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Historic Trade Corridors: Vital Links Follow Nature's Bounty

Picture this: The year is 192 and Christopher Columbus is laying claim to the United States; you, on the other hand, are observing a vast expanse of land from a geo-synchronous satellite positioned about 60 miles above the center of the North American continent.

What you see from your stratospheric perch in an accelerated motion picture is the migration of great herds of bison, deer, antelope, waterfowl and some creatures armed with spears and bows and arrows following them on foot.

As time progresses, the men and women comprising these Native Americans begin riding horses, and other light-skinned men and women join them in the pursuit of the wildlife, often with the same objective (food), but also with a goal in mind of taking the animal hides for commercial purposes. These European adventurers and mixed blood kin, the Metis, were unique from the early inhabitants because they introduced the first wheeled transportation to the landscape below.

With numerous routes slowly wending their way between a growing town to the southeast (St. Paul) and a small settlement (Selkirk) near the southern shore of a large long body of water (Lake Winnipeg), the scene changes early in the 19th century, with these wheeled cards drawn by large, lumbering horned beasts.

Thus was the beginning of the Red River Trails, the routes developed by oxcarts and their drivers, heavily influenced by marshy bottomland, sandy ridgelines, and the barriers of Mother Nature. These ill-defined trails later became the paths of wagons and stagecoaches and railroads and automobiles.

From your vantage point high above the planet you have witnessed the establishment of a trade corridor ... the kind of corridor that let to the settlements along the North Dakota and Minnesota border now called Pembina, Grand Forks/East Grand Forks, Hillsboro, Fargo/Moorhead, Wahpeton/Breckenridge, Alexandria, and St. Cloud. The Minnesota Valley Trail ran alongside Big Stone Lake on the border between Minnesota and South Dakota leading to Montevideo, New Ulm and Mankato in Minnesota.

In the future, these trails of dubious foundation (often boggy and infested with mosquitoes) would become the roadways upon which trucks and automobiles would travel, but not before the impact of the railroads.

Steam and Rails Ahead

June 6, 1872 was a momentous day in Fargo, ND, for on this day the first train crossed a sturdy wooden bridge from Moorhead to arrive on Dakota Territory soil. The Northern Pacific Railroad had its sights set on expansion to the west, financed through bonds secured mainly by the grant of alternating sections of land along the proposed rail bed.

At the time, the NP was the largest business enterprise started in the United States, with an estimated cost of $85 million for laying 2,000 miles of railroad tracks through the wilderness to the west.

"The original trade corridors were really founded by the Indian nations," says Jon Mielke in Bismarck, an associate research fellow with the Upper Great Plains transportation Institute. "The French Canadians followed, out of Winnipeg. Then came the Northern Pacific Railroad, the Great Northern Railroad and the Canadian Pacific Railroad. Between 1872 and 1914 there was lots of rail construction, peaking at 5,400 miles of rail in North Dakota. With rail being abandoned in the 20s, 80s, and 90s, we now have only 3,700 miles of track remaining in the state."

For those who wonder why they have to wait so long for train traffic in Fargo-Moorhead, Mielke offers a simple explanation: "The line across North Dakota is now part of the main east-west route for the Burlington Northern Santa Fe, connecting Chicago with the West Coast.

Railroads across the Dakotas included lines from the Milwaukee Railroad and the Soo Line. While the majority of the railroads ran east and west, at least one line, the Midland Continental Railroad was begun to connect Winnipeg to the Gulf of Mexico; instead it went from Edgeley to Wimbledon in North Dakota ("It was grossly undercapitalized," observes Mielke.

Another ill-fated rail line ran from Fairview, MT, to Watford City, ND. It was intended to serve central North Dakota but never reached its destination. Not only was a lift bridge constructed across the Yellowstone River to allow paddle wheel steamships to pass underneath (tested only once, it was never used for its intended purpose), North Dakota's only rail tunnel was built nearby as well.

"The development of the highway system and motor carrier system led to the abandonment of railways," Mielke explains, "but railroads were the reason many prairie towns were developed, spaced along the tracks at a distance that allowed horse drawn wagons to haul grain from their farms to market and back again in one day. That strategy worked in Eastern North Dakota (and South Dakota)."

But many of those towns eventually emptied as motorized transportation enabled the traveling public to go further with less effort.

Rivers: The Original Corridors

Sixty years before the railroads began their march across the prairies to the west, the river systems and tributaries were the earliest trade corridors, providing a fertile ground for trappers and the main thoroughfare for the Lewis & Clark expedition as it worked its way north and west on the Missouri River.

The heyday for steamboats along the waterways in North Dakota was pretty much limited to the Red River and the Missouri, although some short-lived efforts of steamboats on the Sheyenne River and Devils Lake provided economic value. Freight consisted of railroad building materials, grain, machinery, livestock, and dry goods. Passengers were traders, business people, settlers and land investors.

On the Missouri River in 1889, more than 100 steamboats plied the upper reaches of the river, hauling nearly a million tons of freight and over 26,000 passengers. Forts established along the Missouri drove steamboat traffic carrying military personnel, freight, and mail.

"The Missouri Rifer was a huge corridor," observes Claudia Berg, director of museums and education for the State Historical Society of North Dakota. "Fort Pierre, near present-day Pierre, Fort Clark, north of Bismarck, and Fort Union, along the border of North Dakota and Montana, were all operated by the American Fur Company as outposts for the fur trade, entirely separate from the Red River corridor, which was used by the British Hudson Bay Company."

Berg goes back even further in her explanation of trade in Dakota Territory, citing the sterling reputation of Knife River flint as North Dakota's first trade item.

"Examples of Knife River flint have been excavated on both coasts," she says. "It was a valuable stone because it held an edge. The Indian villages along the Knife River were like an early Mall of America, with Indians from miles around coming there for the flint, corn, and beans. One of the main reasons Lewis and Clark wanted to reach the Mandan villages for the winter was because of the Mandan reputation as traders, with corn and supplies that could get them through the cold season."

Other Factors of Influence

With over 22 years of research behind her, Berg speaks with authority when she pints to other trails that became trade corridors ... like the military trails created by the Sible, Sully and Custer expeditions. Cattle trails also came up from Texas into Montana and the Dakotas as cattle operations sought out grasslands for their livestock.

"The bison herd followed a huge, circular route and it was followed by the Indians," she recalls. "The railroad slit the herd into a northern and southern herd."

Berg asserts that river corridors were primarily situated north and south, and major flyways for waterfowl also ran north and south. Railroads were the primary reason for the creation of east-west corridors.

"Buckminster Fuller argued that the most efficient corridor would have been north and south, from Canada to Mexico," Berge says of the great American philosopher/scientist.

Efficiently moving people and goods north and south became the economic base for stagecoach and wagon traffic, often connecting the towns developed to support the railroad system.

Paula Nelson, professor history at the University of Wisconsin Platteville, has written two books on the development of towns and transportation in South Dakota, including segments that document the impact of the automobile.

"People who went out West as homesteaders felt betrayed by the railroads," says nelson, who holds degrees from Southwest State University in Marshall, MN, the University of South Dakota at Vermillion, SD, and the University of Iowa ... all in American History.

"The provided irregular schedules for passenger traffic and often mixed freight cars and passenger cars in what was called 'hog & human' trains," she says. The original railroad plan was for a support town every 7-10 miles, but that was changed to every 20 miles on the Great Plains. The economics didn't work out for the railroads, as illustrated by citizen complaints.

In 1912, the citizens along the Mobridge-to-Faith rail line filed a complaint with the state about the service provided by the Milwaukee line; then, in 1914 the Milwaukee got approval to cut passenger service to three days a week.

Enter the Automobile

During the time period during and following World War I, the railroad problems in serving rural communities continued. So in 1916 the federal government passed legislation to grant federal funds to states that would match the funding for road construction. In South Dakota the constitution was amended to permit state investment in roads and in 1917 the legislature created the state highway commission with a small tax levy for roads.

"South Dakota's interest in tourism created much of the momentum for road building," says Nelson. "Construction was based on the assessed valuation of property, which is why the west river counties struggled for even basic roads ... because the land out there didn't have the value of eastern cropland."

Despite the disparities in funds available for road construction, following Word War I the federal government made wartime heavy construction equipment available to all the states and the establishment of Yellowstone National Park and Glacier National Park spawned the creation of trail associations connecting eastern cities to the west.

"The Yellowstone Trail Association included U.S. Highway 12 across South Dakota, U.S. Highway 2 across North Dakota, and U.S. Highway 10 across Minnesota ... all built to carry automobile traffic to the Montana parks," states Walter Bailey, historic preservation planner for the North Dakota Historical Society the last 31 years. "Trail associations would visit towns along their routes and tell them they would list the towns in their travel guides if they would grade the sections of road on either side of their towns and also build restaurants and hotels for automobile travelers."

While most of these east-west roads followed railroad routes east and west, Bailey says 'scenic' routes were often depicted as blue or red on early maps and other 'scenic' roads were developed on a north-south axis, including the Red trail from Bismarck to Fort Keogh and trails connecting Bismarck to Medora and Deadwood, SD.

"Following World War I, the road system really became a social priority," Bailey explains. "Many roads followed the section grid systems dictated for land measurement, with section line roads required for public access. In recent years the use of section roads have become a point of debate between hunters and land owners, who have to petition to close section roads on their land."

Cold War Drives Interstate Highway System

In the 1950s the Eisenhower administration launched an aggressive campaign to create a highway system that could carry military traffic in the event of an attack by the Soviet Union. Although we call these highways 'interstate' highways, they were built under the federal government's 'Interstate Defense System' to accommodate the movement of heavy equipment.

"All underpasses on the Interstate system must have a clearance of at least 16-1/2 feet to allow a semi with a military tank on board to pass underneath it," explains Ben Kubischta, a 34-year veteran of the North Dakota Department of Transportation. "The plan also set standards for the width of driving lanes, at least 12 feet wide."

Walter Bailey notes that the Interstate Defense System also requires stretches of straight roadway so general aviation aircraft can land in emergency situations.

Kubischta says the North Dakota DOT was established in 1917 and now employs about 1,000 people across the state to maintain not only the federal highways built as part of the interstate system, but also other state highways. Counties and townships provide much of their own road maintenance in return for their share of the federal highway funds.

In some cases, the trail associations' roads to the federal parks became the route developed as part of the Interstate, as in the case of U.S. Highway 10 across North Dakota.

Maintenance Always an Issue

The Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute based at North Dakota State University has 42 employees dedicated to the study of transportation issues, primarily in North Dakota. The organization has conducted studies on transportation issues and produced numerous reports, even books, on the history and future of transportation.

Gene griffin, a native of Scranton (ND), is director of the Institute and a graduate of NDSU with degrees in mathematics and economics. Griffin takes a philosophical viewpoint on the importance of transportation to the sustained economic vitality of the state.

"Mobility is fundamentally key to socioeconomic success," he emphasizes. "You need social interaction, an economy that supports jobs, healthcare, education, defense, and the legal system. Mobility is the glue and facilitator of success and the United States has done a great job of creating mobility, but now it's being threatened and rural population loss threatens the infrastructure of mobility."

According to Griffin, the Congress hasn't re-authorized the surface transportation programs that expired in September of 2003; instead, Congress keeps passing extensions with no vision for the future.

"You have to understand, there's a pavement degradation curve for any road and you often can't see the problem until it gets expensive to fix," Griffin asserts. "Transportation and logistic systems have been our competitive advantage in the global economy, which is why emerging economies like China and Ukraine come over here to study our system ... these systems have helped drive the globalization of the world's economy."

Kubischta adds that low volume, low load roadways are built to a different standard than higher volume roadways and that 20-30 years is the life expectancy for most roads, but, "an increase in truck traffic and heavier loads have affected these life cycles, and you can only top the surface so many times with asphalt because each application narrows the driving lanes."

In the future, Griffin sees a need for continued economic base to support the highway system. "Even intellectual property and information technology demands that people have access to food and the means of repairing and replacing computers," he says. "Some things bode well for our road system, with new materials and the promise of hydrogen fuel cell technology ... when we get that system refined and can produce cheap hydrogen, that could be a potential boon to the Northern Plains states because of our location on the continent."

Formalizing Corridors

The importance of efficient transportation of people and goods and services can never be overemphasized in the minds of most transportation officials and those who don't simply take it for granted.

The 1999-2001 North Dakota Blue Book states that, "The mobility of goods and people is central to the socioeconomic advancement of a society."

Bearing witness to transportation's importance is the recognition that over 500 bushels of grain are shipped from North Dakota elevators each year (in recent times), with 75 percent going by rail and 25 percent by, mostly, in-state trucks. Over, 100,000 railroad cars with grain leave the state, amounting to about $260 million in sales.

Deregulation or railroads and trucking have resulted in rail line abandonments, the creation of short line railroads (like the Red River Valley & Western, Missouri Valley & Western, and the Northern Plains railroads), and much discussion of intermodal facilities where containers of goods can be carried by rail and transferred to trucks.

According to the Blue Book, there are over 3,000 for-hire and private interstate trucking firms in North Dakota with over 66,000 commercial trucks based in the state, and about 42 percent of the state's communities have trucks as their only freight transportation option. Trucks haul nearly 82,000 tons of manufactured products every year in and across the state, including 100 percent of the retail goods and supplies received by firms in the state.

Road mileage in the state amounts to about 106,000 miles, with 44 percent of the state highways in fair to poor condition.

The international border with Canada between North Dakota and Minnesota creates some natural corridors going north and south, as well as economic activity with border security (a hot issue post 9/11), customs, and brokers. That traffic has increased exponentially in recent years - even with border security concerns - and it fuels economic growth of all kinds.

How big is cross-border traffic? The Pembina (ND) port of entry - that historic community of oxcart fame - notes a 16.74 percent increase in truck traffic form Canada in the 12-month period ending in July, 2004, with 19,416 trucks crossing the border in that month alone. For the entire 12 months, 174,470 trucks came south into North Dakota at the Pembina port of entry. Ports of entry at Warroad, Baudette, Pinecreek, Roseau, International Falls, and Grand portage are also generally trending up in traffic from Canada into Minnesota.

Against this backdrop of increased vehicle traffic from Canada, there are ongoing efforts to create formal trade corridors, including one along Interstate 29 from Canada to the gulf of Mexico and another along U.S. Highway 83, which enters the U.S. at Antler, ND, and heads south through Minot, Bismarck, Pierre, and numerous other towns in South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas before entering Mexico.

This Central North American Trade Corridor Association (CNATCA) has received letters of support from numerous communities along the route as the association seeks to become the 'conduit that brings trade, development, and commerce to the Central North American Trade Corridor' according to its mission statement.

Back to the Future?

One of the most ambitious plans for a trade corridor also follows the U.S. Highway 83 route, and its purported mission is to create sustainable economic development growth for the Indian reservations in the Great Plains. A plan for the corridor was presented at the fifth annual summit conference on Great Plains Tribes Regional Economic Development at the Ramkota Inn and Conference Center in Aberdeen, SD, in April, 2003.

Produced by Hal B.H. Cooper, Jr., a consulting engineer from Kirkland, WA, the 90-page document presents one of the most futuristic and sweeping corridor plans ever envisioned for not only the Plains states, but also Alaska, Canada, and Mexico. Beyond that, Cooper sees tying this corridor into a trade route that actually begins in eastern Europe and winds its way south through South America.

Cooper's vision of this worldwide network would include a four-lane roadway, two electrified train tracks, electric transmission lines, oil and natural gas pipelines, fiber optic lines, a water pipeline, and a carbon dioxide pipeline. The tie-in to Native American economies would come in the form of new coal-fired generating plants, among other activities.

One of the advantages of such a corridor would be the lack of major population centers that might impede acquiring the land for rights of way. Another advantage is the massive amount of coal, oil & gas reserves, and existing power transmission infrastructure. At first glance of Cooper's maps, it would appear the corridor could accomplish a great deal of economic development.

Two hundred years after Lewis & Clark explored the upper reaches of the Missouri River and the Pacific Coast, once again the Indians of the Plains States might become the catalyst for a significant contribution to global trade through one all-inclusive corridor.

Thomas Jefferson could not have foreseen the existing trade corridors and the native traders who existed when he purchased this land, nor could he have predicted the scale of the corridor envisioned by Cooper. But, perhaps again in a few years, if you are suspended above this region in a satellite you will bear witness to another human undertaking of huge scale ... the construction and operation of a multi-purpose trade corridor that could revitalize a region, a nation and the world.

Prairie Business Magazine
By Rick Killion, Editor
December, 2004

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