Roads to the Past: One man’s mission to document Minnesota’s historical highways

A closed section of old highway 61 alongside a current active highway / / Photo by Dan Murphy

Andrew Munsch steers a blue late-model Honda Civic to the shoulder and stops beside a snowbank as tall as his car. He zips up his black jacket and slings a Canon EOS digital camera over his arm. After checking the laces on his boots and straightening a pair of black sunglasses, he kills the engine and steps out onto a quiet dirt road in southeastern Minnesota. 

“This road used to be Highway 61,” Munsch says, referring to the major U.S. highway that starts in Wyoming, Minnesota, and runs 1,400 miles south mostly alongside the Mississippi River to New Orleans. “And before that, in the 1850s, [this section] started as a military road connecting Mendota to Wabasha.” On this sunny Saturday morning in late March, however, the unpaved stretch of road as old as the state of Minnesota and cutting through the woods just west of Red Wing is mostly rutted mud and melting ice.

Thirty-eight years old and a geographic information systems analyst at the University of Minnesota, Munsch has been documenting Minnesota highway histories on his personal website, Deadpioneer’s Historic Minnesota Highways, since 2005. “Back then, in the early days of the internet, there was a culture built around the idea that information should be free, that knowledge shouldn’t cost anything,” he says. “Anyone with a weird interest or expertise was starting a blog or webpage to share what they were passionate about, and I was drawn to that.”

Fort Beauharnois marker along Lake Pepin, one of the early outposts along the Mississippi / / Photo by Dan Murphy

As a recent college graduate who didn’t feel challenged by his work in the university bookstore, Munsch wanted to contribute to that community. “I wanted to become an expert at something,” he recalls. So, he taught himself how to build a website that would combine his interests in photography, geography, and cartography.

Today, he’s exploring a road rarely used since the 1930s, checking up on the condition of the reinforced concrete bridges installed over the Cannon River nearly 100 years ago. “Technology and the internet have made finding maps and places like this much easier,” he says. “But that also means there are fewer untouched places to explore.” Google Maps can’t send its camera-equipped cars everywhere, though, so to get a better look, Munsch hugs his camera close and begins to scale the snowbank. 

Once over, he navigates an unplowed lane blocked by “Road Closed” signs and concrete barriers tagged with graffiti. Just around a bend in the road, he spots the bridge. Little more than a fisherman’s perch along a scenic route for most of its life, around 2009 the bridge and the roads it connects were closed to traffic for good due to age and wear. Dirt and weeds crowd the decking and right in the middle of the road are the charred remains of a recent campfire. Rusted rebar pokes through fractured concrete. Below, the rising Cannon River rushes past, rolling and roiling as downed trees dam up against the piles. “A flood will wash this out eventually,” Munsch says, “but I’m glad it’s still here.” An otter surfaces for a moment and then disappears behind ice.

“One day, the road [leading to the bridge] will just dead-end, and dead ends mean you got there too late,” Munsch continues. “I’ve learned to accept that the world changes and you can’t always capture the history before it’s gone.” Finding a road left mostly the way it was, touched only by time and the elements, though: “That’s like going back in time,” Munsch muses. “You’re plopped right into the past, and then you’re able to investigate and make your own conclusions about a place, instead of depending on someone else’s sanitized version of history.”

Old Highway 61 bridge closed over the Cannon River / / Photo by Dan Murphy

Standing on an abandoned bridge just downstream from the rush of highway traffic, surrounded by silent elm, ash, and maple trees, it’s tempting to imagine this slice of Old 61 in its heyday: thick with cars and travelers, perhaps bordered here and there by a full-service gas station, roadside diner, drive-in motel, or even a speakeasy. But Munsch doesn’t wander down these figurative roads, preferring instead to focus on the literal: making sense of old maps, discovering where they lead, capturing images, and accurately recording the details of a place.

“I like systems,” he says. “I like logic and things that are concrete. If I can do an accurate job documenting how [the road] started and how it’s changed, if I can bring order to the disorder, then maybe I can lay a foundation for someone else to come along and tell those stories.”

In 2008, Minnesota Public Radio’s Cathy Wurzer did just that when she researched Highway 61 for her book and documentary project, “Tales of the Road: Highway 61.” The book, which highlights stories about the famous locations along the highway’s 440-mile journey through Minnesota, cites Munsch’s website as a resource. “I remember getting to work and seeing her email in my inbox,” he says, smiling. “I thought, ‘Hey! I was just listening to her on the radio!’”

In “Tales of the Road,” Wurzer visits historic river towns like Red Wing, Florence Township, and Lake City, stopping to learn about early industry and explore old architecture along the highway. Chronicling buildings and businesses dating back to the 1870s, including Red Wing Pottery, The Sheldon Theater, Old Frontenac, and Lake City Clamming, Wurzer weaves local origin stories with ongoing preservation efforts, pairing Munsch’s work with maps alongside tales of the people who’ve watched the highway come and go.

Munsch traces his desire to see things for himself back to childhood car trips with his dad. He’d sit in the passenger seat and follow their progress with his finger on the map, waiting to see where the road would lead. Later, at 14 or 15, he and a friend decided to ride their bikes from Eagan to Lake City, where his friend’s family had a cabin on Lake Pepin. “I photocopied the maps at the library and used a highlighter to plan our route,” he says, noting that the use of maps to plan a route and navigate was one of the most enjoyable aspects of the trip for him. Though the most direct route would’ve required about 65 miles of riding, Munsch recalls tallying 90 miles on the trip, mostly along only highway alignments. On a later bike trip around Lake Pepin with the same friend, Munsch noticed old stretches of concrete leading away from Highway 61. While they didn’t divert to explore them then (“We were starving and wanted to get to Red Wing to eat”), Munsch returned to the area 10 years later to satisfy his curiosity. “That’s really when I fell in love with Highway 61 and the historic atmosphere of the river towns.”

Andrew Munsch reviewing photos on a trip along Old Highway 61 / / Photo by Dan Murphy

Although Munsch still finds inspiration while traveling, technology has made it easier than ever to dig up and chase down old, unused pavement without leaving home. “MnDOT’s records are all available and archived online for free, and old construction logs and plans include diagrams that show proposed repairs and realignments,” Munsch explains. Using these tools, he can determine what route a road once followed before a given change, and then go see what might remain of the past.

Along the way, he’s learned that our first highways were built without a great deal of foresight. “These roads were planned and built while people were learning the differences between what cars and communities needed,” he says, adding that the needs of the cars were catered to at the expense of the needs of the communities. 

Finished quickly and often under great expense, early roads became obsolete within years as highway planners learned of and adopted new standards. Early realignments and changes along Highway 61 and elsewhere focused on eliminating travel delays and making highways safer, smoother, and more predictable. Steep grades were flattened, visibility was improved around intersections, and unnecessary contact points with railroads were eliminated. Today, changes are typically made to accommodate more cars and make interchanges and intersections more efficient. Cars, too, are safer, bigger, and better built now, Munsch says, noting seatbelts, airbags, and other life-saving features. “The human element is still frightening and roads are never as good as they need to be, but driving used to be so much more dangerous than it is now.”

In addition to roads’ histories, Munsch is also interested in the future of Minnesota highways. “The unforeseen consequences that result from any project can be terrible,” he says, “and we’re only beginning to understand the results of our dependence on cars and fossil fuels, and how climate change might affect our infrastructure.” 

There’s plenty more to explore, too. “My friends have asked me before, ‘What happens when you run out of road?’” Munsch laughs at the idea, comparing it to being asked what happens when you run out of history. “I tell them you can’t.”

About Brendan Kennealy

Brendan Kennealy is a writing and PR professional who lives and works in St. Paul. Find him on Twitter here: @extrapalemale.