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FreightWaves Classics: Transcontinental trip leads to the numbered highway system (Part 1)

Lincoln Highway bridge in Tama, Iowa. (Photo: Public Domain/Library of Congress)

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In Chicago on March 4, 1902, nine individual motor clubs with a total of 1,500 members banded together to found the American Automobile Association (AAA or Triple-A). Their reason for beginning AAA was “the lack of roads and highways suitable for automobiles.” Among the individual motor clubs were the Chicago Automobile Club, Automobile Club of America and  Automobile Club of New Jersey.

The AAA merged with the first American automobile organization, the American Motor League, in 1904. The organization published its first road maps in 1905 and its first hotel guides in 1917. 

The logos of the American Automobile Association (AAA) since its founding. (Image: 1000logos.net)
The logos of the American Automobile Association (AAA) since its founding. (Image: 1000logos.net)

A transcontinental journey

On August 30, 1925, two AAA officials left Washington, D.C., on a transcontinental motor vehicle trip to California. AAA’s President, Thomas P. Henry, and Ernest N. Smith, its general manager, made the drive to participate in festivities commemorating the 75th anniversary of California becoming a state.

Zero Milestone, with the White House in the background. (Photo: fhwa.dot.gov)
Zero Milestone, with the White House in the background. (Photo: fhwa.dot.gov)

In addition, they wanted to demonstrate that it was possible to travel from the Eastern Seaboard to California in a week’s time because of the improvements in the nation’s roads. They left from Washington’s Zero Milestone monument near the White House. Henry and Smith primarily drove on segments of the Lincoln Highway (which was the nation’s first “highway” – a direct coast-to-coast route between New York City and San Francisco) and the Victory Highway (which was another “highway” that also linked the same cities but ran further south).

The 1919 Transcontinental Motor Convoy in El Dorado County, California. (Photo: artsandcultureeldorado.org)
The 1919 Transcontinental Motor Convoy in El Dorado County, California. (Photo: artsandcultureeldorado.org)

The trip by the two AAA officials occurred some six years after the 1919 Transcontinental Motor Convoy, which was conducted by the U.S. Army. The convoy traveled 3,251 miles in 62 days. The purpose of the convoy was to test the mobility of the military during wartime conditions. Among the participants (as an observer for the War Department) was Lt. Col. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who learned first-hand about the difficulties faced in traveling on roads that were impassable and resulted in frequent breakdowns of the military vehicles. His experience (as well as seeing Germany’s autobahns in 1945) influenced his decisions concerning the building of the Interstate Highway System during his presidential administration. (To read more about the Transcontinental Motor Convoy, see this earlier FreightWaves Classics article.) 


Smith and Henry drove non-stop in shifts. They had placed a Pullman bed in the rear of their Cadillac for sleeping. Along the route they found the highway conditions to be generally good. Without exceeding the speed limits in any of the states that they drove through, Henry and Smith were able to average 500 miles per day, slicing two days off their targeted timeframe for the trip to California.

An official of the California State Automobile Association “characterized the trip in many respects as the most important undertaken since the days of the covered wagon.” Henry and Smith officially completed what was termed the “transcontinental Diamond Jubilee tour” in San Francisco on September 4.

A Victory Highway sign, erected after the U.S. and its Allies were victorious in World War I. (Photo: americanroads.us)
A Victory Highway sign, erected after the U.S. and its Allies were victorious in World War I. (Photo: americanroads.us)

Along the way, with the help of various AAA affiliates, Henry and Smith had very little trouble finding their way across country until they reached western Utah. There, a signboard signaled the parting of the Lincoln Highway and the Victory Highway. They turned the car to the right and took the Victory Highway; however, they soon came to a hill. “Six roads led over the top,” Smith wrote in his account of the journey, “and each road was worse than the other.” Smith exited the car and walked about half a mile ahead of it to be sure the road would carry them through. He wrote “For the next two hours we pitched and tossed, dropping into chuckholes and raising clouds of dust.”

These two officials of the nation’s largest auto club experienced first-hand, why these were the final days of named roads and trails.

Lincoln Highway markers like this one were erected along its route in 1928 by Boy Scouts. (Photo: lincolnhighway.jameslin.name/history/part4)
Lincoln Highway markers like this one were erected along its route in 1928 by Boy Scouts.
(Photo: lincolnhighway.jameslin.name/history/part4)

The problem with names

Named trails and highways derived from the earliest days of auto travel when governments – federal, state and local – gave little attention to the patchwork of interstate roads. At that time, railroads were the mode of travel for most long distance trips in the United States. 

While some of the named trails/highways can be traced to the 1890s, most were named in the early 1910s, with the National Old Trails Road (Baltimore to Los Angeles) and the Lincoln Highway (Washington, D.C. to San Francisco) setting the pattern. (To read a FreightWaves article about the Lincoln Highway, follow this link. To read a FreightWaves article about the Old National Trails Road, follow this link.)  

One version of a sign for the Theodore Roosevelt International Highway. (Photo: theodorerooseveltcenter.org)
One version of a sign for the Theodore Roosevelt International Highway.
(Photo: theodorerooseveltcenter.org)
Another version of the Theodore Roosevelt International Highway. (Photo: mdt.mt.gov)
Another version of the Theodore Roosevelt International Highway. (Photo: mdt.mt.gov)

Boosters of a trail or national highway generally selected a route over what were often just barely existing roads, “gave it a colorful name, formed an association to promote the trail, and collected dues from businesses and towns along the way.” The associations often published guides and newsletters, held conventions, and promoted the improvement and use of the route. The goals were generally to promote the road and its route, the Good Roads movement, and economic opportunity for the towns, cities and businesses along the way.

By the mid-1920s, the number of named trails/highways associations had proliferated to over 250 routes. They included a number of transcontinental routes, including “the Dixie Overland Highway (Savannah, Georgia, to San Diego), the Lee Highway (Washington, D.C., to San Diego), the Old Spanish Trail (St. Augustine, Florida, to San Diego), the Pikes Peak Ocean to Ocean Highway (New York City to Los Angeles), the Theodore Roosevelt International Highway (Portland, Maine, to Portland, Oregon, with a stretch through the Canadian province of Ontario), and the Yellowstone Trail (Boston to Seattle).”

A newer sign for the Yellowstone Trail. (Photo: hennepinhistory.org)
A newer sign for the Yellowstone Trail. (Photo: hennepinhistory.org)

There were also north-south routes, including the “Atlantic Highway and the Pacific Highway along the coasts and others, such as the Evergreen Highway (Portland, Oregon, to El Paso, Texas), the Jackson Highway (Chicago to New Orleans), the Jefferson Highway (Winnipeg to New Orleans), the King of Trails Highway (Winnipeg to Brownsville, Texas), and the Meridian Highway (Winnipeg to Houston).”

A King of Trails Highway sign in Minnesota. (Photo: streets.mn)
A King of Trails Highway sign in Minnesota. (Photo: streets.mn)

There were also many shorter routes, including the “Colorado to Gulf Highway (Denver to Galveston), the Custer Battlefield Highway (Des Moines to Glacier National Park in Montana), the Mohawk Trail (Greenfield, Massachusetts, to Schenectady, New York), the William Penn Highway (New York City to Pittsburgh), and the Three C Highway (Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati, Ohio). The names of other trails evoked great leaders (the Pershing Way from Winnipeg to Lafayette, Louisiana, named after General John J. Pershing, the hero of World War I), historic trails of the past (the Old Oregon Trail and the Santa Fe Trail), destinations (the Dixie Highway from Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, to Miami), attractions (the National Park-to-Park Highway looping through the national parks in the western United States), and even methods of marking (the B.F. Blue Pole Highway from Chadron to Fremont, Nebraska).”

A newer sign that marks the Mohawk Trail in Massachusetts. (Photo: ourbelovedkin.com)
A newer sign that marks the Mohawk Trail in Massachusetts. (Photo: ourbelovedkin.com)

Each association marked its route differently, including painting signs or insignia on “telephone poles, barns, rocks, or any other surface facing the road.” The associations also worked with auto clubs to mark the named trails. For example, the Automobile Club of Southern California posted signs along thousands of miles of roads as a service to its members.

A sign for the Arrowhead Trails Association. (Image: pngwing.com)
A sign for the Arrowhead Trails Association. (Image: pngwing.com)

In the early days of automobiles (and then trucks), the named trails provided a service (particularly because the government did not). However, as the number of named trails and vehicles grew, “so did the problems caused by the routes.” Many named trails were routed through dues-paying towns and cities and did not follow the shortest and/or best route for motorists. For example, the Arrowhead Trail from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles was favored by  the State of Utah – not because the trail was a better or shorter route – in fact it kept Los Angeles-bound motorists in Utah for hundreds of extra miles (many of them desolate). These motorists bought gasoline, oil, food and lodging in Utah that they might not have on the more expeditious Lincoln Highway.

Markers for the Blue Pole Highway, which was in Nebraska.
 (Image: americanroads.us)
Markers for the Blue Pole Highway, which was in Nebraska.
(Image: americanroads.us)

There were other issues as well. For example in Kansas, motorists often did not know which of the many roads to take through the state. They “could choose between the New Santa Fe Trail (backed by a trail association formed in 1910 to promote a road along the course of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad) or the Old Santa Fe Trail (backed by an association formed in 1911 to support a trail roughly following the historic trade route of the 19th century). Or perhaps the motorist might want to cross Kansas on the Atlantic-Pacific Highway, the National Old Trails Road, the National Roosevelt Midland Trail, the Pikes Peak Ocean to Ocean Highway, the Union Pacific Highway, or the Victory Highway, each of which overlapped at least one of its rivals for part of the trip.”

Atlantic-Pacific Highway signs looked like this. (Image: americanroads.us)

As was the case in Kansas, many of the named trails overlapped, particularly in the sparsely populated West. One stretch of road in southwestern New Mexico was marked “for the Apache Trail, the Atlantic-Pacific Highway, the Evergreen Highway, the Lee Highway, and the Old Spanish Trail.” While worse in the West, the problem was also found in the eastern United States. For example, the Victory Highway, which was named to commemorate the Allied victory of World War I, “shared termini with the Lincoln Highway but followed the National Old Trails Road, from Maryland to Kansas, through much of the East.”

The Old Spanish Trail signs looked like this. (Image: americanroads.us)
The Old Spanish Trail signs looked like this. (Image: americanroads.us)

FreightWaves Classics thanks the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library, the American Automobile Association, the Federal Highway Administration, americanroads.us and other sources for information and photos that contributed to this article.

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Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.
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