The anti-highway groups did manage to galvanize against three freeway routes. This includes I-335, a planned loop around the north side of downtown Minneapolis, I-35E, the east leg of I-35 through Saint Paul, and the Hiawatha Freeway, which would have run from downtown Minneapolis to the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport. I-35E was eventually built, but in a modified format with a 45 mile per hour speed limit. The route for I-335 was cleared, but the road was blocked in court, and later canceled before the highway was started.
Similarly, the land for the Hiawatha Freeway was purchased, houses were cleared, and the project was ready to start when lawsuits were filed to block the project. Various cases were filed and tried for over 30 years through the late 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and into the early 1990s. Eventually a compromise was reached. The freeway was canceled. Hiawatha Avenue, which was now in very poor condition, would be upgraded to a 4 lane parkway. Part of the freeway land would be used for the new Hiawatha Light Rail Transit line, and part would be used to build housing.
At the time, Highway MN-55 took a turn just south of the Minnehaha Creek and ran through a neighborhood. There was not room to upgrade the highway or run the LRT line on the side of the highway. Making the road wider would have required removing 70 homes and 7 businesses, which would have devastated the neighborhood. The preferred alternative was to route the highway around the neighborhood on 6.9 acres of land along Minnehaha Park that was set aside for this purpose. By removing an abandoned railroad line and building a deck over the highway, MN-DOT was able to return 9.2 acres of land back to the park for a net gain of 2.3 acres. Most viewed this as a win-win solution.
While the parkway project north of the creek was able to move forward in the mid-1990s, the section below the creek was still bitter fought by various groups. The argument was that the highway would run through sacred native lands that were used for ceremonies, and that the government had no right to confiscate this land from the tribes. There was reportedly a stand of Burr Oak trees that were planted hundreds of years ago by natives and were used in rituals. Arborists studied the trees, and concluded that there were natural growth trees that were approximately 125 years old, and were not present when natives lived in the area. Also, opposition groups claimed that the highway would destroy a culturally significant spring at Camp Coldwater. Geologists countered that the spring was 440 feet from the highway, it already had buildings around it, and the highway would not cut off the water flow.
The protesters set up a squatters camp in Minnehaha Park. They repeatedly blocked traffic, disrupted construction, and even vandalized the project. One lady was so upset that she spent months living in one of the trees without coming down. The contractors responded by hiring security guards for their equipment. Police eventually raided the squatter camp, and the lady was removed from the tree with a cherry picker.
Now that this fight is part of history, both sides are claiming victory. The anti-highway group see blocking the I-335 project as their first national victory in stopping a highway. Community and government groups see the Hiawatha Avenue Parkway as an example of a project that is greater than the sum of its parts due to the extensive public and private cooperation. The Hiawatha LRT has been an overwhelming success with ridership levels much higher than projected right from the first day. As a result, the Hiawatha LRT is paving the way for light rail to be expanded across the Twin Cities area with the Twins Stadium extension completed in the mid 2000s, and the University Avenue line being constructed between the two downtowns.
The previous bridge at this location was about the same length, but was only 45 feet wide. The new bridge is about 126 feet wide. It carries 4 lanes of Hiawatha Avenue and MN-55, a median, and two railroad tracks for the Hiawatha Light Rail Transit line. There is an above ground tunnel located just north of the creek where a deck was built over the highway and railroad tracks to join the sections of Minnehaha Park on each side of the highway. The elevations are a little tricky in that it was desired to keep the deck low so the park didn't have a big hump in it, but the highway cannot be any lower since it has to cross the creek above the normal water line.
The photo above is the east side of the Hiawatha Avenue Bridge as seen from the deck of the nearby abandoned Milwaukee Road Railroad Bridge.