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About 300 people jammed the new freeway tunnel on Nov. 21, 1989, to attend the opening ceremony and see the concrete of the newly complete Interstate 35 for themselves. (1989 file / News Tribune)

Construction of Duluth’s freeway drips with stories

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Construction of Duluth’s freeway drips with stories
Duluth Minnesota 424 W. First St. 55802

It often happens when you kick around a story idea. It grows legs, and soon it gets away from you.

I set out to do a simple list of “things you might not know about Interstate 35” as it winds through downtown Duluth. This is a seminal year for the history of the freeway. It’s been 20 years since the final touch on the project, the completion of the new Rose Garden atop the Leif Erikson tunnel, was dedicated with much fanfare. It was 25 years ago when the first tunnels opened to traffic and 30 years since the final bits of the old Duluth rail yard next to Lake Superior were removed to make room for the interstate.


Related content: Plenty of life left in I-35.

The person you call for Minnesota Department of Transportation history is retired public affairs director John Bray. He will gladly fill you in with his extensive and precise memories and facts. Then, he’ll send you copies of documents to back it all up. Piles and piles of documents.

At the end of a long and fruitful talk with Bray, he told me that Gina Temple-Rhodes was doing an oral history project about the interstate story that spanned 36 years.

She might be the only person in the region doing oral histories.

Temple-Rhodes has the same problem I have. How do you encapsulate such a vast project like Interstate 35 that spanned from 1958 to 1994? How do you decide whom to talk to? When do you stop?

“The goal is to get the interviews done,” she said. “My job is to listen and ask questions.”

Her videos and tapes will be available for future historians. The project is being funded by a Minnesota Historical Society grant with the city of Duluth acting as the fiscal agent. Her job calls for a set amount of interviews and maybe more if more grant money is out there. The materials will wind up at the Northeast Minnesota Historical Center at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

“These are such amazing stories,” Temple-Rhodes said in the throes of her work earlier this summer. She talked to elected officials, MnDOT people and some of the residents who helped steer the final design of the interstate downtown. She also spoke with a member of a family displaced in the 1960s when the interstate split West Duluth, taking out entire neighborhoods. More than 300 homes and 400 commercial buildings were razed for the project.

Early on, she read a history written in 1998 about the project by then-UMD student Kim Lindberg, “I-35, More Than a Road.”

“The I-35 freeway through Duluth is really two different roads,” Lindberg wrote. “Each reflecting the different times, different standards and different locations.”

That’s the hook, the groundswell from regular citizens telling public officials that the way the interstate was planned would not stand. They didn’t want an elevated road marring any view to the lake and taking out everything in its path. And while public sentiment was to push the road all the way through Lakeside, groups pressed on, demanding a more thoughtful approach.

‘A grand idea’

Temple-Rhodes believes there is a story in any topic, no matter how large or small, and the interstate certainly has one.

“There’re so many stories in the community,” she said. “They pop up constantly. We have to capture it before it’s gone.”

I pored over Bray’s documents and the press clippings at the library. I listened in on a part of one of Temple-Rhodes’ interviews. I spoke with other players in what can only be called one of the greatest dramas in the history of Duluth.

It divided residents and politicians. It spanned several mayors and directors of MnDOT. It mirrored the history of our country and how we feel about automobile access versus vibrant communities.

Current MnDOT engineer Todd Campbell agrees that Interstate 35, from Thompson Hill to 26th Avenue East, serves as a historical timeline, from plowing through neighborhoods to one of the most innovative interstate designs in the country as it dipped underground downtown and created appreciated links to Lake Superior.

“The old-school way of doing it we never could do now,” Campbell said of the western part of the project. “The social and economic impacts would be off the charts.”

“We learned by mistakes made across the country,” Bray told me. There would be no elevated freeway through downtown or, even worse, a road built on stilts across the tip of the lake.

“We took a bad idea and turned it into a grand idea,” Bray said.

So, here is a list of things I found interesting while exploring interstate history the past few months. It’s certainly not comprehensive. To find out more, start at the fat clipping files at the Duluth Public Library downtown. There you will find the names of the scores of people involved in project from the start and the push and pull that led to its final design from Mesaba Avenue to 26th Avenue East.

And soon, you will find those oral histories at the history center at UMD.

One man’s vision

Kent Worley knows every nook and cranny of Lake Place. Take a walk with him atop the first tunnel over Interstate 35 in downtown Duluth and realize just how much of his heart and soul went into the green space.

More than 20 years later, the landscape engineer can tell you about the subtleties of how pavers were used, the varying heights of railings, the color of the concrete and the reasoning behind the flora planted throughout.

“There really is a long story to the plan and intentions,” he said earlier this summer while visiting from Michigan for a talk with Temple-Rhodes. Worley worked for the Duluth firm Architectural Resources and was an early advocate of a better idea for the freeway than just plowing through downtown. It’s his work you see from Lake Place down to the fourth tunnel and Leif Erikson Park and its Rose Garden.

Worley always has been quick to correct anyone calling Lake Place a park. It was more than that to him, a gathering spot on the human scale to appreciate Lake Superior and the engineering feats of the interstate planners.

But for more than 20 years, Lake Place hasn’t gained status as a popular gathering spot. Worley said more direct connections from downtown are part of the problem. “The flow is blocked,” he said.

That’s why he is delighted with any public gatherings here, like the weekly mid-day concerts being held at the park this summer.

Events like those have been his dream for Lake Place.

“It hasn’t happened,” he said of Lake Place’s meager draw. “It will. We just have to wait.”

That’s a lot of patience.

Worley lost his 7-year-old son to leukemia during the planning of Lake Place. A plaque there honoring the architect includes the people who inspired him — son Graham Worley and his father, Dean.

It was his father’s trips north to escape the heat of Kansas in the summer that eventually brought Worley to Duluth. He looks at Lake Superior while bringing up the childhood memories.

“Something like this for someone from Kansas is like coming to Oz,” he said.

The train puzzle

One of the most intricate portions of the interstate project is something you can’t see today. It was the unraveling of the downtown train yard to make room for the interstate. Five rail companies moved their operations to Pokegama Yard in Superior in a tangled operation that cost $45 million, or about $100 million in today’s dollars. The move took 10 years to plan and two years to construct and was finished by 1984. It involved 23 public agencies. One official from the Federal Railroad Administration called it “one of the best urban rail consolidation projects in the country.”

The private rail companies had to form agreements with competitors and navigate the paperwork required for the publicly funded project. There were many who doubted the move could ever be achieved.

“The rail yards were the city’s biggest blight,” Bray said in a 1990 interview with the trade magazine Construction Bulletin. Bray said the railyard not only was blocking the creep of the interstate through downtown but also any lakeside development, like the Lakewalk.

“When the relocation was complete, it marked the first time in the history of the city that there was a direct connection between downtown Duluth and Lake Superior,” Bray said.

Years before that mid-1980s accomplishment, another rail consideration had to be made by MnDOT as the freeway was built from Pine City to Scanlon. A railroad had a blanket easement from the early 1900s from Lake Superior to the Twin Cities area. It was part of a scuttled plan to build a canal from the lake to the Mississippi River. The railroad probably gained rights to the land to block such an engineering feat, for fear of competition by water.

A bad idea

The western section of Interstate 35, from Thompson Hill to Mesaba Avenue, opened in 1971. Then, all work came to a stop. There would be 11 years of intricate negotiations with citizen and public committees before work began on the final 3.2 miles to 26th Avenue West.

Many people say Lake Superior stopped the work. They didn’t want the road to block access to it, visually and physically. And one idea was especially galling.

Plans at MnDOT included filling in the corner of the lake and building the interstate over it on stilts, requiring a huge seawall to block erosion from lake waves.

Bray said the outcry was warranted.

“It would have been a Berlin Wall there,” he said.

Rep. Mike Jaros didn’t like what he already saw with the interstate on the West End and wasn’t about to let something worse happen. He wanted the interstate to go around the city. “The bridges look like a ridiculous circus,” he said of what would come to be known as the Can of Worms interchanges.

Worley, who would eventually design the green spaces above the four tunnels through downtown, was inspired to get involved with a new approach to the path of the freeway after learning about the stilts plan. He sent an impassioned letter to Mayor Ben Boo and 67 other people involved in the freeway, questioning the route and asking that the interstate end near downtown and a “beltline” be built to the north to handle through traffic.

The worst sin of an elevated interstate through the heart of the city was “the loss of knowing and experiencing Duluth’s rocky Lake Superior shoreline at a personal and human scale,” Worley wrote. “It should not share the cost of foul air, undesirable noise, and the threats of visual pollution, accidents and uncontrolled growth.”

The cost and upkeep of the “seawall” plan led to its demise, along with the public pushback. By 1975, the Citizens Advisory Committee made up of residents across the city helped MnDOT with a final study of the interstate route. It called for most of what we see today, with the roadway disappearing under parks and downtown streets.

A mall in the sky

What we know today as the Northwest Passage, the walkway over Interstate 35 from downtown to the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, was originally going to be a whole lot more than a walkway.

As work progressed in the mid-1970s for the extension of the interstate through downtown, a plan was hatched to develop department store retail space on a platform above the interstate. It was one of the first attempts at clustered retail, with a report on the idea that the platform was vital to the revitalization of downtown and expansion and connections to the DECC. It said that despite efforts by the city to keep downtown vibrant, there was “disastrous erosion to the downtown tax base” going on.

The platform, with a working title of Harbor Square, would allow a “reshaping of the downtown,” the study said. “Changing it from its obsolete linear configuration to a more compacted city core.”

Dayton’s and Donaldson’s, two now-defunct department stores based in Minneapolis, expressed interest in the plan. Sears also was courted.

Eventually, cold feet prevailed. Miller Hill Mall had opened in 1973 and a developer and committed retailers never were found, said former Duluth planning and development director Richard Loraas. A depressed economy in the late 1970s also didn’t help.

“It was an attempt at a suburban-style mall over a freeway,” Loraas said. It would have been extremely expensive, he said, and at the same time a developer was kicking around the idea of another mall in Hermantown near where Wal-Mart is today.

Today, the platform mall probably would be hailed as fitting into the idea of human-scale amenities. The study warned about keeping things the same along Superior Street and the rest of downtown.

“Any attempt to perpetuate the existing strip commercial pattern as an alternative to the platform would be an exercise in futility since the existing configuration is obsolete, fails to meet contemporary consumer standards for a functional downtown and will be unacceptable to developers and investors,” the report read.

Loraas said the idea had community support, but without people willing to invest “it wasn’t going to be.”

Ending in limbo

In the 1950s, the plan for Interstate 35 was for it to run into part of Duluth but then turn across the St. Louis River and terminate in Wisconsin. With the completion of the expressway to Two Harbors in the 1960s, the idea emerged to have the interstate meet with the four-laner, either through downtown or to the north of the city.

Eventually, federal officials approved a route from Thompson Hill to Mesaba Avenue — finished in 1971 — and then to 10th Avenue East. There was opposition in the 1970s to pushing the project along and no work would be done past Mesaba until the next decade.

Polling done by the News Tribune in 1976 showed overwhelming support for a freeway to extend to 68th Avenue East. Of the 3,122 responses, 76 percent wanted the freeway to meet with the expressway at 68th Avenue.

Nine percent wanted no extension past Mesaba while 10 percent wanted it extended to Eighth Avenue East only and 4 percent wanted it to go to the present terminus at 26th Avenue East.

MnDOT approved money for the extension to 68th but never went through with the connection. The money not used was given to the city and eventually was used to pay for the replaced Rose Garden and the bricking of downtown streets.

Mike Creger
(218) 723-5218