The final leg of the Cross-Range Expressway

Just over 100 years ago the Babcock Trunk Highway opened to motorists. In doing so, a network of bumpy local roads became a paved highway that united the towns of the Iron Range. 

It wasn’t like our highways today. The Babcock went through, rather than around, most towns. The locals rather insisted on that. But this new road made it not only possible, but relatively easy to get from Grand Rapids to Ely any time you wanted. That is, if one had a car that ran well and more than two spare tires.

It’s remarkable to read the old newspapers of that era. All the things we take for granted as drivers in 2022 were brand new, even extraordinary at that time.

On Aug. 31, 1915, the Mesaba Ore published the road log of a Hibbing businessman which detailed a “new” way to get to the Twin Cities. The description required at least three dozen left or right turns at unmarked intersections, many of them coming within less than a mile of one another. 

In 1922, drivers near Sturgeon Lake on the St. Louis/Itasca county line saw something crawling out of the woods later described as a “prehistoric monster of some unknown sort.” Even “experienced woodsmen” couldn’t identify it.

The Hibbing Daily News took a crack at describing the creature on May 24, 1922: “The ‘thing’ had a large shell, measuring sixteen inches in length and about as many inches wide, and in that respect resembled a huge turtle. A prehensile neck which was capable of extension for a distance of about a foot ended in a shell-like head, similar to that on an ordinary turtle except for size. Horny tail is feature … protected by a horny covering, surmounted by knobs or spikes of horny substance, for all the world like those seen on the backs of prehistoric monsters in magazine and newspaper illustrations.”

Snapping turtles are pretty scary, especially the first time you see one. Until folks started joy-riding into the woods, most people hadn’t.

In 1923, highway workers painted the first center lines on the Miller Trunk Highway, which partially follows the current path of Highway 53. After a few years of terrible head-on crashes, engineers remained hopeful that the new lines would make a difference. Some local editorials advocated for a “hump” in the center of the road to help guide motorists back to their side. The center line caught on, but the center hump never did.

It took years for the state to organize, plan, and then fund a statewide network of highways. This was expensive, difficult work that permanently changed the landscape of rural Minnesota.

The Babcock road is now called State Highway 169. It continues to connect the towns of the Mesabi and Vermilion ranges even after those places, and the cars that people drive, changed dramatically.

The first time I ever became aware of politics was in relation to Highway 169. My grandpa, Marvin Johnson, used to show me the letters he exchanged with public officials about this road. 

Grandpa was on the Keewatin City Council back in the 1960s when the state rerouted and expanded the road into four lanes. This bypassed Keewatin, Nashwauk and other towns along the western Mesabi. Back then, around 1992, it was still common to hear Keewatin residents lament how the “new” highway killed all the businesses in town. Grandpa was on the council when the state approved the plans. Many wanted the highway, but it was controversial at the time. In fact, it led to the end of my grandpa’s brief career in local politics.

My grandpa always complained how they promised four lanes to Grand Rapids in just a few years, but decades later the same winding, bumpy two-lane stretch extended west of Pengilly. His political sacrifice seemed all for naught.

Even with titans of transportation policy like John Blatnik and Jim Oberstar in office, the job never quite got done. Grand Rapids to Coleraine was four-laned over 20 years ago; Bovey to Marble came in the late ’00s. But Pengilly to Marble remain with just two lanes. 

Of course, there’s more to the story. As I got older and started investigating the matter, I learned that mineral rights along the road remain a highly sensitive subject. Mining companies and fee-holders weren’t interested in negotiating easements for a wider road.

But people keep trying. As more decades pass by, local officials and state politicians periodically take another run at the four-lane idea.

And here we go again.

Two weeks ago, the Itasca County Board signed a $36,500 contract with a lobbying firm to push for the project’s completion during this year’s legislative session. This time, they believe conditions will allow the last nine-mile stretch of the four-lane highway to be finished.

And, if for no other reason than symmetry, I hope they succeed.

My grandfather is gone now. He never saw the four lanes he was promised almost 60 years ago. Perhaps I will, though I’m not holding my breath.

But as we contemplate another fast stretch of road around the edges of our towns, we should also contemplate all the change that such speed brings. In chasing four lanes for the last half century we’ve watched our communities falter.

As we think about progress and what that means in the 21st Century, let us imagine great and glorious accomplishments within our towns, rather than speeding by them.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Feb. 27, 2022 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.



  1. I missed much of the highway construction that occurred in the immediate areas of which you you speak. I was still going back and forth from Mpls to Hibbing for family visits so I witnessed some of it but at a distance. We did our honeymoon in Grand Rapids. We needed to drive the route from old St Leo’s in Hibbing to get there. It was that Keewatin by-pass that drove me to not support the overpass at Stillwater with the new St Croix bridge. Keewatin had taken a hit with the new go around. I remember being told of the first trip my dad took to Duluth. Truly an adventure. My first trip to Minneapolis when I was almost 18 was down 53. By the time I graduated for UMD 35 was almost complete. I like the way you neatly point out the explanation for the single lane between Pengilly and Marble-mining rights as was the very expensive bridge on 53. In the face of everything scouring the Earth to it’s very bones remains paramount.

  2. Far more hit the west range towns than the new highway. The end of natural ore mining, Butler Tac closing and National Tac faltering for many years, with no real economic replacement, come to mind.

    Super One took over the local grocery business and the malls and later Wal Mart the local dry goods business, though that can partly be blamed on the new road. Coleraine has become a bedroom community for Grand Rapids. Hibbing is so poor off that they don’t need a bedroom community like Keewatin. Nashwauk, Calumet, Marble, and Bovey are in limbo.

    The best thing Grand Rapids ever did was somehow avoiding building a real shopping mall, as was proposed. Two malls in Hibbing decimated downtown and now are nearly empty themselves.

  3. The central and west central part of the state has experienced the same issue with hiway 10. Its been being move around towns for 60 years. Some cities have resisted (Wadena and Detroit Lakes for example). Many of the smaller towns haven’t (New York Mills lost it’s only stoplight when ‘number 10’ was moved around the town).

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