In Part I of this series, after touching on the negatives of Wal-Mart’s business practices, I left you with a question. It was . . .

Under what circumstances does having a Wal-Mart seem like a good idea?

Now, I will circle around a bit and talk about some of the factors that led to Little Falls having a Wal-Mart in the first place (let alone the brand new Wal-Mart Superstore).

When it comes to the location of businesses and homes and other sorts of human activity, transportation routes are of the utmost importance. Whether it can be attributed to laziness or efficiency, human beings prefer the fastest route to their destinations. (We’ll leave the Sunday drivers out of this for now.) When the land was undeveloped (i.e. pre-statehood), rivers were the easiest routes to take. People and businesses sprung up along river banks, at their mouths, and at the confluences of other rivers. There were roads, sure, but most were little more than dirt trails, rutted, rocky and dusty – or in the rainy season, puddled and mucky. (Let’s just imagine how these roads were in the winter, shall we?)

And then came the railroads. As rails were laid, towns sprung up on the lines, many named for big-wigs in the railroad company. Sometimes these towns became full-fledged cities; sometimes they were no more than stops called sidings. The placement of railroad lines could make or break a community. Witness the formerly thriving village of Old Crow Wing (now part of Crow Wing State Park), which died when the railroad crossed the Mississippi River at Brainerd instead. Heavy-duty industry was also dependent upon the railroad for moving their products. If a company couldn’t get a spur out to its place of production, the cost and labor involved with shipping by wagon could be enough to cause a business to fail once its competitors had access to shipping by rail.

The first railroad line came into Little Falls on the east side of town in 1877. There is evidence of the city’s former industrial area along Sixth Street Northeast, where a lightly-used line of track still exists. Most of the city’s residents are more familiar with the west side tracks, which cause no end of disgruntled drivers, who have to wait for a multitude of daily trains. This line went in after the major industrial boom of the 1890s. The 1890s boom was due to the construction of the third Little Falls dam in 1887. Do you see how one thing leads to another? Dam, boom, railroad.

After concentrating so heavily on railroads, which spanned large geographical areas, communities got busy with road improvement projects. People were tired of being jarred by or stuck on crappy roads. Of course, the automobile was a huge factor in this movement. Cars also led to road trips and tourism, which, in turn, led to an even bigger demand for better roads. By the early 1920s, roads in Minnesota were starting to get paved.

As road conditions improved, the particular routes of roads, always an important factor, became even more critical. Communities fought for the opportunity to have their roads designated as national highways, knowing full well that being a part of such a route would increase visitors and potential shoppers. Little Falls won its bid to be put on the Jefferson Highway, which followed Old Highway 10 through town. For those of you who don’t know Old Highway 10, it came into Little Falls from the south, past the Franciscan Sisters convent and St. Gabriel’s Hospital. It followed First Street Southeast up to Bank Square, the intersection of First and Broadway. Old Highway 10 then followed Broadway to the west, crossing the Mississippi River and the railroad tracks, where it hooked right onto Lindbergh Drive North and headed out of town.

This is very important to note. Both Old Highway 10 and Highway 371 came right into downtown Little Falls. In the 1970s, a bypass was built that took these highways around the city. No need to travel through town to get to where you’re going – just whiz right on by. The only major highway that still passes through the core of downtown is Highway 27, which runs west/east, from Long Prairie to Pierz.

If transportation routes set the stage for business development and other human activity, what do you think would be the natural result of moving a highway around a city? For those who have lived through the city’s history and remember the construction of the bypass, you know the result. On the east side of town, where residential and other development was pretty much non-existent, a business district got started in order to serve people at the point where they could get on and off the highway with ease. That district has grown and picked up steam and includes that giant Wal-Mart Superstore.

If you’d like another, more current example of what a highway bypass can do to a community, consider the recent Highway 371 modifications that have the road veering away from Brainerd (where it used to go into downtown) and over to Baxter.

We’re getting closer to answering our question, but there’s still some examination to be done.

Yours with googly eyes,

Phineas F. A. Pickerel

(To be continued . . . .)