Traveling in Moderation: Grand Marais

The New Highway #61, Clement Haupers, 1939

Clement Haupers was the Minnesota director of the Federal Art Project for the WPA, so it’s relatively safe to assume he meant this painting as a sincere celebration of the new roads – Highway 61 was among the earliest – that were being built to link the people of the vast American landscape by motorcar.  I gotta say, 72 years later it looks to me like a silly cartoon, bathing a banal piece of infrastructure in golden grandeur, but that may partly be from seven decades of grime, smoke and congestion accumulating on what Haupers depicted as a clean, clear silver strip.

Haupers seems to have ranged around the state quite a bit as Federal Art Project director, and there are few clues in the watercolor above as to what segment of Highway 61 is depicted.  Except for the suggestions of an agricultural quilt along the roadside, the hilliness of the gleaming highway in the landscape could be found along the north shore, where Highway 61 was constructed as North Shore Drive in the 1920s.

Where do you turn? Marohn's shot of Grand Marais' edge

The current iteration of North Shore Drive (though the name seems to have fallen out of use) as it passes through Grand Marais was justifiably excoriated by Charles Marohn at Strong Towns a few months ago.  Though mercifully not a 4-lane divided monstrosity, 61 displays a lot of highway strip tendencies, and features the suicide center lane on the edges of town to accommodate driveways encroaching into pedestrian space.  Bafflingly, the center left turn lane extends for long segments where no businesses exist, leading to a wide-feeling, speed-inducing road.

Highway 61 near the center of Grand Marais (by Charles Marohn again)

Marohn’s main point as I interpret it is that Highway 61, like most roads built today, does a poor job of differentiating between rural areas, where transportation is usually the primary function of the facility, and town areas, where the function is more multifaceted.  Highway 61 in Grand Marais is certainly guilty as charged, with the section running through town barely narrower than the strip at the edge.  Yet somehow it works better than any other street I’ve seen in Minnesota.  Motorists rarely fail to yield to pedestrians in the crosswalks, which are marked and spaced around 350 feet apart.

I think this is mostly due to the special nature of the place rather than the design of the road.  For one thing, you arrive at Grand Marais about 80 miles down Highway 61 from the last real town, Two Harbors.  Everything between is more of a crossroads, so when you hit a place with side streets, you notice even before you hit the stop light.  But just because motorists know people live in a place doesn’t mean they’re going to slow down for them, much less stop to yield.  I think what is unique about Grand Marais is that many or most of the motorists are tourists themselves, and therefore less likely to be in a hurry.

Highway 61 in Grand Marais is rare for Minnesotan roads in that it was sliced through the originally platted grid at an angle some decades after the town was founded.  Except for the interstates, I can’t think of another Minnesotan town that experienced this sort of transportation-based renewal.  Here is a poorly-scanned bird’s eye view drawn in 1906:

A perfect grid

This photo, which lakesnwoods.com dates to the 1910s, shows no oblique intersection where North Shore Drive would slash through a few years later:

Where is the Drive?

The above photo also shows how sparsely built Grand Marais still was at that time.  When the diagonal Highway 61 was sliced through a few years later, it’s possible no building even stood in its path.  By 1934 there’s a bright white gash through the town, which today is lined with businesses such as Hughie’s Tacos, which occupies a building oriented to the street, and Dairy Queen, which is floating free in a featureless parking plane, so you get the sense the building is oriented to the main grid of the town only coincidentally.

Despite being lined with businesses, it would be a mistake to think of Highway 61 as Grand Marais’ Main Drag.  That function is filled by the traitorously-named southernmost parallel in the grid, Wisconsin St, and its perpendicular, Broadway (even the dwellers of this remote northern outpost were sophisticated enough to realize that the street type of the latter is embedded in its name).

Good fishing here

Wisconsin St is quite the contrast to Highway 61.  Grand Marais certainly fits Nathan Lewis’ bill of hypertrophism, but Wisconsin is surprisingly narrow for its late 19th century vintage.  It’s also been done up into a pleasantly calm street, with bike lanes, generous bump-outs and some weird fake stone-looking concrete.  While the earliest map of the area showed a shore-running road (that being the only road), maps from the time of platting show the road along the North Shore bypassing the town on the north side about where County Road 7 runs today.  However, as old timers will tell you, the real highway to this fishing village is the lake itself, whence trawlers of yore would return laden with whitefish, or come winter sleds towed by teams of dogs would arrive bursting with precious mail from outside.  So you can see why Wisconsin St, which connects the town’s two bays, would be important.

Guess they took this the one day no one was out walking

Today Wisconsin St is instead busy with tourists bursting with pizza or laden with souvenir tees.  The view, the crowd, and the street design combine to create an ideal strolling track, which pedestrians enjoy and vehicles respect.  Since most motorists on Wisconsin are looking for parking, the average speed is very low, and considering I can’t remember ever seeing anyone cycling on Wisconsin, the bike lanes could probably be traded for wider sidewalks.  Still, it’s nice seeing an outstate commitment to bicycling, and I think this might technically be part of the Gitchi-Gami Trail.

Wisconsin St, Broadway (which is almost as good as Wisconsin but gets demerits for slant parking), and Highway 61 combine to define a rich downtown district, with two groceries, a hardware store, a muni liquor, a Radio Shack, a Ben Franklin, two parks, a rose garden, a library, city hall, and the World’s Best Donuts.  Not bad for a town of 1,300 people, in a county of 5,000.  Presumably the tourist dollar accounts for the outsized economy, as well as the low-key, bizarrely respectful drivers.  On the other hand, maybe the thing that has such a calming effect on the tourists does the same for locals.  After all, it’s not so hard to wait for an old lady to cross the street if you get to watch the stunning Lake Superior while you wait.  Slow, safe speeds feel natural when you spend your spare time skiing the slopes of Pincushion Mountain.

Or maybe the good people of Grand Marais are just unusually respectful of the art of driving.  They do, after all, have a plaque in their town memorializing Charles Babcock, the Father of Minnesota Highways:

That's Babcock's plaque under the plywood portaging voyageur

Thanks to Sarah and other descendents of Hungry Jack Scott to whose generosity I owe the delightful strips of my life that have been spent in the beautiful town of Grand Marais.

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3 comments on “Traveling in Moderation: Grand Marais

  1. Tom H. says:

    Might I suggest Sioux Falls, SD as a future trip? Despite being almost exactly the same distance from Mpls as Fargo, only a few miles further across the border, and nearly the same size, it seems to be roundly ignored by most Twin Citians.

    /hometown rant

    I’d like to see an outsiders view to balance out my own (biased) view of my hometown.

    By the way, I really like this series. It’s nice to get a little more intimate understanding of a lot of these towns I only know about in passing.

    • Alex says:

      Thanks Tom H., I’m glad you like the series. I’ve been to Sioux Falls only briefly, and would like to return – the falls looked quite nice but my girlfriend was too impatient to stop. I have a fondness both for quartzite and waterfalls and was happy to see them in the same place.

  2. […] is probably my favorite town in Minnesota, even beating out my ancestral homeland, New Ulm. I wrote a fairly extensive piece about this gem of the North Shore on my personal blog (full disclosure: my personal blog is written […]

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