And the dirty ole' track...was the Telegraph Road

Before the creation of I-75, The major thoroughfare between Toledo and Detroit was Telegraph Road, and it has quite a long history. Currently carrying US-24, Telegraph Road was immortalized as a song by Dire Straits in their 1982 album "Love Over Gold". 

If you have 14 minutes to spare, the song is an awesome bit of 80's progressive rock. Today we're going to do things slightly different, in that I was to discuss the history of both the road and the song, because I think the lyrics do a great job to that end.

The modern-day Telegraph Road is one of the major parts of US-24 in Michigan; the other follows the Saginaw Trail, one of the numerous Native American trails that have been incorporated into our infrastructure in some form or another. The trail connects Saginaw with Detroit, and then US-24 heads south to Toledo. Despite US-24 being an East-West US Highway between Colorado and Indiana, it makes a turn in the Toledo area to become a North-South highway and follow Telegraph Road and the Saginaw Trail.

Looking in southeastern Michigan at an early mileage sign between Detroit and Toledo.

Telegraph Rd itself got its start in the mid 19th-century, when telegraph lines were installed between Detroit and Toledo for use on the adjacent Michigan Central Railroad. For this reason, Telegraph Road is a pretty common road name in the US, since many roads were constructed to provide maintenance to adjacent telegraph lines. 


The earliest iteration of the road was simply for maintenance of these poles, with public access, essentially little more than a small dirt road, just barely "passable". 

A very early photograph of Telegraph Road before it was paved, before 1919. (Dearborn Schools)

But it was improved over the many decades, and received the M-10 designation in 1919, when Michigan began numbering their state highways. 

Telegraph Road as M-10. Today the M-10 designation terminates in Detroit. Image: Michigan 1919 State Highway Map

It got the US-24 designation in 1926 as one of the original US Highways, and this designation remains the same today.

Early travel brochure for US-24, showing its importance as a road one could use between Los Angeles and Quebec; although it only ran from Michigan to Colorado.


By 1936, it became multi-lane highway, and most sections of the road today are at least four lanes wide, and it remains an important arterial roadway south of Detroit. However, like much of the US Highway system, its importance as a through road between Detroit and Toledo was diminished by the Interstate Highway System, and the freeway that paralleled it, I-75 opened in the late 1950's as the first Interstate highway in the state, soon followed by I-94.

Driving over Telegraph Road (US-24) on I-94 just outside Detroit. FRRandP photo, 2018.

So how did a road, who we've established, is a fairly common named road in the US, and one that faced a similar fate to other through roads, having been largely replaced as such by the Interstate, get a song by a major rock group named after it?

Mark Knopfler of the Dire Straits explains the genesis behind the song in the following interview, quoted from here:

Chuck: "Look, as you heard, I'm from Michigan, and I was just wondering where you got the idea for the song "Telegraph Road," 'cause in Pontiac, going up to the SilverDome, US24 is called Telegraph Road and I was just wondering if you came up with that while you were on tour or something?"

MK: "Yeah, that's exactly what happened, in fact was driving down that road, and I was reading a book at the time, called The Growth of the Soil by Knud Hamsun, Norway and I just put the two together. I was driving down this Telegraph Road that you're talking about, I think it's the same road, and it just went on and on and on forever, it's like what they call linear development.  And I just started to think, I wondered how that road must have been when it started, what it must have first been. And then really that's how it all came about yeah, I just put that book together and the place where I was, I was actually sitting in the front of the tour bus, at the time."

The song doesn't exactly match the history of why the road was created, but instead paints a narrative of a settler who begins to develop the area around the road. Telegraph Road's lyrics are as follows:

Well a long time ago, came a man on a track

Walking thirty miles with a sack on his back

And he put down his load where he thought it was the best

He made a home in the wilderness

He built a cabin and a winter store

And he plowed up the ground by the cold lake shore

And the other travelers came walking down the track

And they never went further, no they never went back

Then came the churches, then came the schools

Then came the lawyers, then came the rules

Then came the trains and the trucks with their loads

And the dirty old track was the Telegraph Road

Then came the mines, then came the ore,

Then there was the hard times, then there was a war

Telegraph sang a song about the world outside

Telegraph Road got so deep and so wide

Like a rolling river

And my radio says tonight it's gonna freeze

People driving home from the factories

There's six lanes of traffic

Three lanes moving slow

I used to like to go to work but they shut it down

I've got a right to go to work but there's no work here to be found

Yes, and they say we're gonna have to pay what's owed

We're gonna have to reap from some seed that's been sowed

And the birds up on the wires and the telegraph poles

They can always fly away from this rain and this cold

You can hear them singing out their telegraph code

All the way down the Telegraph Road

Well I'd sooner forget, but I remember those nights

Yeah, life was just a bet on a race between the lights

You had your head on my shoulder, you had your hand in my hair

Now you act a little colder like you don't seem to care

But just believe in me, baby, and I'll take you away

From out of this darkness and into the day

From these rivers of headlights, these rivers of rain

From the anger that lives on the streets with these names

'Cause I've run every red light on memory lane

I've seen desperation explode into flames

And I don't want to see it again

From all of these signs saying "Sorry, but we're closed",

All the way down the Telegraph Road.

Within the lyrics, one can plainly see the amount of change that goes on on this road. While Knopfler wasn't so worried about the actual road itself, but the development around it, the events of the 20th century, especially globalization and the decline of Detroit itself, and the pain of those most impacted by the loss of manufacturing and factories where people worked are portrayed magnificently in this song.

I don't want to get too political here, so I won't, but throughout the major crises, especially those of military and economics over the last 100 years, and the current COVID-19 situation, it's been the poor and middle classes that have suffered the most, and those are the same group of folks who have been bailed out least, and at the same time taxed the most, relative to their income, and sadly both major political parties in this country bear culpability for that predicament. In fact, the crises are where the rich seem to get even richer. I think this is partly why Telegraph Road is one of my favorite songs, and Knopfler gets this issue, or at least articulates it, moreso than I think artists like Bruce Springsteen do, as one example. As Telegraph Road stays the same, relatively speaking, what started as a development full of winter stores, churches, mines and everything else has declined over the decades, to the point where at the end of the man's life, the "sorry, but we're closed" signs seem to suggest that all that development was for nothing.

Driving the road in 2020 and things don't seem to be much better:




It's an incredibly sad song, and one that is applicable to many areas of the US, not just the corridor between Toledo and Detroit. Unfortunately, our development patters are at least partially responsible for this decline, and I highly suggest reading Strong Towns to get a more nuanced view as to why this occurs.

Thanks as always for reading!

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