The old roads still taken

Miller Trunk Highway

Travelers from Duluth to the Iron Range learn the rhythm of concrete on Highway 53. Staccato thumps mark time and distance between homes and cabins, town and country, and the consequential journey of small town patients to Duluth’s big hospitals. I’ve known this road all my life, and yet it is only one version of the road.

If you look closely, you see vestiges of the old road. Dilapidated tourist shops, some crumbled down to foundations, rest on frontage roads that are actually the bones of the original Miller Trunk Highway. At times, the old road veers into worlds long bypassed by progress before rejoining the new road farther along.

In 1922, Minnesota unveiled its trunk highway system. On Oct. 6, a caravan of 500 cars drove up the new Miller Trunk Highway from Duluth to Eveleth. Their journey culminated with a perfunctory speech by Gov. Jake Preus about a future we now call the past. At some point, the coffee drinkers realized for the very first time they should have gone at the last rest stop. A modern world of long distance driving was just beginning.

“Trunk,” in this case, refers to roads designed to efficiently move traffic between large centers, a novelty at the time. During the first two decades of the 20th Century, recreational automobiles existed as playthings of the wily, wealthy and powerful, mostly to tootle around the countryside or haul important people or illegal cargo.

A decade earlier, in 1913, C.S. Mitchell, editor of the Duluth News Tribune, agreed to drive to the St. Louis County Fair in Hibbing instead of taking the train. He traversed the Miller Trunk when it was a 90-mile dirt road that mostly followed the modern grade of Highway 53. With an average speed of 18 miles per hour, Mitchell required a full day to drive to Hibbing and another to drive back to to Duluth.

“We are satisfied that with the Miller Trunk road in its present condition it is worth one dollar and sixty-eight cents to go by train,” wrote Mitchell.

He described the enormous work done on the road each year, constant grading and graveling.

“It runs for miles and miles through swamp,” wrote Mitchell. “One stretch of about seven miles crosses what is but a vast bog. To get a stable bottom there is much like filling a bottomless pit. But this has been done, and when the system of ditches now planned is complete, this part of the road will be usable all seasons.”

If you’ve driven 53, you know this stretch. Chances are, you cross this section without a thought given to the mountain of rock, gravel and sand poured into the ancient bog before your grandparents were born.

After World War I, cars became a vital part of America’s economic and transportation infrastructure. Working class people could now afford autos, a fact that quickly and quietly revolutionized transportation and land usage.

For all the change, most of these trunk highways — especially the Miller Trunk — followed the wagon trails and footpaths laid out millennia ago. People started traveling that way before recorded history for the same reason they do today. These are the most convenient and direct routes, the ones that seem etched in the cultural memory of our species. Call it Highway 53. Call it the Miller Trunk. Say its name in Ojibwe, or Dakota before that. The road changes far less than the people.

Today, we see slight changes. This year, the Minnesota Department of Transportation builds a roundabout on Highway 53 near the turnoff for the new Rock Ridge school complex between Eveleth and Virginia. A few years ago, travelers began veering off the old road to cross the state’s tallest bridge on the way to Virginia.

You can barely see where, just a few years ago, old Highway 53 crossed what is now United Taconite’s growing mine pit. I remember riding my bike up that enormous hill as a kid, knowing that if I just kept my legs churning I would crest the hill and coast down into Virginia. I counted the seams in the concrete, knowing they would add up to my deliverance.

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 Saturday, Aug. 12, 2023 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.


  1. I still remember so clearly the first time we came over that hill on 53 into Virginia. It was late at night, 1981, and we were moving from Pennsylvania to Mt. Iron (delivered by some Mt. Iron Finns, appropriately). Minntac lit up the sky. Wild to think that that was almost half of the highway’s history ago.

    100 years is a long time. And it’s a short time. Your writing captures these two true things so well.

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