A History of the Black Diamond Trail

A History of the Black Diamond Trail

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Registration of early auto trails highlighted some of the growing pains associated with Iowa’s early 20th century development. Registration of the Black Diamond Trail was no exception. History of the trail’s inception reveals a dispute between two similarly marked and named routes, and an unsuccessful plea by a small community to be included.

Route registration
In July 1916, William Merner, president of the Black Diamond Trail, submitted a route registration application to the Iowa State Highway Commission (ISHC) on behalf of his organization. Upon inspection, the application lacked two key pieces of information, a notarized signature and a traced route. As a lawyer from Cedar Falls, Merner acknowledged the importance of these requirements and promptly submitted a completed application. In September 1916, the application for the Black Diamond Trail was approved by the ISHC.

The tale of competing road associations
Within days of the Black Diamond Trail’s registration, the ISHC received an application from a similarly named route---the Diamond Trail. The ISHC notified the Diamond Trail’s sponsors that a similarity existed between their name and marker, and that of the Black Diamond Trail. Upon receipt of ISHC’s letter, R.J. Smith, president of the Diamond Trail, stated that his association was "indeed surprised." He was appalled by the notion that registration of the Diamond Trail could be delayed because of a "seeming" similarity.

Smith bolstered his claim that the Diamond Trail held greater prominence in the state over the Black Diamond Trail by stating that its route markers had already been installed between Des Moines and Iowa City; and they heralded a strong, positive response from local newspapers and citizens. "From Muscatine, West Liberty, Iowa City, the intermediate papers from there to Des Moines and including the Register Leader and the Evening Tribune have had at different times favorable comment upon our road." 1

The ISHC recognized that the two trail associations had incurred considerable expense in promoting their trails, and in purchasing route markers and installing them, so they took a contemplative approach to resolving the dispute.

The ISHC began its deliberation by trying to fairly and accurately interpret the intent and meaning of the 1913 road law with respect to assuring that route markers had distinguishing characteristics. The law stated, "It shall be unlawful for any person or association of persons to use for similar purposes the name, any recorded color combination and designs herein referred to."2 The Black Diamond Trail’s marker was a solid black diamond on a white background; whereas, the Diamond Trail’s marker was an open diamond on a yellow background. While clearly not identical, the markers had similarities.

Because a decision in this matter was not easily rendered, the IHSC decided it would attempt to mediate a resolution between the two parties. Mediation proved to be a fairly common way for the commission to resolve disputes during the road association era.

Rather than bringing both parties together to facilitate a joint mediation process, ISHC Chief Engineer Thomas MacDonald corresponded with Smith, and ISHC Chief Clerk F. W. Parrott with Merner. Unfortunately, correspondence between the parties overlapped, and both associations were left with the notion that they were the one in compliance with the registration requirements.

Despite the fact that Black Diamond Trail President William Merner had conceded during the mediation process that similarity between the two marker designs could be "confusing and misleading" to travelers, and he expressed a willingness to alter their design, the IHSC ultimately approved both the Black Diamond Trail and Diamond Trail registrations, without alterations to their names or marker designs.

Le Grand pleads for inclusion
In 1919, the Black Diamond Trail once again took center political stage when a push was made to reroute the road through the community of Le Grand. The individual behind the push was Corwin O’ Neal, editor and proprietor of the Le Grand Reporter. O’Neal believed that communities located on ISHC-registered routes where afforded social and economic advantages over those that were not. So, he sought to have alignment of the Black Diamond Trail changed so that it would run through Le Grand.

After corresponding with the Kenyon Map Company in Des Moines, O’Neal was more convinced than ever that the Black Diamond Trail should be rerouted to connect it with the Lincoln Highway. He asserted that rerouting the road would "be of benefit to our people along that line." O’Neal also alleged that Le Grand was being denied the economic opportunities of other communities due to the "piece of work which is being pulled west of us at the instance of our county engineer, A.A. Moore."3 O’Neal was referring to the city of Marshalltown as the community being given the unfair advantage.

Although a formal request to reroute the Black Diamond Trail was submitted to the ISHC, the commission informed O’Neal that they had no statutory authority to alter the trail, unless the road association’s president and secretary approved.

While no road association records exist that suggest a resolution to O’Neal’s pleas, this story points out that --- roads were perceived as key to the economic well-being of a community and served as a status symbol for many small towns. Simply, being a part of the trail/road network was deemed essential to a community’s continued growth.


1Letter from R. J. Smith to Iowa Highway Commissioner, September 26, 1916, Box 1, HA2.009.
2General Assembly File S.F. 521, Chapter 125, Section 4, approved 1913.
3Letter from Corwin O’ Neal to IHC, June 16, 1919, Box 1, HA2.009.