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The U.S. Numbered Highway System (these highways are often called U.S. Routes or U.S. Highways) was established in 1926. It is an integrated network of roads and highways numbered within a nationwide grid in the contiguous United States. Because the designations and numberings of these highways were coordinated among the states, they are sometimes called Federal Highways. However, the roads were built and have always been maintained by state or local governments.
Beginning in the early 1910s – before the numbered highway system was developed – what became known as auto trail organizations began to be formed. During that period, interstate roads, or “auto trails” were marked by various auto trail organizations; this was the primary method of marking roads in the United States. Because the auto trail organizations were private organizations, the system of road marking was haphazard and not uniform.
Nonetheless, the purpose of these organizations was to mark and promote specific routes for long-distance automobile travel. The Lincoln Highway was the most prominent of these early routes; the Yellowstone Trail was another early example. (To read an earlier FreightWaves Classics article about the Lincoln Highway, follow this link.) While some of these organizations worked with the states, counties and towns along the route to improve the roadways, others simply chose a route because towns along that route were willing to pay dues, put up signs, etc.
August 1914 was a busy month – World War I broke out in Europe and the Panama Canal was opened. So when members of the Automobile Club of Southern California (ACSC) formally launched a project on August 20, 1914, it did not generate much news coverage.
However, it was noteworthy, and certainly worth coverage by FreightWaves Classics (some 108 years later…). Beginning in their base in the Los Angeles region, the ACSC began to install signs along the western half of the National Old Trails Road.
National Old Trails Road
A road designated as “The Missouri Cross State Highway – Old Trails Road” was dedicated on October 28, 1911. Dedication parties composed of members of the Missouri Good Roads organization left St. Louis and Kansas City, meeting in the state capital of Columbia for the ceremony. Missouri Governor Herbert Hadley delivered the dedication address, stating in part: “This marks the beginning of the end of bad roads in Missouri. The people who are building this road are as truly pioneers as those hardy frontiersmen who blazed the Old Trails Route into the forests and over broad prairies… With great pleasure in the present occasion, and with hopes for the future, I now dedicate the Old Trails Route the Missouri Cross State Highway, to the men and women of Missouri of the present and the future.”
The National Old Trails Road (which was also known as the Ocean-to-Ocean Highway), was established in 1912. It became part of the National Auto Trail system and was 3,096 miles long. The name of the road signified that it followed several of the nation’s historic trails, including the National Road and the Santa Fe Trail.
National Old Trails Road Association
The National Old Trails Road Association also was formed in Kansas City in April 1912 to promote the improvement of the transcontinental trail from Baltimore to Los Angeles, with branches to New York City and San Francisco. Former Jackson County, Missouri Judge J. M. Lowe served as the association’s president from its formation until his death in 1926. Judge Lowe was a tireless proponent for good roads – although, as he once told the U.S. Senate Committee on Post Offices and Post Roads, “I do not even own an automobile, and would not know what the dickens to do with it if I had one.” Under Lowe, the association became well- respected among the groups that comprised the Good Roads Movement, which had pushed since the 1890s for government involvement to improve the nation’s roads.
Following Lowe’s death, future President Harry S. Truman was named president of the National Old Trails Road Association. In that role, Truman periodically drove along the National Old Trails Road and met with members of the association in each state to discuss improvements to their segments. He enjoyed the travels, but he once wrote to his wife, “This is almost like campaigning for President, except that the people are making promises to me instead of the other way around.” Truman’s name remained on the association’s letterhead well into the late 1940s; he was listed as the organization’s “president.”
Truman worked with the Daughters of the American Revolution, or DAR, to place Madonna of the Trail statues in the 12 states along the National Old Trails Road. Mrs. John Trigg Moss of the DAR developed the idea of placing statues dedicated to the pioneer mothers of covered-wagon days. Each statue is 18 feet high, with a 10-foot-high pioneer mother mounted on a 8-foot base. The DAR description of the statues is: “The `Madonna of the Trail’ is a pioneer clad in homespun, clasping her babe to her breast, with her young son clinging to her skirts. The face of the mother, strong in character, beauty and gentleness, is the face of a mother who realizes her responsibilities and trusts in God.”
The ACSC embraced the National Old Trails Road for the motor vehicle travel options it would make possible. The potential and advantages of such a route were further highlighted for club members by two major events related to the new Panama Canal that would occur in California. Celebrations for the newly opened canal – the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco and the Panama-California Exposition in San Diego – were scheduled for 1915.
The ACSC and several other good-roads advocates saw those expositions as excellent opportunities to promote the National Old Trails Road. It would provide attendees a route to drive to the West Coast from other areas of the United States. While visiting New York City in January 1914 to meet with executives of the American Automobile Association, Fred L. Baker, who was a founding member of the ACSC and its president since 1910, promoted that idea.
In collaboration with the National Old Trails Road Association, the ACSC believed that posting signs along at least part of the route was a valuable way to enable motorists to better find their way to the California expositions. One Texas newspaper forecast it would “be the liveliest touring season since the introduction of the self-propelled vehicle.”
The first of the signs was erected on August 20, 1914 in front of the ACSC headquarters on South Figueroa Street in Los Angeles; the second was installed in Pasadena at the southeast corner of Colorado Avenue and Fair Oaks Avenue.
The sign-posting crew traveled eastward along the route. The final sign in their effort was placed more than a year later on September 3, 1915, in Kansas City, Missouri. Sunset: The Pacific Monthly magazine characterized the effort as “great hardships and trials which would have discouraged any club of less experience.”
Testimony on the club’s work in setting up those signs was likewise offered by R.A. Woodall, a Chicago resident and representative of the automobile-route-and-map service Blue Book Publishing Company, who drove west along the road from Raton, New Mexico, during that time.
“When we saw a big, white truck that looked like a circus van with the name of the Automobile Club of Southern California emblazoned on its sides we hailed it with great good cheer, for we figured that now we would receive some authentic information that would enable us to cover the rest of the road into Los Angeles with little difficulty,” he reported. “When we spoke to the road crew, and, pencil in hand, prepared to take copious notes, we were told that all that was necessary to do was to follow the Club’s signs and we couldn’t lose our way. That was literally true. We were not held up a single moment by lack of knowledge of the route.”
National Old Trails Road in the western U.S.
Although the ACSC had posted signs along the western half of the National Old Trails Road, according to its magazine (Touring Topics), the routing was not finalized until 1917. In particular, an early proposed route went through Phoenix, Arizona, and San Diego up to San Francisco.
However, the alignment was finally agreed upon; it followed earlier Native American trails, pre-existing railroad tracks and, in some cases, new construction.
Throughout its tenure, the National Old Trails Road was upgraded and realigned to improve it. Nonetheless, by 1926, sections in the western U.S. were still difficult to drive on, and large segments remained unpaved. By 1927, only 800 of the nearly 3,100 miles of the road were paved.
The new highway numbering system
In 1925, the Joint Board on Interstate Highways worked on a national numbering system to rationalize the roads that had been built by the states since the turn of the century. A final report was approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (which had oversight over roadways at that time) in November 1925. After feedback from the states, several modifications were made and the new U.S. Highway System was approved on November 11, 1926.
The section of the Old National Trails Road west of Las Vegas, New Mexico, to Los Angeles was certified as U.S. Highway 66, (better known as Route 66). From Colorado eastward, the National Old Trails Road became U.S. 40 in 1926.
Decades later, after Route 66 was decommissioned, sections of the road in eastern California were renamed the “National Trails Highway.” However, it follows latter-day U.S. Route 66, not any of the alignments that actually were part of the original road. The modern-day Route 66 in California follows a series of realignments that occurred in the early 1930s.
Cities along route (east to west):
- Baltimore, Maryland
- Washington, D.C.
- Frederick, Maryland
- Hagerstown, Maryland
- Cumberland, Maryland
- Uniontown, Pennsylvania
- Washington, Pennsylvania
- Wheeling, West Virginia
- Zanesville, Ohio
- Columbus, Ohio
- Springfield, Ohio
- Dayton, Ohio
- Eaton, Ohio
- Richmond, Indiana
- Indianapolis, Indiana
- Terre Haute, Indiana
- Marshall, Illinois
- Effingham, Illinois
- Vandalia, Illinois
- St. Louis, Missouri
- St. Charles, Missouri
- Columbia, Missouri
- Kansas City, Missouri
- Olathe, Kansas
- Osage City, Kansas
- Council Grove, Kansas
- Marion, Kansas
- McPherson, Kansas
- Great Bend, Kansas
- Dodge City, Kansas
- Garden City, Kansas
- Trinidad, Colorado
- Raton, New Mexico
- Santa Fe, New Mexico
- Albuquerque, New Mexico
- Los Lunas, New Mexico
- Gallup, New Mexico
- Flagstaff, Arizona
- Needles, California
- Barstow, California
- San Bernardino, California
- Los Angeles, California
FreightWaves Classics thanks the Federal Highway Administration, the Automobile Club of Southern California, the Harry S. Truman Library, the Daughters of the American Revolution, americanroads.us and other sources for information and photographs used in this article.