How did Albert Lea become a crossroads location?

Published 2:58 pm Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Meetings held in Albert Lea about 90 years ago may have been very instrumental in this city becoming an important highway junction point and even the creation of what are now Interstates 35 and 90.

Back in the days when railroads provided the nation with its primary transportation, a few individuals were promoting the concept of continuous trunk highways.

In late 1918, A. E. Nissen from Iowa came to Albert Lea to get local support for a new roadway to be called “The Woodrow Wilson Way” which he said would “start somewhere and go somewhere” and replace a series of country roads between the communities of the Midwest with a series of specially marked roads.

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Nissen’s proposal was for a clearly designated roadway to run from Ely to Hibbing, Mora, Minneapolis, Shakopee, New Prague, Waseca, New Richland, Albert Lea, Emmons, then into Iowa to Lake Mills, Webster City, Des Moines and Winterset, on to St. Joseph and Kansas City, Mo., Wichita, Kan., Oklahoma City, Okla., and across Texas through Dallas, Austin and San Antonio to the Mexican border at Laredo. In time, the roadway would be extended on south to Mexico City.

About this same time, John Deets of Mankato was promoting a marked roadway from La Crosse, Wis., to Sioux Falls, S.D., to be called the “Southern Minnesota Air Line.” This proposed route would run through Caledonia, Preston, Spring Valley, Austin, Oakland, Albert Lea, Alden, Blue Earth and on west to Luverne and Sioux Falls, S.D.

During November and December 1918, the Albert Lea Business Men’s League (the predecessor of today’s Albert Lea-Freeborn County Chamber of Commerce) formed a special committee to work with the new highway promoters. League President Haldor Knatvold named Martin Blacklin, L. S. Whitcomb and S. E. Peterson to work with delegates from other communities along the proposed routes to make the roadways a reality.

A few years later the two rather rough and partly graveled roadways were marked with distinctive signs. By the early 1930s, a state and federal system of using numbers instead of names to mark routes became effective and the roads were finally paved.

The “Southern Minnesota Air Line” evolved into what became U.S. Highway 16 and Minnesota Highway 44 just west and south of La Crosse, Wis. When Interstate 90 was built, the U.S. 16 designation was removed in Minnesota. County roads now occupy this pioneer route, such as Freeborn County Road 46, Mower County Road 46, Faribault County Road 16 and Martin County Road 26, to name a few. The old route parallels I-90 in many places and runs through the cities.

“The Woodrow Wilson Way,” named in honor of the nation’s president in 1918, eventually became U.S. Highway 169 through Blue Earth and part of U.S. Highway 65 in the northern part of the state, state Highways 21 and 13, and U.S. Highway 69 before it went into Iowa. However, today’s Interstate 35 in Minnesota doesn’t come even close to Nissen’s original route as it goes from Duluth to Laredo, Texas, except at Minneapolis and Albert Lea.

Thus, some of the credit for Albert Lea’s present status as the crossroads for two interstate highways may have to be given to a group of foresighted civic leaders and road promoters who were very active 90 years ago.