James Lileks
See more of the story

Scenes from Ken Burns’ next epic documentary, “Homeward Bound: An account of Road Construction in Minneapolis.”

(Bittersweet fiddle music. Voice-over actor reads a letter.)

“Dearest Beulah, it has been three days since I set out from downtown Minneapolis to reach our happy home, and I fear you have abandoned all hope of ever seeing me again. I do not know how you will get this, but I must write down the story, so future generations may learn what we went through.

“The first few week of road closings was a gol-durned lark compared with what they’d told us. We thought it would be hell, but 35W ran clean as a mountain stream.  ’Course, as we learned later, most folk were ‘working from home,’ which might have been related to that 47 percent drop in productivity the local economy experienced the first few months.

“I guess we got lulled. I remember talking to a man who’d seen some action in the Crosstown Reconstruction of Aught-Seven, and he said it always started like this. They’d predict chaos, but nothing bad would happen and everyone’s guard would be let down. Folks would head back downtown because the boss would call a meeting.

“Oh, it might be a bit more crowded going in, but that was normal. Some people missed the only exit to downtown and ended up in Roseville; you’d drive by and see them on the shoulder, trying to Skype into the meeting, a few of them just sitting there weeping. It was quite a sight.

“When I finally got downtown, I noticed there was some construction on the corners for those newfangled talkin’ poles that say ‘Wait! Wait! Wait!’ Dog-spookers, we call em. We wondered why they were doing this on top of the other construction, but by the time you park it’s out of your mind. You get used to a lot of stuff at times like these.

“Well, the whistle blew at 5, and everyone heads to their cars, and that’s when the trouble began.”

(Fiddle music intensifies.)

“Ain’t no retreat that’s ever pleasant. Men are tired and their spirits are low, and the radio’s givin’ you reports of how bad it is all over. The ramps had been shelled to rubble. We started out on Portland, and figured we’d cross Lake before it got too dark.

“Things started to get bad real quick. More red lights than the sin district on payday. Order started to break down — folks who’d normally let a bus pull away from the curb were just cuttin’ it off cold, and for a Minnesotan that’s like criticizing your mom’s tater-tot hot dish; it just ain’t right. Word began to sweep down the line that there was construction ahead. Of course, we didn’t pay the rumor no mind, because who’d be crazy enough to approve a big lane closure at a time when the rest of the roads were cut off?

“But it was true, darlin’, every word. They picked this time to do sewer work on the one big road heading out of downtown. I saw cars pull off into side streets like people jumping off the Titanic as it went down, desperate to do anything.

“So I headed east.”

(Fiddle music stops.)

Narrator: “Transportation historians still debate the cause of the disaster, but it seems certain that many elements combined to create the Great Gridlock. Ill-timed lights and construction on Portland had already locked up the street, and when cars began to stream into nearby streets, they encountered more drivers who attempted to cross busy two-way streets. The cars backed up on every road. Crazed drivers, driven mad by their lack of progress, bolted into the intersections, causing accidents that blocked off more roads. Fistfights raged from Park to Bloomington.

“Most cars were abandoned by nightfall, as drivers set off on foot to reach home.

(Banjo plinking resumes. Voice-over letter resumes.)

“So, dearest Beulah, I write this from the burned-out remains of a Super­America off 54th. It got sacked before I got here, but I found some loose Tic-Tags to give me strength. Some of the boys are binding up their wounds using wiper fluid as disinfectant. A man just wandered into the camp and said he came across the bridge over 35W, and traffic’s flowing nice in either direction.

“Guess I should have waited an hour or two. But a man’s just got to get home.”

Narrator: “Soren Tollefson, one of the first wave to leave Minneapolis that fateful day, would eventually make it home, only to trip over a bike in the garage and suffer a fatal concussion.”

james.lileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858 • Twitter: @Lileks • facebok.com/james.lileks