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FreightWaves Classics: Transcontinental trip leads to the numbered highway system (Part 2)

Lincoln Highway 1928 markers dwindle as newer signs highlight the historic route. (Photo: archive.triblive.com)

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In Part 1 of this article, a trip by two officials of the American Automobile Association (AAA) led to problems due to the practice of naming major roads during the first 25 years of the 20th century.

In Part 2 of this article, FreightWaves Classics details actions that were taken to move the country toward numbering its highways in a uniform manner.

The Dixie Bee Line ran from Chicago to Nashville. (Image: americanroads.us)
The Dixie Bee Line ran from Chicago to Nashville. (Image: americanroads.us)

Action was needed 

By the late 1910s, employees of the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads (BPR), which was an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, had serious questions about the named trail movement. In a memo written to the Secretary of Agriculture on April 10, 1919, the BPR’s acting director wrote that the bureau concluded that “great care was necessary to avoid the appearance of official recognition of the routes.”

In addition, the memo stated, “The [associations] conduct a propaganda, quite usually referring to their projects as national roads of importance and in other ways associating their routes officially with Government undertakings in such ways as to lead citizens of many localities to believe that the roads in question were actually proposed by the federal government, to be constructed by the federal government, or in a few instances even to be taken over and handled exclusively by the federal government.”

Signs for the Pikes Peak Ocean to Ocean Trail looked like this. 
(Image: Parsa/Wikipedia)
Signs for the Pikes Peak Ocean to Ocean Trail looked like this.
(Image: Parsa/Wikipedia)

Another issue was the changing of routes for financial gain. In 1924 the Pikes Peak Ocean to Ocean Highway Association changed its western terminus from San Francisco to Los Angeles. The trail now followed the route of Utah’s Arrowhead Trail, which generated financial losses in the towns and cities along the abandoned line. The Reno Evening Gazette denounced the action, stating, “The public is learning this fact – that transcontinental highway associations, with all their clamor, controversy, recriminations and meddlesome interference, build mighty few highways… In nine cases out of 10 these transcontinental highway associations are common nuisances and nothing else. They are more mischievous than constructive. And in many instances they are organized by clever boomers who are not interested in building roads but in obtaining salaries at the expense of an easily beguiled public.”


Wisconsin State Highway sign along STH 11 near Galesville, one of a new vocabulary of signage created for automobile traffic. The inverted triangle was used as a standard state highway sign at least through the 1920s in cities and villages where no post was available. (Photo: N.M. Isabella/Wisconsin Historical Society)
Wisconsin State Highway sign along STH 11 near Galesville, one of a new vocabulary of signage created for automobile traffic. The inverted triangle was used as a standard state highway sign at least through the 1920s in cities and villages where no post was available.
(Photo: N.M. Isabella/Wisconsin Historical Society)

Wisconsin leads the way

The concerns outlined by the BPR, Reno Evening Gazette and others were shared by highway officials in Wisconsin. At the National Road Congress in January 1918, State Highway Engineer Arthur R. Hirst told the gathering, “The ordinary trail promoter has seemingly considered that plenty of wind and a few barrels of paint are all that is required to build and maintain a 2,000-mile trail.”

Wisconsin became the first state to replace trail signs with numbers. A state law that went into effect in 1917 required the formation of a state trunk highway system of up to 5,000 miles. As part of the law there was a provision requiring uniform guide and warning signs for the system.

The marker developed in Wisconsin was triangular, with “State Trunk Highway” at the top, the number of the roadway in larger figures in the center, and the abbreviation “Wis” in the lower point. The state’s counties began simultaneous installation of the signs on May 24, 1918. Back then road sign poles were not used, but within a week, signs were posted “on telephone and telegraph poles, fences, culverts, trees and walls.” Hirst stated that the plan was “to be rather profuse with these road markers” because travelers welcomed the “kindly reminder that he is still on the right road.”

Wisconsin State Highway Engineer John T. Donaghey, who succeeded Hirst, recalled: “Previous to its installation, the ordinary method of directing travel was by referring to forks in the road, schoolhouses, red barns, and various other more or less convenient objects. Immediately after  the installation of the new marking system, all that was necessary to say was, ‘Take No. 12 until you meet No. 21 and follow 21 to your destination.’ A single, concise sentence, incapable of being misunderstood, took the place of the intricate and incomprehensible descriptions which previously were the only possible method of directing travel.”

Although several states followed Wisconsin’s lead, the continued promotion of named trails continued. In fact, the trail names were commonly used by the BPR, the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO), newspapers, map and guidebook companies, and the public. 

A sign for Iowa SR 18. (Photo: eBay)
A sign for Iowa SR 18. (Photo: eBay)

Even in states that adopted a number system for roadways, the trail names often lingered. For example Iowa began numbering its highways in 1920. But it continued to register named trails because of a 1913 law designed to protect the trail names. That led the Iowa State Highway Commission to register 64 named trails between 1913 and 1924.

A promotional brochure for the Jefferson Highway. (Photo: Iowa DOT)
A promotional brochure for the Jefferson Highway. (Photo: Iowa DOT)

The Federal-Aid highway program was passed by Congress and began in 1916. It was followed by the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1921. That law limited federal-aid highway funding to a system that comprised 7% of each state’s road network; at the same time, three-sevenths of federal-aid highway mileage had to be “interstate in character.” In 1923 the state and federal governments identified the main roads for the federal-aid system; and provided funding on a 50-50 basis to surface thousands of miles of these roads. Therefore, the need for private organizations to promote individual routes was fading.

A Mack truck from the 1920s. Its chain drive can be seen easily. (Photo: macktrucks.com)
A Mack truck from the 1920s. Its chain drive can be seen easily. (Photo: macktrucks.com)

Another key factor was the rapid rise of the number of registered motor vehicles. In 1910 there had been fewer than 500,000 cars and trucks in the United States; by 1920 there were more than 10 million, and by 1930 there were over 26 million. Although long distance travel by motor vehicles was, as the Lincoln Highway Association stated, “something of a sporting proposition,” the era when highway transportation was left to private entrepreneurs was soon to be over. 

Wisconsin’s Donaghey, Walter F. Rosenwald (Minnesota’s maintenance engineer), and A. H. Hinkle (Indiana’s Superintendent of Maintenance) rode through their respective states in the fall of 1922 to explore ways of standardizing highway road signs. Up until then, timportant messages were conveyed to motorists in whatever way the messenger could develop. 

An early round STOP sign in black and white. (Photo: ebay.com)
An early round STOP sign in black and white. (Photo: ebay.com)

The three decided that the best way to mark roads was not to develop uniform words, but to the shape of the signs. “The underlying thought,” Rosenwald stated, “was that, if each shape had a definite meaning, it would be a great advantage for night driving as undoubtedly the shape could be distinguished long before the words could be.” They made their proposals at the Mississippi Valley Association of State Highway Departments (MVA) when it met in Chicago in January 1923. The association adopted a signing and marking plan based on their ideas:

  • Round: warnings at railroad crossings.
  • Octagonal: STOP
  • Diamond shaped: “slow” warnings
  • Square: caution or “attention” messages
  • Rectangular: directional and regulatory information

The signs were to be black-and-white. The association forwarded these recommendations to AASHO. However, it did not set a specific shape for route markers; it did recommend that they differ from the other signs.

An early stop sign. (Photo: barrett-jackson.com)

The push for uniformity

AASHO held its 1924 annual meeting in San Francisco. Indiana’s Hinkle spoke on “How Shall Interstate Highways be Named and Marked?” He said that properly marked routes would be a major convenience to motorists. By marking the shortest routes with suitable grades, officials could reduce travel costs by thousands of dollars. He liked the idea of first numbering properly located highways and then naming them because “the name is frequently connected with some historical event or geographical term which will more readily recall to the mind the location of the road.” Nonetheless, he believed that for interstate roads, the BPR should make the final decision on both, with the states having an opportunity to suggest a name.

At the same meeting, AASHO’s Subcommittee on Traffic and Control of Traffic recommended that the association ask the Secretary of Agriculture, in cooperation with the states, to take on the task of designating a comprehensive system of through interstate routes. The subcommittee also recommended the “adoption of uniform directional and warning signs based on the MVA’s proposals.” For illuminated signals, “the subcommittee approved the red/yellow/green sequence of stop/caution/go.” For non-illuminated signs, the subcommittee also adopted the MVA’s recommendations. One variation had to do with color. At the suggestion of Minnesota, the subcommittee recommended the use of a different background color instead of white (such as lemon yellow), with black lettering for these signs. On route markers, the subcommittee agreed with the MVA that they should be different from the other shapes, but it did not recommend what the shape should be.

The logo of the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO). (Image: highways.gov)
The logo of the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO).
(Image: highways.gov)

On November 20, AASHO adopted a resolution that recommended “the immediate selection of transcontinental and interstate routes . . . to be continuously designated by means of standard highway marking signs and protected by standard traffic warning signs.” The resolution also called for a halt to the naming of highways by trail associations and added:

Resolved: That we hereby warn the citizens of this nation to investigate carefully the responsibility of trails’ organizers and demand convincing evidence ensuring proper expenditure of funds before contributing to or otherwise supporting such agencies.

In addition, AASHO recommended that the Secretary of Agriculture appoint a joint board of BPR and state highway officials to “cooperate in formulating and promulgating a system of numbering and marking highways of interstate character.”

This photo and the images to the right show the lack of uniformity in early road signage. (Photo: roadtrafficsigns.com)
This photo and the images to the right show the lack of uniformity in early road signage. (Photo: roadtrafficsigns.com)

FreightWaves Classics thanks the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library, the American Automobile Association, the Federal Highway Administration, americanroads.us, the Iowa Department of Transportation, 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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