The proliferation of automobiles radically changed how humans traveled from place to place, most dramatically in the time it took to get there. In the beginning, speed wasn’t much better since most roads weren’t even out of their stagecoach trail days (just take a look at the roads still called “Stagecoach Road” or “Stage Road” or something or other “trail” around). There was no GPS and maps weren’t necessarily all that helpful without any kind of coordinated effort to keep them up to date. So folks got the idea to create named routes and mark them with colored bands and signs on telephone poles.
Most famously, there was the Lincoln Highway from New York City to San Francisco, from which the photo above comes — it shows the highway near Soda Springs, California, in 1915 from Effie Price Gladding’s account of her cross-country trip on the Lincoln. But over all there were a couple hundred of these routes with names, along with some very inconsistent and locally-led numbering. The named highways were maintained by highway associations, and … let’s just say things could be rerouted with the right impetus and the routes weren’t always the most direct.
Federal Highway Administration information specialist Richard Weingroff explains the beginning of the end:
On Sunday, August 30, 1925, AAA President Thomas P. Henry and General Manager Ernest N. Smith stepped into their Cadillac and began a 1-week, 24-hour a day drive from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco, California. They wanted to demonstrate how the large, powerful touring cars of the day could give motorists new thrills for their “jaded road appetite.”
They arrived in San Francisco on Friday, September 4, after a run that took only 96 hours. With the aid of AAA affiliates, Henry and Smith had little difficulty finding their way until they reached western Utah, where a signboard signaled the parting of the Lincoln Highway (a direct route from New York City to San Francisco) and the Victory Highway (New York City to San Francisco via Baltimore). Henry and Smith turned the Cadillac to the right and took the Victory Highway but soon came to a hill. “Six roads led over the top,” Smith wrote in his account of the journey, “and each road was worse than the other.” He found his way by walking ahead half a mile to be sure the road he thought was the correct one would carry them through. “For the next two hours we pitched and tossed, dropping into chuckholes and raising clouds of dust.”
Wisconsin led the way, back in 1917, to get out of the naming morass, but it wasn’t until after this little trip by Henry and Smith that the federal government decided to try its hand at some organization. As you might expect, state and local folk objected to having the federal government mess with their little pieces of the pie, even if it was in the name of making things easier for the citizens — the all powerful dollar and all that. And so it came to pass that the first US highway system had quite a few more miles of roads than its originators intended, mostly to keep folks like Governor Austin Peay of Tennessee from pulling their states out of the system because they didn’t like the decisions of the road boards.
Lots of wrangling and arm twisting and the like ensued, and finally there was a map of highways with a uniform numbering system that carried across state lines:
Now travelers could go across the country using a relatively direct route, not at the whims of a highway association or state government that contrived to keep most of a route without its borders. Well, somewhat. Still, it was a far sight better than it was.