The Swastika Trail

It seems hard to imagine today, but less than 100 years ago, neither the US Highway System nor Illinois Numbered Highways existed. New England had begun a rudimentary numbering system for highways, and Iowa began theirs in 1919, but the numbered highways we know and understand today were at best in their infancy. 

As were roads. What predated the roads we have today are the Auto Trails, which had varying levels of paving and services along their routes. Further, these were maintained by organizations, not governments, at least not in their entirety. 

1917 Illinois Highway Map. Illinois Digital Archives

The Auto Trails were named, not numbered, and while many had names that no one would question today (The Lincoln Highway, Grant Highway, and the Quincy Trail as some examples), viewing maps today of Illinois or Iowa from the early 1920's would have one notable exception: The Swastika Trail.

Illinois Digital Archives 1924N Map

Importantly, the swastika is an ancient symbol that did not have any racist or hate connotations before 1920, when it was officially adopted by the Nazi Party in Germany, when the trail was first created. Much like roads in the last 100 years, symbols have changed as well. The Iowa Department of Transportation explains that, "When this route was designated, the Swastika symbol was recognized for its attributes as a charm or amulet, as a sign of benediction, blessing, long life, good fortune, and good luck."

Further still, the symbol would not catch on in the United States as a hate symbol for years afterwards. According to the US Holocaust Museum, "The word swastika comes from the Sanskrit svastika, which means “good fortune” or “well-being." The motif (a hooked cross) appears to have first been used in Eurasia, as early as 7000 years ago, perhaps representing the movement of the sun through the sky. 

To this day, it is a sacred symbol in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Odinism. It is a common sight on temples or houses in India or Indonesia. Swastikas also have an ancient history in Europe, appearing on artifacts from pre-Christian European cultures." 

The symbol was well-used before the Nazis, such as the Windsor Swastikas, one of two Canadian Hockey teams to use, and name themselves, after the symbol.

Of course, no one would use the swastika today for its racist past, at least in Western cultures, in spite of the fact that the symbol itself is not racist, but it has been successfully used by hate groups, and continues to be.  So in spite of whatever other symbols one might associate with their history, that does not give one license to unilaterally continue to use co-opted symbols

Now with that out of the way, the Swastika Trail ran along what would become Illinois Route 17, starting in Galva, IL to New Boston, Illinois (paralleling the American Central Railway), where it used a ferry to cross the Mississippi River and reach Wapello, Iowa according to Illinois Maps. Like most of the Auto-Trails in 1917 at least, "the entire length of the road in Mercer County was dirt, as were most of the roads in the state." (ThriveHive)

Before the road became an extension of IL-17, it used the Illinois Route 83 number, which is now a highway between Lynwood and Antioch, IL, somewhat paralleling the Tri-State Tollway (and continues north as WI-83). What is an unmarked state highway today, east of New Boston at Arpee, was marked at that time as IL-83A to Keithsburg.

1939 Illinois State Highway Map. Illinois Digital Archives

Different sources seem to indicate that the Iowa segment of the Trail began in Keokuk, which is about 50 miles south of Wapello. As Auto Trails were not necessarily official government roads, and as roads do change over time, it is possible the trail once began in Keokuk, or perhaps went north from Keokuk to Wapello. By 1924, the Swastika Trail ended in Wapello.

At least one source has the road ending in Nebraska City, NE, which would mean that it traversed Iowa along what is today mostly IA-2, but no map that I can easily come across seems to confirm that. 

Thanks as always for reading!


  1. If one ever travels to Japan (presuming it is ever again healthy to do so), they may be startled to see what looks like a swastika on maps denoting temples and shrines.
    They need to look closer.
    On those maps, and indeed the temples themselves, from the center - the dog leg of the swastika goes the other way. It turns left instead of right.
    Still, it is sad it was co-opted in the manner it has. I occasionally wonder if, had it not, the asterisk character on typewriters (and computer keyboards), would have been replaced by the swastika.


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