The Auto Trails: North America's Predecessors to Numbered Highways

In the early 20th century, with the advent of the automobile becoming inexpensive enough to be affordable by the Middle Class, America's highway infrastructure was nearly non-existent. 

Road networks were essentially a series of dirt roads and plank roads outside of major cities, and the interurban railways of the day were usually more reliable forms of transportation. 

Historic Yellowstone Trail Marker in North Fond du Lac, WI. Image: RoyalBroil, Wikipedia Commons
From these paths, an informal network of roads began to coalesce that would be become known as Auto Trails. Today we're going to look at this system, and how from the Auto Trails, the US Highway System, and later the Interstate Highway would come to fruition. 

To understand the Auto Trail in the context of transportation history, one must go back to the beginning of the development of the transportation system of the United States, which begins thousands of years before the United States even existed. 

One of the most fascinating things I learned on my ride on the Coopersville & Marne Railway was that the 1858 track of the railroad followed "an ancient water route first cut into the earth by glacial events." And indeed, parts of our transportation system were naturally formed, and from that formation, human ingenuity took over. 

From the river's course, Native American trails were developed. 

From Native American trails, pioneer trails and military routes were developed. In many cases, early Americans simply used Native American trails for moving large distances. 

From these military routes and pioneer trails, dirt roads, canals and plank-roads were built, improving the routes that were already there. 

From the canals and plank-roads, railroads and improved gravel roads developed. And from these gravel roads, the Auto Trails eventually tied them together in a network.

A 1913 example of what dirt roads looked like in the early 20th century. This eventually became US 101 in Ventura County, CA. Image: GBCNet
By the 1890's, ideas for a transcontinental highway began to unfold, undoubtedly from the successes of the Transcontinental Railroad. Despite automobiles still being very expensive, the early proposals for a transcontinental road were quite forward thinking, given what typical roads looked like during those days. 

But in 1902, the first meeting of AAA began envisioning a route from New York City to California. Good Roads Magazine noted that "The plan of a transcontinental highway is spectacular; but Congress cannot be induced to support a spectacle.", and suggested that this be a private project with state and local support, not dissimilar to how many early railroads were funded. 

The idea of mass produced automobiles that could be purchased by the many still wasn't a thought at this point, and the automobile was thought of more like the airplane is today. In fact, many of those who advocated for "Good Roads" did so with bicycle traffic in mind. But, the idea of Auto Trails and publicly owned automobile highways was beginning to enter the stream of consciousness. 

A map of proposed roads of the United States.
In 1911, many routes had been identified as areas where improved roads could be a public good, including many upgraded pioneer trails. But still almost none had been built. In early 1912, the first 25 miles of the Yellowstone Trail would be built, which would eventually stretch from Seattle to Plymouth, Massachusetts. 

The rest of the decade would see a tremendous amount of roads constructed, each of which with a different story, and different level of funding. One of the most well known of these roads was the Lincoln Highway, which fulfilled the promise of a New York City to California route, albeit requiring a ferry across the Hudson River, until the Lincoln Tunnel was built in the 1930's. 

The original east end of the Lincoln Highway at Broadway & 42nd St in New York City, right at Times Square.
By 1920, there were hundreds of different Auto Trails in the United States, and the idea of named roads even made its way into Canada. While many had the word "Trail" in their names, it is important to note that they were mostly independent roads, and not a national network of highways. Trails were marked with wooden signs and arrows. 

A Lincoln Highway maker with the distinctive "L" pattern and arrow. Image: Lincoln Highway Association
Most were marketed and promoted only by their associations, and while states and municipalities generally helped to fund improvements along their routes, many of these roads were little or no better than local roads, especially in rural areas. 

Auto Trails were slightly ahead of their time, as they were organized by people who saw the potential of the automobile, but were still enough of a luxury item that the US Government was not yet interested in promoting roads. By 1916 however, the impact that the automobile was going to have on transportation in the US was clear, and began negotiations to fund individual highways.

A 1922 Rand McNally Map of Auto Trails in the United States and Canada
Wisconsin began a system of numbering state highways in 1918, as the first successor to the named Auto Trails. In 1922, six States in New England began creating a system of multistate highways that were numbered as opposed to named. The states had designed and numbered the roads in such a way that could be replicated in the rest of the contiguous United States. From this system, New England Route 1 would eventually become US Highway 1 in 1926. 

From the Auto Trails, the US Highway system would develop, and in many cases, simply number the roads that were there already. While numbered roads and systems seem commonplace today, the transformation from names to numbers was not without criticism. The New York Times wrote that "The traveler may shed tears as he drives the Lincoln Highway or dream dreams as he speeds over the Jefferson Highway, but how can he get a 'kick' out of 46, 55 or 33 or 21?" Notably left out was 66, who travelers eventually would  be able to get their kicks on. 

Some names, such as the Dixie Highway and, of course, the Lincoln Highway, would stick even past the days of the US Highway, but many faded away in favor of the (somewhat) orderly numbers of the US Highway system.

The early history of the US Highway system requires a blog, or perhaps a few, to truly encapsulate, and as such, I will stop here. The Auto Trails provided a brief, but notable bridge from the dirt, unimproved roads, to a system of slightly-improved roads that would be reconstructed and re-engineered over time, in a process that continues to this day. 

Thanks as always for reading!


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