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US 52: From dirt road to 6-lane highway

(Editor's note: This story first ran in 2005 upon completion of improvements to U.S. 52 through Rochester)

The improvements on U.S. 52 are the latest chapters in the story of what was once dubbed "Minnesota's First Highway."

Today's freeway approximately traces a route first hewn 150 years ago; a rugged, 8-foot-wide path then called the Dubuque Trail.

The 272-mile trail opened in 1854, linking the bustling river city of Dubuque, Iowa, to St. Paul, then a fledgling settlement in the Minnesota Territory. For a decade, it was the principal overland route into the state and the only means in and out when the Mississippi River had frozen over. It made possible an explosive surge of white settlement, with the state's population increasing from a few thousand before its introduction to 170,000 in 1860, before other routes would supplant it.

Rochester can credit its existence to the Dubuque Trail, as can Chatfield, Zumbrota and Cannon Falls -- all sprang up to supply the endless train of settlers streaming up the trail for new lives in unseen lands.


Files at the Olmsted County History Center and other published histories provide a glimpse into the 10-year heyday of the Dubuque Trail. These accounts tell tales of the entrepreneurship, opportunism and grim hardship that marked this pivotal moment in the state's history.

Chicago man drew route

It was Martin O. Walker, a Chicago entrepreneur and "pioneer in transportation," who first lined the route in 1854. The path traced a line as straight as possible from Dubuque to St. Paul, following "a route of least resistance, traversing the valleys, circling the hills and fording streams," as described in a history of Pleasant Grove Township.

As shown on a map in the History Center's files, coming from the north the trail followed a route close to the current highway. It must have been just slightly west, as one history described it as crossing the property that is now the IBM Rochester campus.

The trail diverged from the modern route near the current interchange at 19th Street Northwest, followed Assisi Drive and 11th Avenue Northwest south to near the current Dakota, Minnesota & Eastern Railroad line. It followed that east to Broadway, ran south on Broadway for several blocks, then jogged east a few blocks to Third Avenue Southeast, formerly Dubuque Avenue.

There it went east to the current 11th Avenue Southeast, which it followed south (becoming the current Olmsted County Road 1) south all the way out of the county.

The road passed through Simpson, Pleasant Grove, Carimona and Harmony before reaching Elliotta, now a ghost town on the Minnesota-Iowa border.

Walker beat to the punch a pair of hypothesized routes approved by the territorial government, one passing through Mendota and Faribault, the other following the west bank of the Mississippi River, according to a St. Paul Sunday Pioneer Press history published in 1948. The Legislature legalized Walker's route in 1855, and it was subsequently labeled on state maps as "mail route in winter."


Walker and a partner, John Frink, received the first contract to transport mail on the line. Postage rates were 5 cents a letter, and mail was sent from St. Paul three times a week by a two-horse stage, according to Ernest H. Schlitgus' history of the Dubuque Trail. Travel time was four or five days, depending on weather and road conditions.

But it wasn't long before the road conveyed more than mail.

Pioneers, riding stagecoaches, flat wagons or hay-filled sledges, soon took the trail in lines "five miles long," as evocatively described in several published accounts.

Roughing it in Rochester

Rochester was a frequent stopping-over point. Visitors' accommodations were, in a word, rough.

"Essentially, the village became one vast community campground," wrote Harriet W. Hodgson in her book "Rochester: City of the Prairie." "Cooking fires flickered brightly and covered wagons ... rimmed the encampment."

Schlitgus, referencing an 1857 newspaper report, described an account of "100 emigrant wagons last summer ... on the outskirts of town, their occupants huddled in groups around a dozen or more fires."

What food was available for purchase wouldn't be found on a modern restaurant's menu. Hodgson quoted one traveler's manuscript, in which the author described "a dish of greasy looking liquid in which floated one piece of fat pork, boiled potatoes with the dirt remaining on them, and a piece of sad, heavy hot bread."


An increasing number of incoming settlers made their homes in southeastern Minnesota, a region described in Schlitgus' publication as containing "rolling hills covered with oak trees, and buffalo and other wild game were plentiful."

Travel conditions improved over time. In 1861, uncovered wagons were predominantly replaced by the padded Concord coach, with plush seats, windows and water-repellent roofs, Schlitgus wrote.

Introduction of the first rail link from Winona to Rochester in 1864 reduced the eminence of the Dubuque Trail, but the future highway's story doesn't end there.

Hard pitch for hard surface

It was a crisp, gray day in November 1927 when 118 officials from Minnesota and Iowa met at the Kahler Hotel in Rochester to discuss their plans to lobby their respective legislatures to fully pave the old trail, described as the region's best road link tying the Twin Cities and Chicago.

"It was and still is an excellent route," said C.A. Chapman, a local leader from Rochester. "It runs through the Switzerland of America." He was elected president of a new group, named the Fifty-Five U.S. Highway Improvement Association, formed to promote improving the road.

Guttenberg, Iowa, resident Dr. A.A. Schmidt described at the meeting how "today I traveled to Rochester from Postville (Iowa) with ease and we found but a few miles of dirt. This should be a great route of travel between Chicago and the Twin Cities, and it must be paved."

The group foresaw explosive population growth all along the Mississippi River valley and predicted one major road through it would "not be enough."


Modern highway takes shape

It was soon after that that the highway we know today began to take recognizable form.

The central segment, passing near Miracle Mile Shopping Center, was first graded for paving in 1931 and was paved with concrete in 1933, according to Dick Klobuchar, a retired MnDOT assistant district engineer from Rochester who researched department files.

The highway ran south to a point near the current Apache Mall, followed U.S. 14 east to the current Marion Road -- paved in 1931 -- and followed that route south to Marion, where it rejoined the current highway alignment.

The part of U.S. 52 between the U.S. 14 "beltline" and Marion did not open until 1967.

The highway was a two-lane road initially. An ambitious project in the 1960s made it the four-lane highway travelers knew until recently.

Klobuchar designed that project, which presented engineers with a problem similar to the one faced by planners of the current project: how to build a widened highway in an area filled with development.

"So four-laning (U.S.) 52 was a big thing," Klobuchar said. "To me, that was a bigger change ... than now."


It was one of Klobuchar's first road-design jobs, and it was a tough assignment -- to cram a modern highway into a right-of-way 200 feet wide.

And there were different financial constraints.

"That's the first thing I noticed on the job," Klobuchar said. "It was kind of a challenge in the '60s to put economy high. Highway money was not easy to come by in those days."

Taken on in five-mile bites, the project took years to build. The segment from 19th Street to Apache Mall was finished in 1962. The segment south of that, to the current Interstate 90, was done five years after that.

So four decades after his project was finished, Klobuchar marveled at the speed and scope of the work now coming to completion.

"To do anything they've done in the three years here is nothing short of unbelievable," he said. "There were some brilliant people pulling the strings on the construction of this."

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