The historic auto trails offer an inventory of registered and nonregistered auto trails in Iowa that existed in the 1910s through 1920s, as well as information about currently registered historic routes, scenic byways and specially designated or commemorated highways and bridges.
Visitors should not assume that all trails listed in this site were of major importance in their time. Some may have existed only on paper, and others might have been posted, but rarely used. Many were created more as a way of getting travelers into intermediate cities on their way across the state and might not have attracted more experienced travelers familiar with shorter or better routes.
The site is a work in progress. The initial goal of the historic auto trails' Web site project was to identify the qualifying roads and bridges and offer basic information about them. As time and other resources permit, the Iowa Department of Transportation (DOT) is expanding its offering. For instance, please follow the Jefferson Highway link to learn about that trail’s rich history.
Where to find more information
In the Iowa DOT’s library are the Iowa State Highway Commission’s original auto trails registration files. Within these files is correspondence between the auto trail associations and commission, official registration documents, route maps, pole marker images, promotional materials, etc.
The library also has early maps depicting Iowa’s auto trails and extensive information about many other nonregistered routes.
The long-term goal of this project is to scan these historic resources and make the information available to the public. In the interim, the materials are available for public inspection by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 515-239-1200 to make the necessary arrangements.
The Iowa DOT welcomes additional information about these roads and bridges, as well as corrections to the existing information. If you would like to contribute information or materials, or correct errors, please contact the Iowa DOT’s Director of Public Affairs Dena Gray-Fisher at 515-239-1922. Please be sure to include your references and sources of information.
A brief history of Iowa’s historic auto trails
Before the state and national road numbering systems were adopted, Iowa’s telephone and electric poles were dotted with tourist route markings, posted there by early automobile road associations.
In the 1900s and 1910s, the budding potential of the automobile (mixed with a fear among communities of being left behind socially and economically), pushed Iowa’s General Assembly to take tangible steps to pull Iowa “out of the mud,” signaling the state’s emergence into the 20th century. Many of the early road associations and organizers in Iowa achieved statewide and national prominence, and were recognized as a beacon for international developments in transportation. As far east as Russia, visitors came to study and learn from the experienced members of the Iowa Highway Commission (IHC), the board responsible for registering the auto routes and inspiring Iowan’s to individually promote change and progress.
Iowa’s road association movement did not come without its logistical difficulties. Despite the tremendous efforts by the IHC to push into the public consciousness the need and value of registering automobile routes (to comply with the 1913 Iowa Highway Route Registration Act), many willing and able road associations were left with a sense of confusion. Many associations laboriously corresponded with the IHC to qualify for registration.
At the same time, the road associations were working feverishly to get their routes placed on the national tourist maps. The goal was to become the traveler’s route of choice, which would then result in eventual improvement of the route and local revenue generation.
The ideological Good Roads Movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which was based on the premise of grassroots leadership and promotion, and local financing, eventually succumbed to the need for a more practical roadway network overseen by the counties and state.
In the years they existed, the early road associations faced many challenges including the struggle to gain recognition, financial insecurities and internal strife.
In 1919, Iowa adopted the Primary Highway System, which resulted in the replacement of the familiar auto trail names and markers with new Iowa route numbers and signs. So, just as quickly as they had come, Iowa’s auto trails faded away, ultimately putting an end to this chapter in the state’s road-building history.
In 1926, the U. S. Congress adopted the U.S. Highway System, calling for the replacement of the variety of route markers displayed throughout the country on these roads with standardized black and white metal shields.
Although the federal act established a numbering system and standardized the appearance of road signs, states were given the latitude of continuing to recognize established auto routes. Thomas MacDonald, chief of the federal Bureau of Public Roads and former chief engineer for the Iowa Highway Commission stated, “(there is) no question about the important automobile clubs, if the state permits, putting their monograms on the standard signs for safety, the directional signs and the cautionary signs. But this one sign I think should be protected.”1
Although the colored bands of the early auto trails have faded from roadside utility poles and most metal route markers recycled during World War II, vestiges of the early auto routes, such as the “Lincoln Highway,” are still softly whispering into the future’s ear.
In recent years, there has been an emerging interest by Iowans to identify and re-mark Iowa’s historic routes and trails. There has also been an interest in establishing and naming new routes along some of Iowa’s lesser-traveled roadways. Very similar to the effort of the early auto route promoters, the goal is to divert travelers from the beaten paths to foster local tourism and economic development. This Web site offers information about the currently registered trails, byways and bridges.
Footnote: 1 “Statement of Thomas MacDonald,” American Highways: Published by the American Association of State Highway Officials, April 1928, p. 18.