings more substantial than most city residents, had a more significant financial burden.

"The Good Roads Association of Minnesota," formed in 1895, partnered with congressional district members statewide to take charge of future road work. By 1896 state bicycle clubs were reaching out to politicians and offering to support those that backed improving roads. An amendment to the Minnesota Constitution was proposed in 1897 to allow the state to help pay for "construction and improvement of public highways and bridges.” A small property tax would be assessed yearly and added to a “state road and bridge fund.” It also called for the formation of a three-person, volunteer “state highway commission” to oversee local road work and distribute funds. The amendment passed in 1898.

Toward the end of the century, the momentum of the Good Roads Movement slowed. Although the ability to enact a commission was in place, program implementation took years. Wheelmen had turned their attention to building and maintaining bicycle paths and spent less time and resources on roads. Bicyclists longed to travel farther for many years, and cycle paths helped them toward that goal. A grand restructuring of resources soon helped Minnesota to begin to do the same for those that traveled on the roads in the state. After years of lobbying, the Federal Government also began funding the nation’s public transportation improvement efforts.

A law that created a State Highway Commission in Minnesota was approved and signed by Governor John A. Johnson on April 13, 1905. It gave “full authority to supervise the construction of roads” to a state commission instead of the Legislature. The appointment of a three-member commission officially became law on January 1, 1906. By this point membership in L.A.W. had diminished considerably, and a growing interest in the automobile had usurped the previous decade's bicycle craze. However, the state’s quest for good roads started many years ago by the bicycling community had begun to yield results.

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 is a Historical Research Consultant with Histreco Research Services. He has a BA in history from Metropolitan State University and a MA in museum studies from Oklahoma University.

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