Interstate 35 brought controversy, opportunityA history of Interstate 35 in Duluth, from its beginnings in West Duluth to the 20-year-process of finding a better plan for the extension through downtown and into East Duluth. Longer, slightly more accurate story than the print version.
While many Duluthians lived through the nearly 30-year period that Interstate 35 was being planned and constructed through Duluth, others who travel its concrete and asphalt lanes are blissfully unaware of interstate’s dramatic history.
It was the final piece of a 1,600-mile-long freeway — the other end originates near Laredo, Texas — that was born of the Eisenhower presidential administration, which initiated construction of a 42,500-mile interstate system in 1956.
As a result, in 1958, the Minnesota Highway Department (now the Minnesota Department of Transportation, or MnDOT) announced the route of a freeway through West Duluth to 10th Avenue East. Construction was expected to take 10 years and cost $45 million. Plans called for the freeway to be elevated using pillar construction all the way from the bottom of Thompson Hill to 10th Avenue East.
The first part of I-35’s foray into Duluth went pretty much as planned. Work began in 1964 between Thompson Hill and 32nd Avenue West, wrote MnDOT’s John Bray in “The Will and the Way.”
“Approximately 700 homes were razed or moved in West Duluth, and about 250 homes were taken from the neighborhood between 30th Avenue West and 20th Avenue West below Superior Street,” Bray wrote.
By the November 1971, I-35 ended at Mesaba Avenue.
That’s where it would stop for the next 20 years, thanks to the work of citizen groups and the willingness of city, state and federal officials to work together to find a compromise design that would allow the freeway to continue through Duluth and address the concerns expressed by citizens.
A shift in attitudes
“It seems like 1970 was the time that the attitude of the public toward freeway construction really shifted, locally and nationally,” said Ben Boo, who was mayor of Duluth from 1967 to 1975. “An eruption occurred — in Duluth, San Francisco, Boston, and Seattle— the people said ‘No more freeways will be built at the desecration of neighborhoods.’ Prior to that, (freeways) just went through and ripped neighborhoods apart. After that, neighborhoods had priority over the automobile.”
Someone at the federal level recognized that change in attitude as well, Boo said, noting that the FHWA made money available to cities so they could involve citizens in redesigning the remaining interstates.
That evolution in thinking, Boo said, is the reason that the interstate made its way through West Duluth without much protest, but stalled at Mesaba. He recalled seeing interstate highways all around the country “stopped dead in their tracks, until the people could come up with a solution together.”
For a few years in Duluth, that’s exactly what happened: alternative plans were discussed and debated, but nothing concrete happened. And I-35 still ended at Mesaba Avenue, because the original plan for the interstate was unacceptable.
That plan called for the pillar design to continue through downtown, first paralleling Michigan Street (which would require removing all the buildings on the south side of the street). The highway then would have proceeded out over Lake Superior — standing 22 feet above the lake. To stop the spray of water that could cause icy conditions on the road, plans also included a seawall.
Residents were concerned that the planned design would completely obscure lake views and permanently end hopes of connecting downtown to the shoreline of Lake Superior. Others were concerned about the historic brewery district, which lay directly in the planned path of the interstate. At the same time, there was no denying that traffic jams and pollution were downtown issues that would be alleviated by construction of the freeway.
“It was just a horrible, horrible plan, and they were just inches away from doing that,” said landscape architect Kent Worley. “Everybody was lined up in support of this thing: from the Chamber and the City Council to the state and the federal agencies. They considered it progress. Of course, they didn’t really know much about the plan itself.”
One of the first groups to sound the alarm bells was the Citizens for Integration of Highways and the Environment (CIHE).
Worley would be a key player in the I-35 extension; from founding the CIHE group in 1970 to the work he did designing nearly all of the interstate’s waterfront amenities.
“CIHE kind of woke people up, got information to residents about what exactly was planned,” Worley said in a phone interview Thursday. “But it wasn’t CIHE that made the change happen, it was the whole city. People were like: ‘You’re going to do what to our lake?’”
Making Duluth better
Worley and others really were visionaries. In the 1970s, what is now the Canal Park area of Duluth was not pretty.
Here’s how one Kansas City writer described what a person would have seen looking east to Lake Superior from downtown Duluth in 1970: “Railroad tracks. A graveyard of flattened automobiles. Decaying and defunct warehouses and factories.”
Worley said the explanation by highway engineers that the new freeway would only affect the “underbelly” of Duluth was one of many motivating factors.
“The word ‘underbelly’ offended me,” Worley said in a 1994 Lake Superior Magazine article, “The Rainbow at the end of the Highway.” “Ugly as the waterfront was, the power of the lake was still there. Land always has more potential than one can see on the surface.”
In December 1975, Mayor Robert Beaudin appointed a group of residents both for and against the freeway continuation to the I-35 Citizens Advisory Panel. Worley gives city planner Dick Loraas a tremendous amount of credit for finding federal money to fund a multiple-use study, which was the impetus for forming the advisory panel.
“Dick was the guy at the desk who knew what the process was and how to proceed,” Worley said. “He’s also the guy who called our office and asked if we could help.”
Bray also credits Mayor Beaudin, for empowering the I-35 Citizen Advisory Panel to work with government officials to “fully integrate the design of the freeway into the urban environment of the City of Duluth.” Members of the panel included the following people: Bill Abalan, Dave Allison, Rondi Erickson-Lewis, Harold Frederick, Mary Olin, John Peyton, Rod Wibbens, Joyce Williams, Tom Gruesen, Lauren Larsen, Earl Liljegren, Myrtle Marshall, Cliff Olson, Bob Seitz and Donna Ekberg.
“Bob Beaudin made those governmental entities promise they would honor the wishes of that Duluth citizen panel,” Bray said.
In 1976, members of the panel voted 11-2 in support of an “inland” freeway route (rather than the original route along the shoreline) which is basically what exists today. The new design used cut-and-cover tunnels that carried the freeway under historic landmarks and ultimately served to connect the downtown to the lakeshore in an entirely new way, with the tops of the first tunnel serving as a “bridge” to Lake Superior. Putting the roadway in tunnels also eliminated water spray and wind issues off the lake and reduced the traffic noise.
“What we did was use the highway and its location as a stimulus for other things to happen that have been beneficial to Duluth,” said Mark Flaherty, a city planner at the time. “If not for I-35, the Lakewalk area wouldn’t exist.”
However, even with a genius design, there were many hurdles to be crossed before the freeway project could resume. One of the biggest of those was the removal of the Bridge Yard in Duluth, a railroad yard that sprawled between downtown and what is now Canal Park, and contained yards and operations for five independent railroads: the Soo Line; Chicago North Western; Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range; Burlington Northern; Duluth, Winnipeg & Pacific.
Just that one necessary change — moving the switching yards to Superior — would cost $45 million and take 10 years. The project was incredibly complex and involved more than just the railroads; approval or rulings were required from at least 23 public agencies, plus there were shippers, unions and property owners to consider. The move was completed in November 1984.
The new plan also skirted many historic buildings that would have been demolished, including Fitger’s, the Hartley Building, the Old City Jail and Hall, the Depot and the Kitchi Gammi Club. However, Endion Station and Branch’s Hall stood on condemned land. In the end, Duluth lost Branch’s Hall — the first brick business building in the city — but MnDOT successfully moved the 4,000-ton brick and sandstone Endion Station to Canal Park, where it still stands. The move cost $370,000.
Crews began digging the tunnels in 1983. A total of 179,000 tons of gabbro volcanic rock was excavated in the process. Much of that rock — thanks to the efforts of two people willing to work lots of overtime at Worley's Architectural Resources office — was used to build a wider strip of beach along the Lakewalk. Approximately 1,400 truckloads of rock created an additional 6.3 acres of new public land.
With more rock, MnDOT built a 1,200-foot-long submerged trout spawning reef behind the Fitger’s complex to address concerns about the environmental impact of the new beach on a natural lake trout spawning reef on the remains of Duluth’s old wharf site just west of Fitger’s.
It may be the only time a highway compromise resulted in the creation of a spawning reef for fish.
A garden bridge
Worley and Loraas called Lake Place the “linchpin” for the entire concept. Built over the first downtown tunnel, the two-and-a-half-acre Lake Place Park sits 40 feet above lake level and connects the downtown east of Lake Avenue to Lake Superior and the now very popular Lakewalk.
Worley noted that the city of Seattle, Wash., had constructed a similar project. The fact that there was a precedent, he said, made it easier to convince city, state and federal officials that it was the right way to go.
“Lake Place, completed in 1990, incorporates two major elements,” Worley wrote in “The Will and the Way.” “First, a wall was constructed between the roadway and the lake. A covering deck was then built over the highway to provide protection from Lake Superior over-spray and wind-driven debris. Second, and most important, the deck of the protective structure was planned as a multiple-use outdoor area in conjunction with the development of lakefront trail systems.”
“Lake Place is meant to be something for everyone, with places to be private and places to be public,” Worley said, adding that it is his favorite place in the entire project. “Lake Place is where downtown Duluth actually touches the lake.”
A new Duluth
Today, it is easy for visitors to see the benefits of the interstate:
The Lakewalk bike and pedestrian trail follows the rebuilt shoreline. Young and old alike can wade in the lake, throw stones or choose to clamber over massive boulders. While they walk or bike, people can admire the 580-foot-long ceramic tile Image Wall (below Lake Place) on the outside highway wall. Canal Park is filled with restaurants, hotels, museums, shops and works of public art.
The original Rose Garden in Leif Erikson Park was also reconstructed after the tunnels were built and features more than 2,000 rose bushes of some 99 varieties and numerous trees, shrubs and other flowers.
And downtown Duluth has skywalks and brick streets, thanks to funds Duluth was allowed to use after it was decided the interstate would not run all the way to 68th Avenue East, one of the options considered at the time. (Editor’s note: But that’s a story for another time, as is the relocation of a city-owned strip club to make a spot for the Endion Station building.)
“Had the original plans been built, as devised by the old Minnesota Highway Department and the Federal Highway Administration, if the people of Duluth — led by Kent Worley — not stood up, it would have been a disgrace of monumental proportions,” Bray said.
The final cost of I-35 from Mesaba Avenue to 26th Avenue East was $220 million. Since then, different elements of the extension have won three FHWA “Excellence in Design” awards, in 1992, 1994 and 1998.
And people living in and visiting Duluth find it hard to imagine the city ever lacked easy access to Lake Superior and its shore.
“To reconnect the city to the lake was just an unbelievable high,” Worley said. “It’s really been gratifying.”