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Victory Memorial Drive, with its remarkable sightlines, is a well-named parkway

One of the most pleasant drives around, it was built in the earliest days of the automobile, just when that mode of transit was beginning to transform the city.

Victory Memorial Drive is a visible reminder of the changes the city was undergoing in the early 20th century.
MinnPost illustration by Andy Sturdevant

Victory Memorial Drive sits in the upper northwestern corner of the city, creating its western border, then turning east and running parallel to the city’s northern border about nine blocks south. It’s a visible reminder of the changes the city was undergoing in the early 20th century — changes that are just now on the very edge of living memory, and are about to go west, in the euphemistic parlance of one of its memorial plaques.

The three-mile parkway is part of the Grand Rounds, having been dedicated in 1921 as a memorial for the 568 Hennepin County residents killed in the world war that a famous Twin Cities native referred to a few years later as “that delayed Teutonic migration.” Five-hundred and sixty-eight trees, each with a plaque commemorating a specific individual on the ground beside it, line the parkway in perfectly spaced order, creating a thin curtain of either green or brown, depending on the season, that stretches toward the horizon. All the trees were, at one time, elms.

Victory Memorial Drive is home to one of the first major public bicycle paths in the city, dating to the mid-1970s. But Victory Drive is named well because, unlike most of what we cover in this space on a weekly basis, it really is best experienced by car. On foot or by bike, it can be wide-open to the point of tedious. But those same wide-open spaces really come alive behind the wheel. It was conceived and built in the earliest days of the automobile, just when that mode of transit was beginning to transform the city. Beginning at Broadway and rolling down the parkway north at a leisurely 30 miles an hour – the way the trees flicker past you in perfectly regimented order, like soldiers on the march in a hand-cranked kinetoscope – and then rounding east at the flagpole and continuing toward the river is one of the most pleasant drives around.

victory memorial drive photo
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
Victory Memorial Drive’s sightlines are remarkable.

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The sightlines are remarkable. Imagine driving this route on a balmy Sunday afternoon in 1922, in an open-top touring car made here in Minnesota by one of the homegrown manufacturers like Fey Brothers, Twin City or Brasie. Of course, most of the local auto manufacturers were starting to fold about this time, so maybe I’m being too nostalgic. But even from inside a contemporary automobile with the windows down, it’s an exceptionally pleasant experience.

lincoln statue photo
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
A Lincoln statue sits at the center of a park dedicated in 1924.

You should get out of the car, though, to see the central memorial plaza, rebuilt and rededicated in 2011 (you can still see the more modest older structures on Google Street View for now). The parkway is unusually shaped to conform to the contours of the city – instead of cutting a diagonal through the grid, like nearby Broadway, it makes a dramatic turn, and in that corner is a plaza and flag, across from a small park dedicated in 1924, with a statue of Abraham Lincoln, dedicated a few years later, by survivors of the Grand Army of the Republic. It’s one of a handful of Lincoln memorials in the city, a good topic for a future Stroll. This is a younger Lincoln, still unbearded, as he appeared in 1860 before the Civil War began. 

The historical markers near the flag are retained from the previous site, including names of the dead (one is struck by the large number of German-derived names), as well as statements from Marshall Foch and General Pershing, two of the most celebrated soldiers and public figures of their day. The primary marker is dedicated “to our comrades who ‘went west.’ ” I initially read this with confusion, thinking the soldiers had actually gone east from here, to Europe. Then I noticed the quotation marks, and realized the fallen soldiers had gone west in the metaphoric sense. I found this euphemism strangely touching in its extreme gentility – “went west” is a very decorous way of describing the mechanized slaughter of the Great War. Every American who fought in the war came west in the end, in one way or another.

plaque photo
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
The primary marker is dedicated “to our comrades who
‘went west.’ ”

World War I is just exiting living memory. Only a handful of people alive today have clear first-hand memories of the conflict – even someone who’d been on the cusp of adolescence when Franz Ferdinand was assassinated would now be a supercenterian. Almost no one living remembers it as a direct participant. The last known veteran of the war, a British nurse named Florence Green, passed away last year at the age of 110 years old.

More time has elapsed between now and the end of World War I than had elapsed between 1930, when surviving veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic dedicated the statue of the Abraham Lincoln, and 1865, when the Civil War ended. It was 65 years between the end of the Civil War and the dedication. Attendees that day would have been in their 80s or 90s.

Ninety-five years have passed since the end of the Great War. Walking down and looking at the plaques next to the trees, one realizes that anyone who  might have known these young men and women before going off to Europe are most likely dead now, too.

The parkway is also a sort of memorial to two other historic developments that changed the physical landscape of the city of Minneapolis to the point where one of those members of the Grand Army of the Republic, walking around the residential neighborhoods of the city today, might find himself surprised. The first is the advent of the automobile. The second is Dutch Elm disease.

The first is obvious. Minneapolis was born as a streetcar town, laid out according to the rhythms and patterns of the streetcar lines. In its adolescence, though, it became an automotive town. Victory Drive is one of the first major thoroughfares that seems to be built with a sense of theatricality best appreciated from behind the wheel of a car. Driving down it is like being at the head of a triumphal march. There’s a sense of aesthetics here that most subsequent parkways and automotive thoroughfares wouldn’t match. Can you imagine Hiawatha Avenue, lined with elms, small cottages, and a park in the center?

The second is harder to see unless you’re looking for it. Charles M. Loring, the influential Minneapolis parks commissioner who put up the funds for the elm trees that lined the parkway, insisted on elms – in what is now a bitter irony, Loring wrote that given time and space, “they will in time become giants of strength and beauty.”

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Elms were once ubiquitous in the Twin Cities; I remember taking a walk with a native St. Paulite down a residential street in Minneapolis one summer and having him hiss, with a surprising degree of acrimony about the loss, that walking down most residential streets before the 1960s and ’70s was “like being in a [expletive] cave.” Dutch Elm ravaged the city’s elm population starting at that time, and claimed many of the trees that lined Victory Memorial Drive. They were replaced with hackberry trees that, though impressive and orderly, lack the degree of strength and beauty that century-old elm trees would possess today. In fact, the parkway probably looks more like it did in 1921 than it did in 1961.

tree photo
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
In time, the trees will grow to that stature, and, if they survive, will line the parkways like that cave my friend described.

In time, the trees will grow to that stature, and, if they survive, will line the parkways like that cave my friend described. By then, World War I will seem as distant as the Civil War seems to us. Minneapolitans of the future who  drive, bike and walk down the parkway will probably think less of the specific lessons of World War I the further we get from it – there will be decades and decades worth of subsequent wars to reflect on – but will reflect on how civic memory develops over time, and how that memory can shape a city.