Lost Highway 61

History buffs and curiosity seekers revel in finding a piece of the past. Stumbling across something long-forgotten is a great way to travel back in time, even if it’s only for a few moments. Thanks to the internet, the stumbling has become easier. Over the summer, Google maps helped me to stumble across an abandoned section of Highway 61. I set off on my adventure during one of the hottest days of the year with my gps, a satellite map print-out, and my camera. A couple of hours later, I pulled off the highway with my map in hand and started off toward the farm fields. I quickly found what I was looking for; an abandoned and neglected section of overgrown concrete that was once one of the most traveled roads in Minnesota.

Highway 61 may be one of the most famous highways in Minnesota. Songs and books have been written about it, and just about every Minnesotan can find it on a map. The highway has been around almost as long as the automobile. By 1934, Highway 61 ran the eastern length of Minnesota from the Canadian border to La Crosse. Through the years, the original dirt path was replaced several times over. Each time improvements were made, straighter and safer routes were found and sections of the original road were abandoned in the name of progress.

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The Gales of November: Lafayette Shipwreck

One of the earliest victims of the big blow on Lake Superior on November of 1905 was the steamer Lafayette and her barge, the Manila. After passing through Soo, the Lafayette was caught west of Devil’s Island when the great storm started churning the lake into an uproar. After fighting the storm for several hours and traveling at half-speed, Captain Dell Wright was hoping to see the lighthouse on Devils’ Island to regain his bearings. Captain Wright’s years of experience gave him only a rough idea of his ship’s location, and he had an important decision to make.

The Brickyards of Coon Rapids

The first road through Anoka County was established in 1835 to aid those traveling between Minneapolis and Anoka. The road was commonly known as the Red River Ox Cart Trail, now East River Road and Coon Rapids Boulevard, followed the Mississippi River north before turning toward Anoka. The journey took about two days by horse or wagon and rambled through farmland, forest, and peat bogs. Along this road is where the first locally based industry in Coon Rapids was located – the brickyards. Today, barely a trace of the brickyards remain. But for the curious, a few clues can still be found.

The first brickyard in Coon Rapids was the Anoka Pressed Brick and Terra Cotta Company. In 1881 Dr. D.C. Dunham located a large deposit of red clay not far off of the Red River Ox Cart Trail. The company only employed a handful of workers. Even though they used the best machinery of the day, it was still an extremely laborious job. Workers dug clay from a pit by hand and used a crane to bring it to the surface. After being excavated, the clay would be transported on a on a track, unloaded, mixed with water, and then sent through a machine with rollers that would compact it into a ribbon as thick as brick. Wires were used to cut individual brick lengths from the ribbon of clay. The bricks were then piled by hand and fan dried with hot air until the outside was dry and set. Finally, the bricks were placed in a large coal-fired kiln where the brick was burned. It would take several days for the fires to temper the brick. When the process was complete, each brick weighed about 5.5 lbs.

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Secret Ruins Give Clues to an Opulent Past

Before Summit Avenue became a magnet for the state’s empire builders, St. Paul’s elite built their estates in the Sherburne Hill neighborhood (today known as Capitol Heights.) By the time construction on the State Capitol was complete, many of the 15 mansions that stood on the hill had faded into shabby gentility or been razed, leaving barely a trace of the opulent park-like neighborhood that stood above the saintly city. This area, however, still holds secret ruins that are a clue to its grand past.

Today, the Cass Gilbert Memorial Park features a banal concrete overlook that gives visitors a view of downtown from above. The view is nothing short of spectacular on clear summer evenings. This panorama was coveted by the progenitors of St. Paul as well.

In 1882 William Merriam built an imposing, Queen-Anne style home atop Sherburne Hill. Sherburne Avenue was extended to accommodate the mansion, but ended nearby in a grand cul-de-sac that became known as Merriam’s Overlook. After completing the plans for Merriam’s home, architect Clarence Johnston designed a curving stone retaining wall to match the red stone exterior of the home. Lining the edge of the hill, an ornate wrought-iron fence added elegant refinement to the wall, and a small but opulent fountain made of brass sat at the end of the cul-de-sac. A walkway and stone steps allowed pedestrians to access the outlook from Robert Street below. Elegant street lamps were added after the turn-of-the-century to illuminate the road and walkway.

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Mary Fridley – An Inconvenient Wife

You may recognize the name Fridley by having passed through the northern suburb of Minneapolis while driving along 694, or recognize it as the home to the corporate behemoth Medtronic. But, as with most cities in Minnesota, there is a pioneer family behind the name. As with many early families, if you dig deep enough there is a good chance you’ll uncover secrets, wrong-doing, or tragedy. The Fridley family was victim to the worst tragedy – murder.

Mary Fridley was the granddaughter of Abram and Betsey Fridley. Abram was a Winnebago Indian agent, lawyer, Minnesota territorial and state legislator, farmer, merchant, and land agent of the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad Company. Holding both wealth and power, the town of Manomin was newly named Fridley Township in 1879 to honor the first territorial representative for the area. Mary’s father, David, was a grocer and land owner in what now comprises the cities of Fridley, Columbia Heights, Hilltop, Spring Lake Park, and part of Northeast Minneapolis. Mary was raised with wealth and refinement but lacked the physical qualities that would land her a husband at an agreeable age. She was often referred to as being slight, pale, and boring, but managed to hold a job as a teacher at Adams School for several years. When traveling salesman Frederick T. Price entered the picture, Mary was perhaps too eager to overlook his two previous marriages and criminal past for love. In 1907, at the age of 28, Mary and Fred were married and set up in Mary’s spacious apartment on Knox Avenue N in Minneapolis.

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