The Meridian Road
It's a lazy time here in the Red River Valley. So, let's take a few minutes to dream of days gone by ... and remember Grand Forks as it used to be ... when Ford Model T's put-putted around the city ... and a family might, on rare occasions, set out for Fargo on the gravel track that ran straight and true to the south of the city ... a track that, despite its primitive appearance to modern eyes, at the time was then one of the best and most famous highways in America: the Meridian Road, pictured above (from a still-existant stretch in Nebraska) and explained below.
The Meridian Road! It was North Dakota's own Route 66, and it's worth remembering today.
I always knew that U.S. Highway 81 was the road to Fargo that people used before the coming of Interstate 29. What I didn't know, but found out while researching a recent editorial on the interstate highway system, is that Highway 81 itself has a long and fascinating history.
In fact, it dates back to the early 1900s, when proponents of the "Good Roads" movement came up with the idea of a north-south route from Canada to Mexico. That was the start of the Meridian Road, later renamed the Meridian Highway, as the link to the Nebraska State Historical Society marker relates. The road was designed to follow the 6th Principle Meridian, principle meridians being the key longitiude lines that surveyors used to plot range lines.
And in Grand Forks, the road (scroll down to the U.S. 81 information) "followed the 'Mill Road', passing by the State Mill and Elevator (ahhh, prairie socialism at its zenith!) and continued on into Grand Forks. I'm pretty sure (don't quote me on this) that it followed Belmont Road out of town until South Washington Street was upgraded to four lanes," the info at the link relates. (By the way, scroll down on this fun page to see the Meridian Highway's identification sign, which is pictured to the right, in a lineup with dozens of other signs, including a bunch from old Route 66. Are there any of those original MH markers to be found on walls or in attics or museums around Grand Forks?)
The Belmont Road idea mentioned above seems right, because if you follow the current Mill Road from Home of Economy south into Grand Forks, the road becomes what's now 5th Street, which then connects easily with Belmont Road. I bet the old WPA Guide to North Dakota has a lot more information about this.
Two more nice links: This one from Thayer County, Neb., talks about how important the Meridian Highway was to the community of Belvidere; and how the town both rejoiced and mourned the road's passing: "In general, Belvidere will welcome the absences of the dust that the heavy traffic has stirred up for years, but will miss the business that the tourist and truck traffic has brought."
And the second link is here, the place where the beautiful picture above came from. Apparently, Nebraska found and protected a still-gravel stretch of the original Meridian Road ... so the pictures there give a great idea of what the road looked like in North Dakota, too, I'm sure.