WINDOM - A four-lane highway more than 50 years in the making was celebrated Friday as people gathered to recognize those who helped make it happen.

With the opening of the last Minnesota 60 construction project in late November - an eight-mile stretch between Windom and Mountain Lake - it marked the completion of a four-lane divided highway that extends from Sioux City, Iowa, to Mankato.

It took so long to see the project to fruition that just one of the original members of the Highway 60 Action Corporation was able to attend Friday’s ceremony. John Baerg, a retired Butterfield farmer now in his 80s, said it makes him feel real good to see Minnesota 60 finally completed.

Baerg was among numerous individuals recognized for the foresight and tenacity to push for the highway’s expansion from two to four lanes. The expansion includes several safety enhancements and improves upon the corridor of commerce in southwest Minnesota.

District 22B Rep. Rod Hamilton was celebrated almost as much as the highway itself. He was instrumental in securing funding in the state legislature for its completion.

Going against his party in 2008 led to Hamilton’s mugshot being printed on a “Wanted” poster circulated at the state capital that year as a legislator Republicans wanted removed from office.

“What really helped me out tremendously was the support we had back home. It didn’t waiver,” said an emotional Hamilton, who calls Mountain Lake home.

He said it was the stories from southwest Minnesotans who had close calls or lost loved ones on Minnesota 60 that kept him pushing for a safer, four-lane divided highway.

“One of the coolest things about this is so many people came together to make this happen,” he said. “The city of Worthington, when that portion was completed, stood shoulder to shoulder and said we’re going to be with this until the end. Everyone worked hard.

“That’s what’s fun about representing this area. People do get engaged for the common good.”

Hamilton made one last request for the Highway 60 Action Corp. to consider - a piece of ground, perhaps a small rest area or memorial - where people could go to remember those who lost their life on the highway and honor those who worked to make the expansion happen.

Greg Ous, Minnesota Department of Transportation District 7 engineer, said more than 650 deaths occurred on Minnesota highways 15 years ago.

“Through a lot of work … today there has still been 335 lives lost on Minnesota highways,” he shared. “When you think about the overall impact, 3,000 lives have been saved by the improvement of Highway 60.”

Making Minnesota 60 safer with the four-lane expansion was Mathiowetz Construction, who built nine sections of the new highway. R&G Construction built three segments, and Blattner Construction completed one segment.

Brian Mathiowetz, president of Mathiowetz Construction, said his crews worked 12- to 15-hour days, almost always six days a week and sometimes seven, to build the highway.

“Building our highways is an incredible honor for contractors,” Mathiowetz said, describing the joy of removing the barricades and watching the first cars drive on the new pavement.

He said the last segment to be constructed, from Windom to Mountain Lake, was part of the Chase program, in which OSHA is invited to the job site to monitor safety. It’s the first time OSHA has monitored a road construction project, he noted, adding that during the two-year period, there were no recordable injuries.

Other interesting facts Mathiowetz noted were: the dozens of lakes created along the route due to the excavation of soils for construction; a section of the road was built on top of styrofoam blocks; and some of the excavation work, particularly around Worthington, included digging from 20 up to 50 feet deep.

“We moved the state line, we’ve been told,” Mathiowetz quipped. “The truth is we only moved the Minnesota sign.”

In more than 30 years of construction projects on Minnesota 60, he said his crews have witnessed many industry changes, from the wearing of safety vests and hard hats to the addition of GPS technology, from burying concrete to recycling everything, and from building intersections to building roundabouts.

“One thing has not changed,” Mathiowetz said. “We cannot have generations come and go while we wait for funding. That is the constant - we are short of funding.”

Retired MnDOT engineer Jim Swanson spent 31 years working on Minnesota 60. He spoke about the challenges in the state legislature for getting funding. When the project was funded in 2008, he said it was the only project in the state that had all of the environmental assessments and history completed.

“It was the only one with all of the documents and was ready for design and construction,” he said. The project even included a freight study, which showed the importance of roads to southwest Minnesota’s agricultural economy, with 10 million hogs raised per year and livestock and feed transported on Minnesota 60, as well as grain delivery to elevators, ethanol plants and a biodiesel refinery along the highway.

“It’s a great challenge to do these kinds of projects,” Swanson said. “I don’t want this (Highway) 60 group to stop pushing. Keep talking to your legislators to make sure they know what’s needed.”

He listed Highways 212, 23 and 14 as projects that need funding for four-lane expansions.

“We need people pushing all the time for these kinds of things,” Swanson said.

Nobles County Public Works Director Stephen Schnieder, who served the past 15 years as president of the Highway 60 Action Corp., said the completion of Minnesota 60 is a dream fulfilled.

“We’ve reached that day when we no longer have to ask people to ‘Pray for me, I drive Highway 60,” Schnieder said. “I want to thank those who are no longer with us to celebrate, and thank those that came later to embrace the dream and see it to the end.”