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A History of the Hiawatha Pioneer Trail

Hiawatha Pioneer TrailThe 2,400-mile Hiawatha Pioneer Trail, touted as a tourist-promotion route, once traversed the states of Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, connecting historic sites, scenic areas, natural features, state parks, and museums in the four states. Approximately 600 miles of the main trail were located in Iowa, and another 500 miles on an alternate route through the state.


Although the trail was officially endorsed by the four governors as a way to boost tourism and economic development in their states, establishment of the trail was actually the marketing brainchild of the American Petroleum Institute (API). API was also behind establishment of the Lincoln Heritage Trail in 1961, and New England Heritage Trail and George Washington Heritage Trail in the east.

While API boasted the fact that they would be contributing nearly $1 million toward campaigns advertising the Hiawatha Pioneer Trail, their ultimate goal was not as altruistic might have seemed, in fact, it was more about getting people traveling in their cars using the petroleum products sold by their members.

The idea of establishing this meandering route was discussed at the Governors’ Conference in January 1963. The official stated purpose for the route’s formation was to “package” vacations in the four states.

The first formal meeting of the trail organization was called by Iowa Governor Harold E. Hughes and held in Amana, Iowa, in September 1963. Other governors attending included Otto Kerner of Illinois, John W. Reynolds of Wisconsin, and Karl Rolvang of Minnesota.

In October 1963, at a workshop held in Madison, Wisconsin, a trail symbol was proposed and tentative locations of the route were drawn. In December of that same year, another meeting was held in Rochester, Minn., at which time the trail was officially adopted as the Hiawatha Pioneer Trail. In February 1964, the governors of the four states met in Minnesota and approved the trail’s plans.

On May 15, 1964, the trail was official opened.

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