On July 18, 1850 Congress approved funding, through the Minnesota Road Act, to build a road from Point Douglas, MN to Superior, WI. This road along with four other roads outlined in the Minnesota Road Act were designed with a dual edged purpose to provide transportation and communication corridors for the military in the new frontier as well as stimulate settlement by providing access points to previously unreachable areas of settlement along the eastern part of the state. The most important of these roads was the Point Douglas Superior Military
Road which connected the head of navigation on the Great Lakes with the head of navigation on the Mississippi River. This overland route between two of the most prominent transportation modes in the country had obvious and numerous advantages. “Editors in St. Paul, St. Anthony, and Stillwater hammered incessantly on the theme that a good road between the head of navigation on the Mississippi and the head of navigation on the Great Lakes would make St. Paul the chief supply point for the entire Northwest.”(Singley, 1967, 233)
On February 4th, 1850 Henry Hastings Sibley submitted the first draft of the Minnesota Road Act to congress which among other routes included the Point Douglas Superior Road (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1858). Based on preliminary estimates the appropriation request was set at $15,000. Once amendments were made and the bill was passed formal surveying of the route began. The United States Army appointed Lt. James H. Simpson who was with the Corps of Topographical Engineers in charge of building the Minnesota roads. Simpson, born in New Jersey in 1813, graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1832. It was then that he was assigned to the Third Artillery through the Second Seminole War. In 1838, with the creation of the U.S. Army’s Topographical Engineers Department, Lt. Simpson became one of the first officers to be transferred. Between the years of 1838-1850 he was part of numerous surveying and construction projects for the U.S. Army, ranging from harbor construction on Lake Eerie to road construction in Florida, and land surveying in New Mexico. He even served as the Chief Topographical Engineer for the Department of New Mexico for a year. After six months of sick leave, in 1851 he was transferred to St. Paul, MN and began the overseeing the road construction throughout the territory. Acting more in a supervisory capacity Simpson appointed his assistant, Josiah Knauer, as the primary surveyor of the route with efforts beginning in the summer and fall of 1851. The original route runs on the west side of the St. Croix River from its beginning in Point Douglas for roughly seventy-eight miles within a mile or two from its banks.
At the point where it reaches the Sunrise River the road was planned to cut northwest to the Snake River for roughly twenty-four miles where it would cross just below Lake Pokegoma. It would then run northeast to the Kettle River for about forty miles, keeping the same course it would complete its run at the falls or rapids of the St. Louis River in close to fifty miles more. After four major changes were made to the plan the final as traveled route was reported to be 178 miles. Based on the terrain report from Lt. Simpson the area generally transitioned from open rolling prairie lands in the south to a mixed brush/prairie section further north which gave way to dense timbers and expansive sections of swamps and Tamarac marshes within the estuary regions of the St. Louis River.
Based on the surveyed route and the environmental challenges Lt. Simpson estimated that the project cost would be in excess of $73,000 (Larsen, 1940). In 1858 Minnesota became a state and the responsibility of the road, now over two-thirds complete, was transferred to it. Although the federal funding had mostly dried up, through a number of other subsequent appropriations and grants construction was continued. Sibley kept appealing Congress for more funding as the project had been a federal endeavor prior to Minnesota’s statehood, but it was soon realized that previous estimates had been far too low. The state of Minnesota, now with little or no funds left to contribute to the project, placed a cap on appropriations. This left the grand total spent at $120, 600 and the status of the road as permanently unfinished although over two-thirds of it had been substantially completed.
Although it remained unfinished the road did for the most part achieve its desired affect as it received heavy use and was a crucial link within the internal transportation system of Minnesota. It allowed pioneers to settle regions that were previously unattainable and also made it possible for mail service to exist in these remote locations. The completion of the Lake Superior and Mississippi Railroad line connection from St. Paul to Duluth, in 1870, effectively killed the use of the old road. However, many sections of the road are still in use today locally, and some trail sections have even received recognition and protection as historic landmarks. The Stone Bridge, seen in the picture above, was built in 1863 as the crossing point over Brown’s Creek. Prior to its construction traveler’s had to ford the creek over a bridge of field stone. When the Washington County Board approved a $500 contract to build the bridge, two local builders, Michael Hanley and Frederick Curtis, won the bid. Their design was to build a single-arched span of 20 feet and a width of 17 feet out of locally quarried limestone (Anderson, 2014). To their misfortune, upon completion of construction the county commissioners found that the bridge did not meet the requirements of the contract and the men were never paid for their work. Despite this the bridge continued to be used until 1891 when an updated bridge was built 200 feet east of the original. The original bridge is said to be the oldest still standing in Minnesota and is exemplified as a fine specimen of stone engineering. In 1975 it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places (National Park Service, 1974).
- “Bills and Resolutions, House of Representatives, 31st Congress, 1st Session: H.R. 21,” A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875. Libraries of Congress (1850).
- “Executive Documents Printed By Order of the Senate of the United states of America, 35th Congress, 1st Session 1857-58,” Congressional Serial Set. U.S Government Printing Office (1858)
- “National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination Form,” United States Department of the Interior National Park Service. National Park Service. http://focus.nps.gov/pdfhost/docs/nrhp/text/75001033.pdf. (1974)
- Anderson, Jim (2014). “The County Line: Minnesota’s first road project,” South Metro. MN StarTribune.
- Larsen, Arthur J. (1940). “Roads and the Settlement of Minnesota,” Minnesota History 21. 3: 225-244.
- Singley, Grover (1967). “Retracing the Military Road from Point Douglas to Superior,” Minnesota History 40. 5: 233-247.
- “Point Douglas to Superior Military Road,” St. Croix Scenic Byway Historical Travel Guide. St. Croix Scenic Byway. www.stcroixscenicbyway.org. (2013)