Thanks to Minnesota Locks and Cardinal Corner for their support.
West St. Paul’s primary thoroughfare, Robert Street, was first paved back in 1922. In celebration of that anniversary, we look back on the history of Robert Street.
Robert Street in 1922
This is what Robert Street looked like in 1922. This is near the intersection of Robert and Lothenbach.
Robert Street in 1989
Here’s the same view in 1989, with Robert Street fully expanded to four lanes and a turn lane. The transformation to a fully commercialized street is complete.
Robert Street in 2022
Here’s the same view in 2022, showing continued change.
The History of Robert Street
Let’s look at how Robert Street became the main commercial artery it is today.
Early Roads in West St. Paul
Prior to 1870, West St. Paul was described as a wilderness with no interior road network.
- “South Robert was a boggy hollow, unpassable to either buggy or wagon.”
While other streets pre-dated Robert Street—including Oakdale, Charlton, Mendota, and Dodd, which all date to the 1850s—Robert Street gained prominence as a more direct route for farmers to bring their goods to St. Paul.
- Dodd and Smith were the first roads paved in West St. Paul in 1919.
Early Robert Street
In 1882, residents contributed to build up a boggy single track trail that became Robert Street:
“The workmen cut willows from the hills, carried them like cornstalks to the road bed and laid them over the hollow bottoms. Thus, the horses could step on the willows without sinking. As the carts passed over the branches, men would throw dirt over them until a single track was completed. The road was opened all the way to the Cannon Falls area, and then there was celebrating.” -Former Mayor William Stassen (West St. Paul Booster and Dakota County Globe, Feb. 19, 1964)
The Namesake: Robert Street is named for Captain Louis Robert, a French voyageur and riverboat captain. He traded on the Mississippi between St. Paul and St. Louis. He became influential in the 1840s and 1850s and is instrumental making St. Paul the state capital.
- It’s likely Robert used the French pronunciation: “row-bear.”
- Nickname: Robert Street was given the nickname “The Capital Highway,” apparently in a contest. Ernie Langula explained: “My sister, Hortense, named it the ‘Capitol Highway’ to win a contest, and that was the official name at first. … Did you know that at one time the Capitol Highway was the most-traveled two-laner in the country—after one in Washington D.C. and one in Arizona?”
- In 1965, Robert Street was designated as part of the Hiawatha Pioneer Trail.
- The West St. Paul portion of Robert Street was known as Eaton Avenue until the late 1880s.
1891 expansion: Robert Street was graded and widened to a width of 80 feet from Annapolis to what was then city hall at Orme. Sidewalks were also installed.
- Prior to 1920, Robert Street ended at Mendota Road. South of Mendota it became a trail.
- “I’ve seen a time when both horses and buggies were mired in the mud on Robert Street. At one time West St. Paul streets were awful all the time except in dry weather.” -Dr. Harold Petersen (South St. Paul Sun, June 30, 1976)
- Ernie Langula described Robert Street as “a terrible mudhole” prior to paving.
Paving Robert Street
Robert Street was paved with concrete 46 feet wide from Annapolis to Arion, with the remainder (all the way south to Mendota Road) paved soon after with a slightly narrower width.
- “When the Capitol Highway was built—all by horse and scraper—a tent camp was set up in a hollow near the Stassen house for the workers. It was a glorious day for the farmers when the narrow cement highway was completed from Annapolis Street to Mendota Road.” -Violet Stassen
- Joseph Gibis, a former mayor and council member at the time, is credited with making the street paving happen. After his death in 1928, his obituary in the West St. Paul Booster read: “He always had the welfare of the city at heart and served the residents conscientiously throughout his long public career. It was through spirited men such as him that improvements were secured for the City of West St. Paul, including water, sewer, South Robert Street paving and many other benefits which aided the progress of this city at a marvelous rate the past ten years. Mr. Gibis was highly esteemed by his many acquaintances and he will be missed.”
- The paving became a community event in West St. Paul, including a massive, city-sponsored booya in a field at the corner of Robert and Arion, across from the Gibis home.
Roller skating on Robert Street: Apparently that was a thing.
- Violet Stassen recalls: “Eleanor Oberg Shafer, Ruth Young Franz, Clara Kolstad, and others had much fun roller skating out the highway to my house—especially going down the hill from where the Embers now stands to Thompson Avenue. Occasionally a car would come by—but no heed was paid to them. It was usually someone well acquainted in the area, and a tinny horn would blow saying ‘hello’ to the skaters.”
- Viola Mortensen also remembers skating: “One of the girls in our group had a father who was a truck farmer. He brought a lot of melons in from the farm. We all met at the Courthouse and roller skated down Robert Street to just beyond Bernard Street where we had a melon party. Can you imagine roller skating down Robert Street now?”
- In the 1970s, the Saints Roller Rink came to Robert Street and brought roller skating back, but it didn’t last, closing by 1985.
As West St. Paul’s commercial growth took off, starting in the early 1900s, Robert Street was the center of the action. Though it was focused on the northern section, from Annapolis to Butler. Through the 1940s, there was virtually nothing along Robert Street between Logan and Mendota. That changed through the decades as the entire 2.5 miles of Robert Street through West St. Paul became lined with commercial businesses.
- Traffic jam: The first real traffic jam on Robert Street came in the fall of 1961 with the opening of the Spartan Department store at the intersection of Robert and Thompson.
- Busiest intersection: In 1970, Butler was the busiest intersection on Robert Street. Today, it’s shifted south with Mendota likely being the busiest and Wentworth a close second.
- Signals: Stop lights were added between the 1950s and 1970s.
- Four lanes: In the 1960s through the 1980s the street was slowly widened and turn lanes added. By the mid-1980s Robert Street became four lanes with a turn lane down the middle from Butler south.
- Fast food: A 1978 article in the St. Paul Dispatch dubbed Robert Street “Heartburn Highway,” skewering the proliferation of fast food restaurants along the thoroughfare.
Robert Street’s latest upgrade came in 2015 and 2016 when the entire length, from Annapolis to Mendota Road, was redone and medians installed.
Digging up local history happens thanks to the generous support of our members. Join them and support neighborhood news.