When you travel on our current highways, you don’t think about the military foundations associated with the system. Yes, it was built to accommodate the explosion of private vehicles in the post-war years. However, there was a second reason: military considerations.
From his experience in 1919 along the Lincoln Memorial Highway to appreciating the effectiveness of the German highway system during World War II, President Dwight D. Eisenhower recognized the value of an interstate system. The Cold War Federal Highway Act of 1956 (Public Law 84-827) was renamed the Dwight D. Eisenhower National Interstate and Defense Highway System in 1990 in his honor. At the time (the 1950s) the general public thought it was a new and novel idea. We were completely wrong in our thinking because our country had a long history of building military roads that also served private and commercial interests.
The earliest evidence of military road construction in Anoka County can be found in an 1847 federal survey. He identified a military road built in 1835 as part of the development of the Wisconsin Territorial Highway. During the 1840s the route, through trade, was incorporated into what would become the Red River Ox Cart Trail stretching from St. Paul to Pembina. By the Minnesota Road Act of 1849, Congress passed and funded five military roads for peacekeeping, civil movement, commerce, and military needs. The road for Anoka County was Point Douglas (near Prescott, Wisconsin) and Fort Gaines (later Fort Ripley). The current Anoka Main Street Bridge was the site chosen to cross the River Rum. The road gave access to the north and northwest to new settlers, merchants, traders and soldiers. In the 1850s and 1860s, the town of Anoka became a hub as river traffic became a land movement and the migration of people and goods from St. Paul to Pembina in North Dakota increased dramatically. .
When Wisconsin became a state in 1848, the Minnesota Territory was created. On November 1, 1849, the new Territorial Board adopted the Wisconsin Territory Road Standards: roads were to be surveyed and marked with mile points; roads were to be built by county government units with the power to draw, interrupt or modify roads. Each county was to be divided into districts and headed by a highway overseer in charge of road maintenance. The maintenance work was to be carried out by men between the ages of 21 and 50 who would provide two days of work per year. A road tax based on the value of real estate was levied with manual labor at $ 2 per day allowed to replace the dollars levied. Private plank and toll roads were regulated in 1851 by the Territory Board. This system of building and maintaining border roads lasted until the late 1890s and early 1900s, when population pressure, the American Industrial Revolution, and the automobile took over the system.
The 1898 Minnesota Constitutional Amendment allowed the state to participate directly in highway development as a partner with the counties. The Dunn Amendment of 1912 authorized a tax levy for road development, and 1920 saw another amendment calling for the development of a network of freeways and a vehicle tax to finance it. A gasoline tax was authorized in 1925 by the Babcock Amendment. The last major legislation for this period came in 1929 when another constitutional amendment created a state road aid tax system. One-third of the funds would go to bridges and two-thirds to highways. It was funded by the new license plate tax.
The federal government’s response can be seen in the Federal Highway Road Act of 1916, which provided that all county seats were tied to population centers. In 1946, state and federal government funding merged through the Minnesota County Aid Secondary Road Program and the Federal Aid Act, where costs were split 50-50. World War II saw the development of roads to move munitions from the Anoka County production area to distribution sites. The Federal Highway Act of 1956 (the Eisenhower interstate system) is the benchmark federal response.
Chuck Zielin is a volunteer with the Anoka County Historical Society.