Follow along as we venture down a long and twisty Trail of exploration of a mostly forgotten era in motoring history: when no roads had numbers but some had marketing names.
How many have heard the old-time tale “Which Way to Millinocket?” from the 1958 (vinyl) album Bert and I… And Other Stories from Down East?
That record was constantly on the turntable when I was growing up, and I can still perform many of the pieces verbatim, in a Maine accent that might not quite fool a native. (It helped that my mother had been raised in Maine and had never lost her accent in decades of living in the near-south wilds of Maryland and Washington DC.)
Bert and I was produced by Robert Bryan and Marshall Dodge, who met at Yale. Growing up, Bryan had spent summers with his family in Maine fishing camps in the 1930s and 1940s, where, probably around a campfire, old-time guides regaled the city slickers with humorous tales from the Maine woods. Bryan and Dodge recreated some of those tales and added some of their own. They adapted the trope in this post’s title from “Arkansas Traveler” tales dating from the 19th century.
The “flivver” that features in the piece, probably intended to represent a Ford Model T (made right here in Saint Paul!), dates the anecdote to the teens or twenties.
I noticed an odd thing while listening to people around the Twin Cities give directions. If the route involved state highway 100, in particular, people tended to say something like, “Then you get on a hundred north…” Note the indefinite article. Anyone from southern California would instead have instructed you to take the hundred: definite article. In Massachusetts, no article: “Then you get on one hundred north…”
A quick survey on this subject on my Facebook feed — what do people say where you live? — yielded some results. My West Coast friend Art M., who nonetheless seems to be aware of Minnesota customs, noted that he has heard folks say “the Yankee Doodle.” Meaning Yankee Doodle Avenue in and around Eagan, MN?
Feeding the phrase to my alt.brain (i.e. Google), I discovered that the Yankee Doodle Highway is an official Minnesota Motor Trail, stretching from Winona to Saint Paul. The application for this designation (official highway trail registration form 116) was filed in August of 1918. It’s easy to find road signs for this antique route on offer at online auction sites.
Wait, what? Official Minnesota Motor Trail?
|Mississippi River Scenic Highway|
|Mississippi Valley Highway|
|National Parks Highway|
In fact we find that five different Trail designations shared the river road between Winona and Saint Paul, four in addition to the Yankee Doodle Highway (see table).
In the earliest days of automobile culture in the US — the nineteen-aughts and teens — the very American idea of the Road Trip began to take hold. Individuals, couples, families would head out by motorcar to attempt to visit some attraction they might have heard of — a scenic wonder or national park, say. How to find their way thither? There were no road maps of the sort we take for granted today, especially not ones showing multiple states. There were no numbered routes at the national, state, or county levels.
Responding to the growing tide of potential customers on the roads in their near vicinity, especially after the Great War, local boosters, businesses, and towns began putting up signs by the roadside: “This way to the Falls!” More often than not such road markers were a snare and a deceit, intended only to lure the rubes out of their way and down a town’s main street or past a particular business.
Private associations began forming to develop and promote named routes, called Motor Trails or Auto Trails. They didn’t do any actual laying of concrete; they just chose a catchy name and picked existing (or barely existing!) roads to include in their Trails, favoring those whose towns and cities would pay them for the traffic. (Any analogy to the current internet is, surely, strictly a coincidence.) By 1920 hundreds of these Trail associations existed nationwide; they were, arguably, out of control. Their incentives were very much misaligned with those of the motoring public.
The associations, or their hirelings and partners (such as local automobile clubs), painted their signs or insignia on telephone poles, barns, fenceposts, rocks, or anything else facing onto the public roads. Sometimes several or many Trails would share a road, as in the table above; the signage must have been blinding. Trails often eschewed the most direct route in favor of one passing through a dues-paying sponsor’s territory. One history cites the notoriety of Utah: “The Arrowhead Trail from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles… was favored by the State of Utah because the Arrowhead kept Los Angeles-bound motorists in Utah for hundreds of miles more — desolate miles though they were — than the more famous Lincoln Highway.”
The Victory Highway was a coast-to-coast instance of a national Trail, named in honor of those who had served in WW‑I. It was essentially contiguous with what became US 40 and, later, I‑40. East of St. Louis the Victory Trail mostly ran over the same roads as the earlier (1912), established National Old Trails Road, and the two competed vigorously for attention and travelers.
One Wisconsin road official told a conference that the trails were established with “a great deal of gusto” and “barrels of paint.”
By the teens, states had begun to require official approval for the public posting of any Trails. It was an early attempt at getting the Wild West of the Trails under some sort of control. This effort would continue with the development of numbered roads, first at the state and then the federal level.
Under Chapter 318, Laws of 1917, Minnesota began accepting Form 116s, the application for the designation of a Registered Minnesota Auto Trail. The application fee was $5. Over the next 14 years the Minnesota Highway Commission and Minnesota Highway Department, predecessor organizations to MnDOT, approved 35 such Trails.
Among the national Trails crossing Minnesota were the Theodore Roosevelt Highway (Seaside OR to Portland ME), the Red Ball Route (Cedar Rapids IA to Saint Paul), and the National Parks Highway (Seattle to Chicago).
Explore a defunct web page devoted to the era of named Trails, here retrieved from the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. It shows the approximate insignia for 33 of the national Trails crossing Minnesota. The “approximate” applies because, as the page notes, “Precise colors are difficult to determine as the registration sheets were simply colored in with markers and have yellowed and faded with age.” And, “Since the signs weren’t centrally fabricated and in some cases were simply painted on telephone poles, no doubt there was considerable variation in the field.”
In the nineteen-teens some states began programs of numbering highways — see for example this account of how it went down in Wisconsin and Michigan in 1918. In 1926 federal numbered highways came into being, and the days of the local, regional, and national named Trails were numbered (as it were). By 1931 Minnesota had stopped taking applications for new ones. The national Trail associations suffered during the Depression, and in rather short order the named Trails faded from use and from public consciousness.
The full story of the coming of a federal numbered highway system is told in this 1997 (very) long read by Richard F. Weingroff of the Federal Highway Administration — it clocks in at nearly 17,000 words.
Old Online Resources
A comprehensive list of 172 national Trails, those which touch at least three states, was developed by geography professor Dave Schul in the 1990s. Many of the online resources I found devoted to the Trails era link to the original of this page — the link above goes to the Wayback Machine (and few of the links from there work). Schul’s original site has dropped out of existence. I managed to find an email address for the professor and have exchanged messages with him. He said, “The pages were hosted on an OSU [Ohio State University] server and when my old academic pages were taken down, all of my other pages were unexpectedly removed at the same time.” Schul added that, due in part to certain technical difficulties, the pages will not be resurrected.
Most of the resources I found online had last been updated in 2003, 2005, 2008 at the latest. I surmise that once smartphones started to happen, complex websites devoted to the history of maps and routes began to wither on the vine.
I find this history fascinating, and I am gobsmacked that I had never heard any of it. It would be a surpassing shame if the story of the days of named Trails were allowed to fade from human memory.