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The outbreak of World War I forever changed the plans for Minneapolis’ Victory Memorial Drive

The original ideal for the road was part of an overall plan to connect Minneapolis’ major parks with parkways.

historical photo of crowds at victory memorial dedication ceremony
West-facing view of the 1921 dedication ceremony of Victory Memorial Drive in Minneapolis. The memorial flagpole is shown at the center. At the time, the surrounding land was relatively undeveloped.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Dedicated in 1921, the 3.8-mile Victory Memorial Drive in North Minneapolis is part of the Minneapolis Park System’s Grand Rounds, a fifty-mile circuit of the city’s parks and parkways. It features over 500 memorial trees and markers as well as a central monument and flagpole. This parkway section was named in honor of the Allied victory in Europe and in memory of the 568 Hennepin County residents who died while serving in the armed forces during World War I.

After the creation of the Minneapolis Park Board in 1883, board president Charles M. Loring hired well-known landscape architect Horace W. S. Cleveland. Cleveland called for the construction of a system of large city parks connected by parkways — a recommendation that became a guiding principle for the Park Board.

Plans for Glenwood-Camden Parkway began in 1909 when the Park Board expanded Glenwood Park (now Theodore Wirth Park) at the western edge of the city and purchased land for Camden Park (now Webber Park) in North Minneapolis. Board superintendent Theodore Wirth planned a parkway through the northwest corner of Minneapolis, connecting the two parks. Between 1910 and 1911, the Park Board acquired 170 acres of land. Construction began in 1913.

Crews working south to north built the parkway from Sixteenth Avenue North to Lowry Avenue between 1913 and 1916. In 1917, when the US entered World War I, construction stopped. Construction resumed after the war ended on November 11, 1918, a date known as the Armistice. The parkway to Lowry Avenue was completed and opened for traffic in 1920. This portion of the Glenwood-Camden parkway was named Theodore Wirth Parkway in 1938.

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The Armistice also meant that construction north of Lowry Avenue could finally begin. The war, however, had changed the Park Board’s plans. Retired Board president Charles Loring wanted to create a memorial to servicemen and women killed during the war. He donated money for trees to be planted and maintained along the parkway north of Lowry Avenue.

The Park Board planted 568 Moline elm trees as memorials to the 568 Hennepin County servicemen and women who died during the war. Workers arranged them in parallel rows in a wide, grassy median between the north and southbound lanes of the parkway. A wooden cross or Star of David was placed next to each tree. Where the roadway turns to the east at Forty-Fifth Avenue North, the Park Board installed a wooden flagpole. The newly named Victory Memorial Drive was officially dedicated in June of 1921 during a ceremony attended by over 30,000 spectators.

The northwest corner of Minneapolis was mostly farmland in the 1920s, allowing the Park Board to construct a wide, flat, straight roadway. The design created a solemn space for the memorial trees but also catered to the growing popularity of the automobile. Earlier parkways, like those at Minnehaha Falls and around the chain of lakes, were built for horse-drawn carriages. These earlier roads were much narrower and generally conformed to the contours of the landscape.

A new monument was added to Victory Memorial Drive in 1930 when the Grand Army of the Republic dedicated a statue of Abraham Lincoln to their Civil War comrades. The statue, a replica of an Augustus Saint-Gaudens original in Chicago’s Lincoln Park, was installed directly across the parkway from the flagpole.

As the Twin Cities grew rapidly after World War II, increased automobile traffic became a concern of regional planners. In 1959, planners suggested converting Victory Memorial Drive into a county highway. With opposition from the Park Board and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the plan was scrapped. Victory Memorial Drive could not escape biological threats, however. In the 1970s most of the stately elms along the parkway succumbed to Dutch Elm Disease and were replaced by hackberry trees.

In 2009 Victory Memorial Drive underwent a major renovation when the red granite flagpole base was replaced with a monument of Lake Superior green granite. The Park Board also added flower beds and new trees: a mix of spruce, maples, cedars, birch, and crab apples. The new features were rededicated in 2011. In November of 2018 Victory Memorial Drive was the site of a ceremony marking the 100-year anniversary of the Armistice.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.