Carl Graeser was the ‘Father of the Belt Line.’

Lilac Way’s Graeser Park is his namesake.

Carl Graeser (1875-1944) left Germany as a teenager to serve as a cabin boy on sailing ships. He went on to study civil engineering at Norwich University in Vermont.

After heading west, Graeser arrived in Minnesota with a strong German accent, a German Shepard dog, a wooden leg, and an iron fist.

He singled-handedly supervised thousands of men to build the ‘Belt Line’ highway. The showcase of the Belt Line was Lilac Way, the 12.5 miles from Edina to Robbinsdale featuring seven roadside rest areas.




Robbinsdale’s was largest and the last of the seven rest areas, dedicated in 1940. It featured WPA-era naturalistic landscaping, a rustic rock garden with a waterfall pond, picnic tables, and of course, the iconic beehive fireplace.

Originally named Robbinsdale Rock Garden Roadside Rest Area, it was soon renamed to honor its builder, Carl Graeser. At the end of his working career, he moved to 4225 Unity Ave. N., just a few blocks from the special place that bears his name.


Carl F. Graeser, Chief Engineer

According to a MnDOT article, the idea began in the late 1920s when Graeser tried to raise money for Highway 100 to be built, but no one would listen. According to reports, city officials didn’t believe that development would occur that far west of Minneapolis. Besides, it was the Depression. But nothing would stop Graeser, who continued to campaign for funds.

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. 

Carl Graeser is buried at Sunset Cemetery in NE Minneapolis, which was designed by Arthur Nichols. Nichols is also buried there.

“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

Carl Graeser background

These have all been transcribed for easy-to-read web format.

‘Father of Highway 100’ Carl Graeser’s Legend lives on‘ This July/August 1982 MnDOT Scene Newsletter article

Excerpt from Norwich University 1819-1911 – Her History, Her Graduates, Her Roll of Honor 

“TAPS” tribute, excerpt from the May 12, 1944 News Issue of the Norwich University Record (transcribed for easy-to-read web format)

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!?”

“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

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
  • His father, Carl F W Graeser, left Breslau, Germany in 1910 and settled in Winnipeg
  • 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
  • In 1940 he lived in a boarding house at 38 7th Ave N in Hopkins (and it’s presumed he lived there in 1935)
  • By 1944 he had moved to his own house (at least he was the only resident) at 600 Thomas Ave N, Minneapolis, which has since been supplanted by Hwy 55
  • Probably didn’t live at 4225 Unity during Highway 100 construction. but he must have moved there to be close to the eponymous park that marked the pinnacle of his career
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.