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I-94 closed between Fargo, Valley City; I-29 closed between Fargo, Canadian border

Washington Avenue paved with history

A boxcar can be seen in the far distance of this 1873 photo taken looking south on Washington Avenue. The handwritten caption on the original photo says that Dave Carlson's Drug Store is at the extreme left. Photo courtesy of the Becker County Historical Society1 / 2
BRIAN BASHAM/RECORD The look of Washington Avenue has changed immensely from the 1800s, pictured below. This summer it was reconstructed, with new utilities being installed under the street. BRIAN BASHAM/DL NEWSPAPERS2 / 2

When crews unearthed Washington Avenue north of the tracks this summer and replaced utilities and added streetscapes, they added another piece of the history below and above the street.

"Probably the most unique thing about working in these downtown areas is there are old steam lines that we have to contend with," City Engineer Jon Pratt said.

When the Washington Avenue project was done, it was no exception. The steam lines still exist, and some of the lines still run into the businesses the lines once served. Although the dates are "fuzzy," Pratt and fellow Ulteig engineer Marty Jensen said they think the steam lines were discontinued in the late 1970s or early '80s.

The main plant was located near the police station. Jensen said many people likely remember the old smokestack towering into the skyline. Pratt said that city icon came down in the mid-1980s.

They said the steam lines were primarily used for businesses, but there may have been some residential hooked up to it as well.

"I think some of the very original neighborhoods may have had some access to it," Pratt said.

Jensen said it was unique the way the pipes were insulated back then -- the steel lines being wrapped with wood.

He said on north Washington Avenue, engineers and construction crews laid the sanitary sewer lines directly above the existing lines.

"We could see the trenching that they did," he said of the first lines laid. "Basically they had a trench that was two-feet wide, and then they would shore that up with wood while they were digging."

"Because they didn't have the mechanical means like we can cut these huge trenches," Pratt added.

Back then, Jensen said, everything was hand dug.

Since the sewer collection system is a gravity one, lines have to be laid in the same location for the system to work properly. Not to mention some of the old lines were still in use.

Pratt said records at Ulteig go back to about the 1940s on the Detroit Lakes streets, so it's hard to find some history dating back before that.

"We don't have any records specifically of when this went in," he said of the Washington Avenue utilities. "We can't say for sure, but it's very likely these utilities were probably one of the first utilities put in in town."

The north side of the railroad tracks is where Detroit Lakes began historically, "so it's very reasonable to assume they were put in in the '20s."

The water mains were made of cast iron. As a filler, they pounded in lead where needed. And while not as reliable today, those products lasted about 90 years before being replaced now.

Another common thing found in the downtown area when reconstructing, Pratt added, is that the basements "actually protrude out underneath what is current day sidewalks. Old coal chutes, primarily, so people had easy access to get coal down into their basements if they had a secondary source of heat beyond the steam."

Washington Avenue was once a portion of State Highway 59, running downtown, along Big Detroit Lake. From there, it was turned over to Becker County at some point and became County Highway 22, which it still is today.

County Engineer Brad Wentz said that when the project was redone this summer, "there were several layers of concrete, pavers and asphalt" dug up, but that historical information on the start of the road is scarce since it was first a state highway. Research at the Becker County Historical Society proved scarce as well.

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