Eden Prairie is taking steps to preserve a quarter-mile segment of road used by horse-driven wagons and possibly ox carts in the 19th century, offering a window into how people and goods moved in Minnesota's early years.
The city this year designated part of the Yorkville and Bloomington Road as a local Heritage Preservation Site, a way for cities to protect historic properties, and is finalizing a preservation plan that recommends how the site should be used and cared for in the future. The preserved segment is in the James A. Brown Conservation Area, which the city owns.
"You just don't find that kind of historical resource that hasn't been impacted heavily by development or agriculture," said John Gertz, a former Eden Prairie planning department staffer and preservation specialist who authored the road's preservation plan.
The entire surviving portion of the road is about a mile and a half long, and runs parallel to the Minnesota River. Its existence is unusual, because most dirt roads are eventually paved over; this road, however, was abandoned 14 years after construction and replaced by another road nearby, leaving the dirt road behind.
The road consists of a narrow terrace cut into the hillside and, when it was in use, provided a convenient way for Carver County residents to take agricultural products like corn, wheat, vegetables and meat to Minneapolis and St. Paul to sell. They used the road to get from Yorkville, now Chaska, to the cities, avoiding a costly ferry ride.
The graded dirt road was between 14 and 18 feet wide, enough for two wagons. The ground was fine sand, which probably washed out frequently and was likely a factor in the decision to construct a new road atop the nearby bluff.
Carver County petitioned Hennepin County to build the new state road in 1863. Some Hennepin County officials believed they had been swindled on the project because they paid for it but it primarily benefited Carver County residents, said Paul Thorp, a local land surveyor and Eden Prairie Heritage Preservation commissioner.
An 1863 article in the Valley Herald, however, noted that it was useful to Hennepin County residents: "The trading men of Minneapolis and St. Anthony should know that good roads to their market are essential requisites to prosperity in business."
Beth Novak-Krebs, Eden Prairie senior planner, said the site was added to the city's historic register earlier this year. The City Council must approve such a designation after a nomination report is drawn up.
"It's part of Eden Prairie's history," said Novak-Krebs. "I think it's important to know, how did Eden Prairie start? What did the early settlers do?"
The city has six other Heritage Preservation sites, she said, including a bridge, a natural spring and several homes.
As part of the designation process, a preservation plan must be created. A final version of that plan went to the city in late November. The next step is a review by the Heritage Preservation Commission and the Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Commission.
Gertz said his preservation plan points out the area's unique features and advises officials how to avoid damaging the site.
"It looks at the current condition of the old roadway," Gertz said of the plan. "What can we do to rehabilitate it, make it look more like it did in 1864?"
Today, much of the road segment is overgrown with buckthorn and other vegetation. Some parts are washed out while others have been disturbed by a storm sewer project. Its only travelers are deer and other animals, which have worn down a 3-foot-wide path, Thorp said.
Even so, the road "retains excellent integrity of location and association," according to its 2019 Heritage Preservation Site nomination.
Gertz said that one day, the old road could offer recreational opportunities, interpretive signage and even tours.
"I don't think it's enough to preserve a site," he said. "Interpretation becomes essential."
Novak-Krebs said there's interest among city staff in educating people about the road, but there's been no discussion of whether it should be accessible to the public.
"What's really interesting about it is that it's something that you can still see today," she said. "Anytime we have certain historic resources in Eden Prairie, I think they're highly valued and worth preserving."