ST. PAUL (WCCO) – If you’ve driven down University Avenue recently, you know what a mess it is. Sections of it are currently torn up as crews dig up the pavement to make way for the expansion of the light rail line into St. Paul.
The detours and distractions that drivers are dealing with on University Avenue are a sign of progress. But in many ways, they take us right back to where this street got its start more than 120 years ago, when the avenue was first earning its reputation as a transportation hub.
The street’s name itself tells a story. In the 1870s, this road connected the University of Minnesota to Hamline University.
A decade later, the dirt road was paved and the mode of transportation shifted with the times, from horse-drawn carriages to horse-drawn trolleys to a steam-powered rail line and then, eventually, electric street cars.
Brian McMahon, an urban historian and architect, has done extensive research on University Avenue and the businesses and homes surrounding it.
“Picture this before there were street lights, any kind of traffic control signals,” he said. “This was chaos — bicycles, pedestrians, trucks.”
University Avenue was once the busiest street in Minneapolis and St. Paul, connecting thriving businesses.
At one point, automaker Henry Ford made Model Ts on each end of the Avenue, at plants in St. Paul and Minneapolis.
And during World War I, at the corner of University and Prior, Barrett and Zimmerman sold a million dollars worth of horses every month.
“All of this is going on simultaneously. We are making airplanes, we are making cars, we are making tractors, all along University Avenue, and we are still selling horses at record-breaking levels,” McMahon said.
Some of the buildings that stood along University in that era are still standing and in use today, like the Court International office building. When it first opened in 1915, Willys-Overland cars were manufactured here, and eventually workers began making airplanes and Harvester tractors.
But life on University Avenue wasn’t all business.
“We think of cruising as being a modern phenomenon, we think of ’50s cars,” said McMahon. “Actually University Avenue was also a place where folks would be trotting out their fancy horses to be seen. That was very much part of the history and character of University Avenue.”
McMahon is the executive director of University United, a non-profit that’s working to make sure the development along University Avenue supports the needs of the people who live nearby. The group has a new website and is working on a book to help chronicle the stories of University Avenue over the years.
Though the history of University is long and filled with progress, some things never change. In the early 1900s, it took about 30 minutes to get from downtown Minneapolis to downtown St. Paul, which is still often the case today.