On a recent Friday afternoon, the smiling silver head of the Old Philosopher appeared in my office doorway.
He wanted to know the origin of the name “Babcock Avenue,” and if the Babcock Avenue in McLeod County was named for the same person as the Babcock Avenue in Delano.
My first thought was that it must be a slow day in the sales division.
My second thought was one I have had many times before we get some odd questions in the newspaper business.
I didn’t have a ready answer for the Old Philosopher in this case, but I did some quick checking. I also reached out to a source that I thought might be able to shed some light on the subject.
These preliminary inquiries failed to provide answers.
The Old Philosopher must have asked other people the same question. Soon after his visit, I received an email message from The Bergermeister with a trivia tip stating “Charles Babcock, a native son of Elk River and the first commissioner of highways for the state, had a visionary plan to ‘get Minnesota out of the mud.’ His plan to create a network of paved roads became a model for the rest of the nation and the Jefferson Highway (now Highway 10) became one of the first paved roads in the state.”
Following up on this, I checked the information with the Minnesota Historical Society, which confirmed Charles Merritt Babcock, widely regarded as the originator of the Minnesota highway system, was born in Sherburne County Aug. 10, 1871.
According to the historical society, Babcock’s highway career began in 1909 with his appointment to the state highway commission, which he led as commissioner of highways from 1917-1932.
He proved instrumental in securing legislative support and funding, and in constructing roads and highways in Minnesota.
He authored the Babcock amendment (1920) to the state constitution, which funded road construction out of vehicle taxes.
Babcock was active in the American Road Builders Association, the American Association of State Highway Officials, and the National Safety Council, and represented the United States at the Pan American Congress of Highways (1925, 1929).
The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) also provided some information about Babcock, noting that “after abolishing the Highway Commission in 1917, the Legislature created a Department of Highways. Babcock was chosen to be the first commissioner and was empowered to employ a support staff and a deputy commissioner who must be an engineer as well as road builder.”
A constitutional amendment adopted in 1920 allowed for the creation of a system of 70 trunk highways. Legislation was passed in 1921 to make such a highway plan possible. This legislation required the commissioner of highways to carry out the provisions of the trunk highway amendment. The mandate for the department was to acquire right-of-way, locate, construct, reconstruct, improve, and maintain the trunk highways, let necessary contracts, buy needed material and equipment, and expend necessary funds. The same legislation authorized the commissioner to appoint two assistant commissioners, one of whom was to be an experienced highway engineer. The commissioner was also authorized to employ skilled and unskilled employees as needed.
Later in the 1920s, MnDOT noted, Babcock fought for and won an amendment to the state constitution to use taxes on gasoline solely to build and maintain roads. The organization of the highway department reflected the need for a roadway system able to handle the growing numbers of motor vehicles. There were 920 motor vehicles registered in 1903 and 324,166 in 1920.
The American Society of Civil Engineers provided some perspective on that part of the state’s transportation history.
The society published a piece titled “100 Years in the Making . . . Minnesota’s Highway System,” By Don Demers, P.E., M. ASCE, SRF Consulting Group, in December 2014.
According to Demers, “In the early 1900s Minnesota’s roadway system barely existed as compared to today’s highway network. Roads were usually nothing more than dirt trails used for mail service and for farmers to get their goods to the market.”
The transportation system changed rapidly across the country during Babcock’s tenure as Minnesota’s commissioner of highways.
In 1926 the US Highway system was created through recommendations of the Joint Board on Interstate Highways to the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHTO). Generally, north-south routes are odd numbered, with major routes ending in “1;” and east-west routes are even numbered, with major routes ending in “0.”
The US Highway system generally relied on existing roads and highways at that time.
None of this confirms whether or not the Babcock Avenues in McLeod County or Delano were named after Charles Babcock, but he certainly played an important role in the development of the state’s transportation system.
Marlys Fredrick of the McLeod County Historical Society & Museum provided the following information from the 1917 McLeod County History Book, pages 620 and 621, as possible lead to the source of the name in McLeod County.
She noted Babcock Avenue is apparently named after Edward H. Babcock. Originally from New York, he came west with parents, settling in Wisconsin before moving to Sibley County and then to Hutchinson.
He farmed for a couple of years and then moved into town and was in the house-moving business. He was involved with politics and other organizations.
The family eventually moved to Cottage Grove, OR where he died at the age of 92. He was a preacher of the Seventh Day Adventist Church.