Highway 100 was inspired by Germany’s autobahns.

Civil Engineer Carl Graeser (1875-1944) came to the U.S. from Germany to avoid the draft during World War I. He had a German Shepard named Blitz (‘lightning’ in German) and a wooden leg.

While working for the Minnesota Department of Highways, he envisioned a ‘Belt Line’ highway — a 66-mile road that circled Minneapolis/St. Paul, patterned after the autobahns of his homeland.

Lilac Way was the ‘Showcase’ section of that Belt Line highway.

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VIEW THE PHOTO ALBUMS

Carl F. Graeser, Chief Engineer

He prevailed upon Governor Floyd B. Olson directly for a half million dollars of federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) money, and supervised much of the work himself.

Conceived just after the start of the Great Depression

The Belt Line was a joint venture between the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Minnesota Highway Department. A 12.5 mile stretch of Highway 100 Lilac Way was the ‘Showcase’ section of his Belt Line.

Now known as the “Father of the Belt Line”, he was a visionary in highway engineering. 

“He had the record of supervising more people directly, than any other individual ever has, before or since. And that was because he had WPA labor, anyone who was unemployed could go on WPA… he was signing payroll for a crew of 4,000. That’s quite a record, it still stands as almost unbelievable.”

Lee Nelson, retired personnel director, MnDOT. From Twin Cities Public TV documentary, “Highway 100 – Lilac Way

Cliff Swenson, worked on original survey crew

“I think Graeser was a good engineer. But he was different. He was trying to run the crews like the German army. He did a lot of good work. The front office, the central office, couldn’t keep up with his ideas.”

Graeser built the first cloverleafs in Minnesota

The cloverleafs were the answer of modern engineering to the demand for fast, yet safe crossings. Cloverleafs were built at three of the busiest intersections: Highways 55, 12 and 7.

Cloverleaf design improved traffic flow and reduced congestion.

The idea was so new, that Henry R. Grove, who grew up in the area during the 1930s, said “When our farmer relatives would come up to Minneapolis, we would take them down and show them this cloverleaf.

Everybody would laugh and have a great time over it—because whoever designed something like that!?”

Construction of Lilac Way and Highway 100

Men from Minneapolis’ Gateway District (Skid Row) helped build Lilac Way

Each of three cloverleafs cost $65,000 in 1935. Adjusted for inflation, that is comparable to more than $1,100,000 in today’s dollars.

Graeser Facts

  • Born in Windish-Marchwitz, Schlesien, Germany on April 24, 1875
  • Lost his leg in a railroad accident in Germany
  • Considered highly creative and capable of great concentration
  • Never married, had no relatives in MN, lived alone, and was devoted to his work
  • Developed Belt Line concept, promoted funding, and supervised construction
  • Several historic photos of Highway 100 roadside development sites taken by Carl Graeser were in treasured photo albums maintained by the Roadside Development Division

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Graeser Park in Robbinsdale was named for Carl Graeser. Dedicated in 1939, it was Lilac Way’s largest roadside park. He supervised the building of Graeser Park while living at 4225 Unity Avenue North.

The park reflects the naturalistic landscaping and rustic architecture that characterized WPA-built roadside parks.

What is a German autobahn?
  • 7,500+ miles of federal controlled-access highways system
  • No mandated speed limit for some classes of vehicles
  • Limits are posted (and enforced) in urbanized, substandard, accident-prone, or construction areas
  • Known for high velocity
  • Fast way to travel from city to city
  • World’s third largest superhighway

Here’s a nifty Autobahn infographic.

“Carl Graeser was a bachelor, and as such, did have a social life. On one occasion he was parked under one of the new overpasses over Highway 100, with a lady friend. Apparently someone saw him there.

When questioned later about what he was doing under the overpass, he said, “Ve vas eating shocolates.” Mr. Graeser spoke English with a thick German accent.”

Carl Graeser and the Beehive Fireplaces by Bernard Thomas Johnson