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Interstate system celebrates 50 years

WORTHINGTON -- On June 29, 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act.

It was the start of the interstate system in the United States, and today -- 50 years later -- Department of Transportation officials from across the country are preparing to mark the anniversary with speeches and spectacles.

America's interstate system granted motorists easier, safer and quicker access to their destinations while improving towns and cities along the way. Interstate access became -- and still is -- a boon for business interests. Communities connected to the interstate system have seen their prospects grow; communities not boasting of a nearby interstate are lacking a unique and enduring drawing card.

"It may be hard to quantify (the interstate's impact)," said Minnesota Department of Transportation Information Officer Craig Wilkins this week. "The effect is very significant. What we might say is the interstate system kind of revolutionized travel in the country and Minnesota. ... If you live in St. Cloud like I used to in the old days, it seemed like forever to get to Minneapolis."

The southwest Minnesota communities of Adrian, Luverne, Worthington and Jackson continue to reap the benefits of Interstate 90. Ray Crippen, a former editor of the Worthington Daily Globe, recalled Wednesday that Interstate 90 was constructed from South Dakota to Minnesota, going first to Beaver Creek, then to Luverne, and then to Adrian before reaching Worthington.

"We sat a long, long time before it got to Worthington," he said.

Luverne presented itself as a squeaky wheel when Interstate 90 was still in the planning stage, Crippen said, thanks to "a couple of hot editorials" in the Luverne newspaper claiming southwest Minnesota -- and Rock County in particular -- always received the short end of the stick. Before the interstate could be built, properties had to be condemned to get the right-of-way. There were meetings with angry and worried landowners -- mostly farmers -- some who resisted, knowing their farms would be cut in half.

When Adrian got its I-90, leaving Worthington waiting, Adrian's large Nickerson Farms chain restaurant became a particularly popular destination for Worthington residents.

"For a while, (the interstate) was quite a boon for Adrian," Crippen said.

Finally, sometime in 1970, Worthington's stretch of I-90 was completed, including three exits due to the fact that the Rock Island Railroad was still running through the city.

Longtime Worthington mayor Robert J. Demuth remembers when workers constructed I-90 in the Worthington area in the summer of 1969 or 1970.

"I was very interested in the big equipment they had. We went out there, and these wheels were probably about 8 feet. I touched the hub on that vehicle, and it was so hot you could probably fry an egg on it," he said.

The interstate has surely helped Worthington, explained the former mayor.

"As far as the impact I-90 has had, I think the impact has been tremendous because of the amount of traffic that has flowed on that highway. It certainly has helped the service stations, the hotels and the restaurants. ... If we didn't have I-90, I don't think we'd have 11,000 people in Worthington, either. And if it wasn't for the highway, I don't think some of the businesses would want to come here, because they wouldn't have access," Demuth said.

According to census figures, Worthington had a population of 9,916 in 1970. In 1980 the population was 10,243; in 1990 it was 9,977 and in 2000 it was 11,283. No one can say with certainty exactly how Interstate 90 affected those numbers, but Glenn Thuringer, manager of the Worthington Regional Economic Development Corp. (WREDC), says I-90 continues to be an economic advantage.

"I think it's extremely important, especially with the quality of highways we have intersecting. In economic development, so many of the major businesses are first looking for interstate access, and then for interstate visibility," Thuringer said, adding, "The quality of intersecting highways has also helped us become what we are."

Thuringer also plugged educational opportunities as key to community growth. "We have got to show that we're providing quality K-12 education -- followed up by programs offered through the local college -- so (companies) don't have to go elsewhere to get the training they need," he said.

The 1956 legislation signed by President Eisenhower allowed for 41,000 miles of highway, funded on a pay-as-you-go basis. Eventually, the interstate system amassed 46,837 miles, first going through the states of Missouri, Kansas and Pennsylvania. The final section of the Boston-to-Seattle Interstate 90 was completed on Sept. 23, 1978, in Blue Earth. It was celebrated by tinting a small part of the new concrete gold. Sometime this summer, said Wilkins, transportation officials plan to install historic markers on the site.

Crippen still remembers listening to speakers, dispatched to the Worthington area, talking about what the impact of Interstate 90 would be.

"One man said, 'What you're going to see here is a great river opening up, and you're going to be a port on the river,'" Crippen recalled.

Doug Wolter

Doug Wolter is the Daily Globe sports editor. He served as sports reporter, then sports editor, news editor and finally managing editor at the Daily Globe for 22 years before leaving for seven years to work as night news editor at the Mankato Free Press in Mankato. Doug now lives in Worthington with his wife, Sandy. They have three children and seven grandchildren. Doug, retired after a lengthy career in fast-pitch softball, enjoys reading, strumming his acoustic guitar and hanging around his grandchildren. He also writes books on fiction. Two of his stories, "The Genuine One" and "The Old Man in Section 129" have been distributed through a national publisher.

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