Highway 61 (Old Highway 1)

Highwat 1 c. 1925. (Image: Zenith City Press)

The stretch of highway along the Minnesota north shore of Lake Superior began in 1879 as a simple brushed trail used by sled-dog drivers like John Beargrease to deliver mail in the winter (during summer months, all transportation along the north shore was done on the water). By 1900 a rough stage road was somewhat complete, but only passable in the winter by horse-drawn sleigh. Between 1900 and 1920 local communities along the lake built their own stretches of the road. Only the link between Duluth and Two Harbors was graded adequately for safe motor traffic, and from there to the Canadian border Greetings from 6 the North Shore the road was little more than a narrow path, with many sections of road wandering miles from the shore. (Remnants of some of those roads remain, indicated by “Old North Shore Road” signs.)

In 1921 Minnesota made plans for a trunk highway system that included Highway 1, which would run from Iowa to Canada. The 154-mile stretch from Duluth to the Canadian border was known as the North Shore Drive (later the North Shore Scenic Drive) and was designed to stay as close to Lake Superior’s northern coast as nature would allow. The roadway was first fully paved in 1933. It later became part of U.S. High way 61, which reaches from New Orleans to Minnesota’s Pigeon River at the Canadian border. A 1941 advertisement for the North Shore Drive noted that the North Shore, America’s “Summer Playground” and “Hay Fever Haven,” had no snakes or poison ivy.

In 1924, just three years after Minnesota began its trunk highway system, a bridge was built to span the Stewart River. Bridge No. 3589, a reinforced concrete arch adorned with Classical Revival details, stretches nineteen feet across the river. Because Lake Superior’s North Shore tributaries are particularly rocky waterways, the North Shore was one of only a few regions in Minnesota provided with the funds to build concrete bridges in the highway system’s early years. The Minnesota Highway Department boastfully declared the bridge “the most aesthetically accomplished statement…produced by the state highway program.”

Highway 61, of course, became as famous as Route 66 after the release of Bob Dylan’s 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited. But Dylan’s title song (and the rest of the album) had little to do with the actual Highway 61. In the song, the road is not literal, but, perhaps, a place to get rid of a bunch of red, white, and blue shoestrings and some telephones that don’t ring.

“Scenic 61”
From Duluth you can drive to Two Harbors quickly on the Highway 61 Expressway or you can take the slow road: Scenic 61, which hugs the lake for about twenty-two miles.

One of the more popular stops along Scenic 61 is Stoney Point, a stretch of rocky shoreline along a loop of road at milepost 15. Just one mile up lies the Buchanan Wayside, marking the spot of an abandoned town named for President James Buchanan. The town, laid out in 1856, was the seat of the land offi ce for Northeastern Minnesota. After the offi ce relocated, the settlement disappeared.

Many of Lake Superior’s tributaries empty into the big lake along this stretch, including the French River at milepost 11, the Sucker River at milepost 13, and the Knife River at milepost 18. All three rivers are known as great places to cast a line, and the French is home to the French River Hatchery, which produces walleye, herring, splake, chinook salmon, and both rainbow and lake trout. The Ojibwe called it Angwassagozibi (Floodwood River); they named the Namebinizibi or Sucker River for the fi sh that gather there annually to spawn.

The mouth of the Knife River (Mokomanizibi or “Sharp Stones River” to the Ojibwe) is also the location of the village of Knife River, which was platted in 1899 to serve the Alger- Smith Lumber Company’s railroad. Russ Kendall’s father opened a smoked fi sh house there in 1924 after his truck broke down, forcing him to sell his smoked fi sh from the side of the road (Russ still smokes his own fi sh). In Knife River you’ll also find Emily’s Deli, originally opened by Emily Erickson (who emigrated from Norway when she was 12) in 1929 in a building that was once a general store and post offi ce.

Like much of the North Shore, the stretch along Scenic 61 is dotted with cabin resorts, motels, and restaurants—many of which have come and gone. The Fish Fry Lodge was found on the site which is now the McQuade Safe Harbor, and the Elmgren Motor Court was found just west of the Fish Fry (it is now the Gardenwood Motel). The Loneyville Motel (which apparently featured a miniature farm), was located in the township of Larsmont, a few miles west of Two Harbors. The community was formed during the 1880s to serve a large logging operation, but didn’t receive its name—for Larsmont, Finland, from which most of its setters hailed—until 1914. By then fishing and farming had become its chief industries. The House of Sweden, found just west of Two Harbors, was built by Walt Grant in 1946 and only served food from his native Sweden. The restaurant added motel rooms in the 1960s, and Grant sold the place to Tony and Marge Radosevich in the early 1970s; they converted it into the Earthwood Inn, which still operates.