Today’s traveler has come to expect our highway system to provide safe well-constructed roads and various amenities. But in the early days of automobile travel, highways were poor and often simply the shortest distance between two points with little concern for the existing terrain and environment. Public facilities for travelers were nearly nonexistent. By the 1920s automobile travel was becoming a favorite American pastime and travelers and community groups urged state government to make highway improvements.
As a result, the theory of modern highway design began to emerge. This new design approach emphasized planning, sound engineering, and landscaping to increase highway safety and enhance the growing tourism industry. One important component was the inclusion of “roadside development" facilities. These include waysides and scenic overlooks, picnic tables and fireplaces, historical markers, and various other features designed to increase the recreational qualities and enjoyment of highway travel while providing safe havens for weary travelers to rest. In Minnesota, numerous roadside development facilities were constructed throughout the state, many during the 1930s and ‘40s.
Unfortunately modern-day highway projects have been altering these early facilities at an increasing rate. Highways are being expanded and modified to accommodate more traffic that typically consists of larger vehicles traveling at faster speeds. Consequently, a small wayside built in the 1930s may now be difficult, if not unsafe, to access. Traffic noise and volume may have diminished the character of the site or the scenic qualities for which it had been originally selected. Worse yet, a highway project might call for the demolition of an entire roadside facility. In addition, years of use or improper maintenance threaten the historic integrity of many sites.
Complicating these issues, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT) lacked a comprehensive inventory of its historic roadside facilities. And when historic reviews (under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act) were not required-which is the case for some maintenance and utility projects-Mn/DOT found it was sometimes unaware of a historic resource until a highway project was well underway, often unclear about a site's historic collective importance, and sometimes needed to quickly determine a property's significance but had only minimal information. At times, this led to hasty decisions about the fate of the resources. Further entangling the process was a lack of information on the proper treatment of historic roadside facilities. The result was frustration, inefficient planning, and the loss or inappropriate treatment of many historic sites.
Mn/DOT needed to better understand its roadside facilities and to develop
planning tools to manage them. In 1996, using federal Transportation Enhancement
funding, Mn/DOT began an extensive study of the historic roadside facilities
under its jurisdiction. The primary purpose of the study was to compile
a complete inventory of these sites and determine each property’s
importance, particularly its eligibility for the National Register of
Historic Places. Mn/DOT contracted with historical consultants to conduct
As a result of the study, Mn/DOT found it owns a significant statewide collection of roadside development facilities. Mn/DOT has now begun to assess all National Register-eligible sites in further detail. Several properties are being nominated to the National Register of Historic Places and plans are underway to restore or rehabilitate the most important sites. In addition, comprehensive documents are being prepared to streamline planning and to prioritize, manage, and preserve Mn/DOT's historic roadside facilities.