Pembina, North Dakota and the Remains of the Meridian Highway

Pembina, North Dakota

In Pembina, North Dakota, in the extreme northeast corner of the state, there were a couple of historic and significant places I particularly wanted to photograph — primarily, this beautiful Icelandic and Ukrainian Orthodox church — so I set out in April of 2015 to pay a visit.

Pembina, North Dakota

This church was the Icelandic Evangelical Lutheran Church from 1885 to 1937, and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of St. John from 1937 to 1987. This church is featured in our book, Churches of the High Plains, available now.

Pembina, North Dakota
Pembina, North Dakota

This church is now cared for by the Fort Pembina Historical Society.

Pembina, North Dakota

Pembina, North Dakota

The slab from a former structure next to the church. I don’t know what it was.

Pembina, North Dakota

Tours of the church can be arranged by calling 701-825-6840

Pembina, North Dakota

Pembina has another distinction. It’s hard to imagine looking at the crumbling road shown here, but this was once part of what was to be the most impressive highway in the Western Hemisphere. At the dawn of the automobile, before Route 66 and before air conditioning became widespread, some envisioned a transcontinental highway from the north to the south, a ribbon of highway intended to facilitate north/south migration with the seasons. The Meridian International Highway (in most, but not all places, one-and-the-same with Old US 81) was proposed as a route stretching from Winnipeg to Mexico City. Later, the proposal was expanded and referred to as the Pan American Highway, with plans to extend the road all the way to Buenos Aires in the south, and to the Alaska Highway in the north.

In North Dakota, the Meridian Highway lies mostly parallel to Interstate 29. Old US Highway 81 south of Pembina, and most other sections of the road, have been repaved several times, but this section of road north of Pembina is as close as you can get to seeing the original Meridian Highway.

Pembina, North Dakota

I drove down this road in my car, heading north on the old Meridian Highway. I reached the end of the road, where it meets the US/Canadian border and got out to take a few photos. The Canadian Port of Entry was a stone’s throw away, and the border was marked by the typical pillars and an old, deteriorating cable fence.

Pembina, North Dakota

I finished taking my photos and began to drive back down the road to Pembina when I noticed a black pickup approaching. The moment I passed it, it turned around and I thought, “Uh oh.” Moments later a white pickup from US Customs and Border Patrol showed up and wanted to know what I had been doing. I gave the gentleman a quick recap on the Meridian Highway, and he turned out to be a very nice gentleman. He said they saw me walking around near the border, so they came to see what I was doing. He also said if I had been driving an old farm pickup, they probably wouldn’t have been suspicious.

No border infiltration here. Just history appreciation.

Pembina, North Dakota

Photos by Troy Larson, copyright Sonic Tremor Media

16 Comments on “Pembina, North Dakota and the Remains of the Meridian Highway

  1. The Meridian Highway project was one of several proposed in the early days – in this case, 1913. Every county was to set up a local committee to get the project rolling. The route in Pembina County was actually two routes – once it reached Drayton, motorists could go straight up from Drayton to Pembina, or take a second route coming out of Grand Forks that ran through Grafton, St. Thomas, to Hamilton and then jogged slightly westward to the border crossing at Neche. The grander Pan-American Highway plan was to provide an all-weather road from the U.S.-Mexico border through Mexico, then into Central America and on to South America. Much of this highway was completed after World War Two with the exception of the Darien Gap – which divides Central from South America. The Darien features a dramatic rise in land elevation through extremely difficult terrain. It was only in recent years that it was transversed by a Jeep expedition. I was privileged to know and met with the three men of the Richardson Pan-American Highway Expedition which promoted the building of this road prior to World War Two. Sullivan Richardson, Kenneth Van Hee and Arnold Whitaker man-handled a 1941 Plymouth across the wilds of Mexico, Central America and South America in a nearly year-long trip that saw them arrive back in the USA just prior to Pearl Harbor. Their story can be found at

  2. Troy, is there a way that you can inform the BP that you are going over there next to the border to take pictures before hand? I don’t want to have one of my vacation stories include the line “and there we were in a felony prone position”…

    • I don’t know if you can. They’re a pretty crabby bunch (with the exception of the guy I talked to) at the border.

      • Troy, what a funny story. I was born and raised in Pembina. In 1962 I was getting into shape prior to Army boot camp. My favorite place to run was on that old highway going to the border. I, also, had an encounter with the Border Patrol but when he saw me running in army boots and shorts he quickly reliazed I was not a treat.

    • You could get in touch with the mayor of Pembina and she would direct you.(I grew up in this town and used to ride this road on my bicycle everyday as a child).

      • Thanks Gina.. it’s worth a shot. Troy, what if I bring donuts? Do they like donuts?

      • Gina
        The Mayor of Pembina is now Kyle Dorion my nephew.
        Casey Dorion
        6 15 15

  3. Mr Troy: Great little nugget about a little church, its history and Pembina and surrounding area! It was compelling enough to get me to Google Earth and check it out. The Red River of the North flows next to Pembina on its journey to Winnipeg and the lake of the same name. I had a nice adventure. I think that’s what your website is all about!


    Rick (1st grade class at Central School, 1949)

  4. The route of Old 81 isn’t “underneath I-29”, if what I’ve been told is true (I-29 was built before my time), most of I-29 south of Fargo was built through farmland where there was major road before.

    Old 81 starts out (south to north) at a T junction east of Rosholt South Dakota, turns in to ND 127 (confusingly there is a county road 81 to the east, but this is not the original 81 until it meets the original route at Dwight) from the border to Wahpeton,

    Much the highway by Wahpeton was destroyed when “210 Bypass” was built , but the original route picks up between Wahpeton to Dwight, ND were it is still named Richland County 81, passing through Ambercrombie, Christine and Oxbow until entering Fargo and becoming University Ave.

    It’s a beautiful drive following the route of the Red River and I drive it every time I have the oppertunity.

    Even confusing things a bit further, the dirt road between ND 127 and the river from the border to Wahpeton is still refereed by locals as “old 81” because that was 81 before the new paved ND 127 version was built some 70-80 years ago.

    • opps, I meant to write “through farmland where there was NO major road before.”

    • Actually 210 bypass only removed about 1/4 mile of the road out by Giants seed, where the outdoor theater used to be. Being 62 I don’t remember it being by the river but there was a car dealership (Dodge I believe) in what I always thought was a strange place so that would explain it.

  5. I still like to drive down 81 from 13 to Fargo once in a while. Interstates are to boring.

  6. most of these places are just so fascinating, i would love to be able to go around to all of these places just to look around and try to get a feel of what it would’ve been like to live when these places were in their prime.

  7. Old Hwy “81” ran through South Pembina in front of this church..Tha slab could possibly be where Tom Rondeau’s house stood.

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