New Deal Roadside Landscape Features

Arthur R. Nichols used this photo entitled "Conservation of Natural Timber in Backsloping" to illustrate vegetation-management principles.

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Historical Overview + Documentation
Roadside Development Division

In anticipation of the 1933 federal requirement, the Minnesota Department of Highways established a Roadside Development Division in 1932. Harold E. Olson, an engineer who had been with the MHD for ten years, was appointed to head the new division. Olson assembled a skilled staff that worked to integrate roadside development into highway design and helped make Minnesota a national leader in the field.


Roadside Facilities


The Roadside Development Division tried to bring a "balance of safety, good construction, economical maintenance, and natural beauty" to Minnesota highways and to build roads that were in harmony with surrounding views, topography, and vegetation. One of MHD’s design goals was to make highways safer. They accomplished this by cutting back vegetation to increase visibility, installing ground covers to reduce erosion, flattening slopes to allow traffic to safely leave the roadway in case of emergency, planting "live snow fences" to reduce blowing snow, and providing rest areas for tired travelers.

A second goal was to enhance the traveling public’s experience by providing attractive roadways and roadside facilities. The Roadside Development Division tried to route highways through scenic areas and promoted purchasing rights-of-way that were 200'-400' wide, rather than the traditional 66'-100'. Scenic overlooks were built at key vantage points. Natural springs and wells were developed to provide drinking water, welcome signs were constructed at state entrances, and markers were erected to interpret historical events.

A 1937 Highway Research Board article by Minnesota landscape architect, A. R. Nichols outlines principles for roadside development:

1) Make use of "existing scenic advantages" when determining a new highway route that is intended largely for pleasure traffic.

2) Harmonize the road with natural topography.

3) Conserve existing vegetation and trees where possible.

4) Plant new material primarily to control erosion and to provide a "natural transition between construction and nature."

5) Create "outlooks, concourses, parking spaces, picnic areas, historical marker sites, and similar strategic areas where the public can stop for rest and enjoyment."

6) Promote the creation of liberal right-of-way.

7) Encourage separating commercial from pleasure traffic, "thus permitting parkway emphasis and greater latitude in the design of the pleasure route."

8) Control, regulate, and restrict billboards and commercial structures along the highway.

Roadside facilities were sometimes built in conjunction with trunk highway construction projects. On popular tourist routes, an entire series of waysides, overlooks, and other features were sometimes built, such as those found on the North Shore of Lake Superior or along the St. Croix and Mississippi Rivers.

Harold E. Olson was the head of the Roadside Development Division for over thirty years from its inception in 1932 until 1963.

Motorists who casually and habitually have remarked that "something ought to be done" about the unsightliness of the nation's highways can give three rousing cheers in appreciation of the energetic campaign now under way to make our roadsides a source of pleasure rather than a blot on the landscape...In Minnesota and in other states in the country, agencies have been designated whose sole task it is to restore the state's roadsides to their natural beauty...

The Division of Roadside (Development) in three short years has seen its work expand until it is as varied as the prisms of a kaleidoscope. A parking concourse overlooking the St. Croix river, a historic marker at the site of an Indian battle, the transformation of a city dump into a municipal playground, a culvert or pedestrian bridge built on pleasing lines, an outdoor fireplace or a rustic table and bench--all may be, and have been constructed, over and over again, with the aid of the Minnesota (Roadside Development Division).

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