Capitol Highway

River to River Road


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Stretching from Council Bluffs to Davenport, the River to River Road greatly contributed to the good roads movement in Iowa by creating a direct route from the Missouri to the Mississippi rivers.

Rare River To River Road sign

This sign is part of Dr. Lyell Henry Jr.’s
collection. Dr. Henry, of Iowa City, has
been active in the Lincoln Highway
Association on the local, state and
national levels, and is an avid collector
of Iowa memorabilia. He taught political
science at Mount Mercy College in Cedar
Rapids until his retirement. His research
included segregation on the Lincoln
Highway, racism experienced by African
American travelers and anti-racist
advertising beginning in the 1960s.

Photo credit:
Dave Darby, executive director,
Iowa US Route 6 Tourist Association
Registration of the River to River Road (RRR) was an abnormally slow affair because of the road association’s lack of organization. After two long years of back-and-forth correspondence between the road association and Iowa State Highway Commission (ISHC), the RRR finally became an officially registered route. Despite this eventual success, the story of the River to River Road, with its many hurdles and delays, stresses the importance of good communication between the directors of emerging road associations.

The River to River Road’s tale begins in 1909, when extreme weather conditions and lack of consistent road maintenance wreaked havoc on Iowa’s roads. Complaints from the public began to flood newspaper offices. People were doing anything they could to express their dissatisfaction with Iowa’s impassable roads.

When the letters of complaints inundated The Des Moines Daily Capital newspaper office, two ambitious men decided to take action. 1 Lafayette Young, publicity writer, and J. W. Eichinger, telegraph and Iowa news editor, decided to use their wherewithal and connections with the newspaper to campaign for good roads. They embarked on this campaign by supporting the River to River Road because it passed through Des Moines, where the newspaper headquarters was located. By 1910, the two men had succeeded in raising publicity for the road when Huebinger’s Map and Guide for River to River Road was published. Huebinger’s guide spoke highly of the River to River Road and its proponents, proclaiming, “Committees of businesses and professional men and farmers in each county gladly and energetically assumed the responsibility and expense of preparation of a part of this road. The King drag was brought into action, fills were made where necessary, and in so short a time that the achievement seemed little less than miraculous, an excellent highway in all weathers was prepared the width of the Hawkeye state....”

Huebinger’s guide described the path of the River to River Road from Davenport to Council Bluffs, profiling every city, town, park, historic landmark, friendly person, and relevant gas station, and auto shop along the route. Starting in Davenport, the River to River road traveled west to Walcott, Durant and Wilton Junction, then on to Moscow, Atalissa and West Liberty. Next, the route traveled through the old state capital, Iowa City, and then farther west to Tiffin. From there, the route continued through Oxford, Homestead, South Amana, and Marengo, which was “named after the plains of Marengo, where Bonaparte fought his battle of ‘Marengo,’ June 14, 1800.”

Marengo marked the midpoint between Davenport and Des Moines, and from that point west, the RRR traveled through Ladora, Victor, Brooklyn, and Grinnell, known for Grinnell College, formerly Iowa College. Next on the route was Kellogg, Newton, and then Colfax, “the Carlsbad of America”, known for the “curative properties of its water.” Continuing west, the River to River Road passed through Mitchellville, Altoona and Des Moines. West from Des Moines, the road traveled through Adel, Redfield, Dale City, Monteith, Guthrie Center, North Branch, Exira, Oakfield, Lorah, Atlantic, Marne, Avoca, Minden, Neoloa, and Underwood, and finally ended in Council Bluffs, “an old city that was at one time the transfer point for all travel to and from the west.” It would not be for another six years after the publication of Huebinger’s guide that the River to River Road promoters would ardently campaign for their route again.

On June 1, 1916, L. V. Russell, president of River to River Road Association, wrote to Thomas MacDonald of the ISHC. Russell was brief in his correspondence, stating simply, “we wish to register our marker and our route with the Iowa Highway Commission.” Four days later, the ISHC responded to Russell’s letter including a registration form and instructions on how to register the route. The ISHC asked Russell to write back with a list of counties through which the RRR passed so that they could send the road association county maps on which to trace the route’s path. Despite the ISHC’s clear instructions and simple requirements for route registration, the River to River Road Association was unresponsive.

Eight months passed without any correspondence between the ISHC and River to River Road Association. It wasn’t until Feb.14, 1917, that the dialogue resumed when F. W. Parrott, ISHC chief clerk, wrote to Russell stating, “We assumed from the correspondence [on June 1, 1916] that you wished to register the above named road, and are rather surprised that we did not hear from you further. We are now preparing a state map showing the location of all officially registered routes, and will be pleased to show the River to River Road thereon if you will complete your application.”

Despite the ISHC’s appealing offer to be on the new state map, another two and a half months passed before Parrott heard back from the River to River Road Association. Surprisingly, the reply came from E. H. Spaulding, secretary of the association, instead of Russell, to whom Parrott’s previous letter had been addressed. Spaulding told Parrott that Russell had just given him the Feb. 14 letter regarding registration of their route and inclusion on the Iowa Trails map. Why Russell delayed taking action earlier on the registration is unknown. He may have felt that it was the secretary’s responsibility to complete the forms and this may have been his first opportunity to pass along the information to Spaulding.

Interested in the ISHC’s offer, Spaulding asked Parrott how he should proceed in getting the River to River Road on the map. The ISHC quickly responded stating that the River to River Route cannot be included on the map until the route is officially registered, the $5 application fee paid and county maps traced to show the route’s intended path. Spaulding wrote back May 7, agreeing to proceed with the application process. The ISHC sent Spaulding the registration form and requested a list of counties through which the route would pass.

On May 14, 1917, L. V. Russell sent the route registration application to the ISHC. However, he neglected to identify the counties in which the route would traverse, assuming that Spaulding had taken care of that matter. He said in a letter accompanying the application, “I presume the secretary E. H. Spaulding has sent you list of counties through which this road passes…” Unfortunately, the assumption was incorrect and the ISHC did not receive the maps.

The ISHC filed the River to River Road registration application away shortly after receiving it in May 1917, and continued to wait for the list of counties to arrive. On Nov.16, 1917, six months later, the list of counties still had not arrived. So the ISHC reminded the RRR association that to complete the registration process, it was necessary for them to identify the counties in which the route would traverse, then the ISHC could send them the respective county maps for marking the route. Russell replied three days later with a list of the counties through which the route passed, and soon thereafter, the ISHC sent to Russell the county maps on which to trace the path of the River to River Road.

Four months passed before correspondence between the ISHC and the River to River Road association resumed. On March 19, 1918, Spaulding asked ISHC Chief Engineer Thomas MacDonald for the county maps showing the path of the RRR. Spaulding said that he had been asked for the maps several times, but had no record of receiving the maps from the ISHC. In actuality, the ISHC had sent the maps to Russell in November 1917, but Spaulding had never been informed. Poor communication between Russell, who had received the maps, and Spaulding, who was unaware of the receipt, again delayed the registration process.

The ISHC responded to Spaulding’s inquiry stating that the ISHC did not have any maps of the River to River Road, except those that appeared in the Heubinger’s guide, which was from 1910, and certainly did not reflect any changes to the route since that date. The county maps, sent for a second time, along with a copy of the Heubinger guide, we mailed to the River to River Road Association.

On March 30, 1918, seven days later, the ISHC received the maps showing the path of the RRR through each county. At last, after lengthy lapses in communication, the River to River Road Association had completed the requirements for route registration and could be considered for approval by the ISHC. Shortly after that, the ISHC approved the River to River Road and sent the association their certificate of registration.

The prolonged registration process of the River to River Road highlights the frustrations that the ISHC sometimes faced when working with the road associations. Delayed correspondence, lost documents, confusion, and poor communication could delay the registration process for years. Despite the setbacks, the River to River Road Association ultimately succeeded in registering their trans-state route, improving the state’s roads and travel for Iowans and tourists alike.



1Huebinger's Map and Guide for River to River Road, Iowa Publishing Co., Des Moines, IA, 1910, page 7, Box 7, Supplementary Materials - Road Association - Map and Guide.
2Huebinger's Map and Guide for River to River Road, Iowa Publishing Co., Des Moines, IA, 1910, page 7, Box 7, Supplementary Materials - Road Association - Map and Guide.
3Huebinger's Map and Guide for River to River Road, Iowa Publishing Co., Des Moines, IA, 1910, page 3, Box 7, Supplementary Materials - Road Association - Map and Guide.
4Huebinger's Map and Guide for River to River Road, Iowa Publishing Co., Des Moines, IA, 1910, page 11-15, Box 7, Supplementary Materials - Road Association- Map and Guide.
5Huebinger's Map and Guide for River to River Road, Iowa Publishing Co., Des Moines, IA, 1910, page 19-27, Box 7, Supplementary Materials - Road Association - Map and Guide.
6Letter from Iowa State Highway Commission to L. V. Russell, June 5, 1916, Box 5, Folder HA2.081.
7Letter from F. W. Parrott of Iowa State Highway Commission to L. V. Russell, Feb. 14, 1917, Box 5, Folder HA2.081.
8Letter from E. H. Spaulding to F. W. Parrott of Iowa State Highway Commission, May 1, 1917, Box 5, Folder HA2.081
9Letter from F. W. Parrott of Iowa State Highway Commission to E. H. Spaulding, May 3, 1917, Box 5, Folder HA2.081.
10Letter from F. W. Parrott of Iowa State Highway Commission to E. H. Spaulding, May 9, 1917, Box 5, Folder HA2.081.
11Letter from Iowa State Highway Commission to L. V. Russell, Nov. 16, 1917, Box 5, Folder HA2.081.
12Letter from L. V. Russell to Iowa State Highway Commission, Nov. 19, 1917, Box 5, Folder HA2.081 and letter from F. W. Parrott of Iowa State Highway Commission, November 27, 1917, Box 5, Folder HA2.081.
13Letter from E. H. Spaulding to Thomas MacDonald of Iowa State Highway Commission, March 19, 1918, Box 5, Folder HA2.081.
14Letter from Iowa State Highway Commission to E. H. Spaulding, March 23, 1918, Box 5, Folder HA2.081.
15Letter from Iowa State Highway Commission to L. V. Russell, April 18, 1918, Box 5, Folder HA2.081.