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American Roads: Site Map > Auto Trails > Auto Trail Articles > Outing article November 1915



What the Middle West Is Doing to Show the Way to Those Who Follow the Roads.

― Reprinted from Outing magazine, November 1915, p.149


THROUGHOUT the Middle West there is an intensive cultivation of trail and road routes by which the tourist afoot or awheel may make his way safely in circuits more or less extended. I have been for days following these lines or crossing them, and the pleasure it gives to know that one is upon the true route is very great.
Some of the trails are well marked, some not. Cryptic signs direct the traveler this way and that, but the uninitiated may travel for thousands of miles without knowing the meaning of the painted telegraph pole, the red ball on a white fence, the yellow streak in a sea of white, the barber-pole out at the mid-field crossroads.
Away back in Ohio, I came upon a series of poles along the road which was leading me Westward Ho. I sometimes lost the streak for a time, and then picked it up again. Then a garage man, of whom I asked the way to Toledo, said:
"Follow the painted poles; they'll take you right into Chicago!"
"Follow the painted poles?"
"Yes—a white band, with a red streak around the middle. 'R' stands for right turn, 'L' stands for left turn— look out for the cars!"
This was the first I knew about the cross-the-states trails movement, and thenceforward I found myself looking eagerly for the trail signs. It added vastly to the road interest and it made the travel a great deal easier, for one has trouble in finding the shortest and best way across country if he must stop at every crossing and ask his way.
For my guidance I had some road routes which I picked up here and there. They were mostly local and supplemented by local information. I readily found my way into Ohio and nearly across the State, but near Norwalk I struck the now famous detour which everyone who made his way by car or motorcycle that way will not forget. One auto traveler said that he wouldn't go over one of the two choices for fifty dollars, and he said when he had made the other that not for a hundred dollars would he take that other one. But the detour was the promise of better things for it was necessary on account of building a good road.
Chicago Buffalo Highway markerI now followed the lead of the red-and-white banded poles for several hundred miles into Valparaiso, Indiana, and there cut across to Joliet and westward, but let there be warning regarding the Lincoln Transcontinental Highway in that neighborhood of Joliet.
This is a splendid conception, the idea of a straight-through trail from coast to coast. It is a thrilling experience, out in the level corn-lands, to come upon a road which one knows is marked clear across the country, and in a very short time the road is to be in good condition. There were miles and miles of detours on it this year because of putting down brick and other standard pavement along its way.
But the worst mud I struck was on the Lincoln Highway out of Gary, westward toward Joliet—ruts a foot deep and the roughest kind of going. But only two miles to the southward was a fine gravel road which I got to via a gravel road that crossed the transcontinental highway eight or nine miles west of Joliet. The need of occasional deviations from the standard routes is thus apparent, and the best generally available source of local information on this point is, of course, the local garages, supplemented by word with automobile tourists bound in the opposite direction.
There are scores of maps issued now, showing favorite routes. Some are advertisements and some are club information and some are combinations and some are individual ideas. All are useful, and the more one has of them, the better off he is for trips and alternate trips.


Did You Ever Hear of These?

But the Marked Pole Trails are in the Middle West, and they are a delight to the traveler. They make the way interesting and easy, and the possibilities of combinations and divergencies are innumerable. One becomes a regular Indian for following the Paint Blazed Trails. Also, one finds himself a white man once in a while, off the trail and away out yonder somewhere, doubtful which way to turn.
Lincoln Highway markerSome of the trails are national. Thus the Lincoln Trail reaches from NewYork to San Francisco, and the way is marked with painted poles clear across, especially at the corners. Other trails are like the Red Ball route, a kind of sectional and local trail. The Red Ball runs from St. Paul to St. Louis. It has 606 miles of roadway and goes through Minnesota, Iowa, and Missouri.
Red Ball Route markerThe Red Ball in the course of its wanderings crosses the Waubonsie Trail at Keokuk, the Blue Grass Route at Point Pleasant, the Great White Way near Ainsworth, the River-to-River Road at Iowa City, the Chicago, Kansas City and Gulf Highway at Iowa City, the Red X Route to Dubuque and Milwaukee, the Lincoln Highway at Waterloo, the Hawkeye Highway at Waterloo, the North Iowa Pike at Charles City, the Imperial Highway at Osage, the Capital National Highway at Owatonna (the route between St. Paul and Des Moines), with junctures with King's Highway, Cross State Highway, and connections with Davenport, Sterling, and other towns.
One finds the public utilities poles, the fences, the trees, and other conspicuous objects decorated with the signs of these many through routes. A telephone pole will have several different markers on some corners or crossroads. There will be a white and yellow band, a red ball, a black and white mark, for example. Sometimes for a few miles one sees two or three different routes indicated. The road is lonesome which does not have a route or two along it.
I know that many tourists have never heard of these various trails which have local, state, or national significance. But the promoters of the routes have been working on the minds of the people along the painted ways. Out in a little town in Illinois when I turned the wrong way a whole tribe of small boys, seeing my touring outfit, yelled in unison:
Cannon Ball Trail marker"That ain't the Cannon Ball Trail, mister!" The first I had heard of it.
When I was running westward on the River-to-River, a winged ant got into my carburetor and tied me up. As I sat beside the road adjusting it an automobile came along and the driver stopped in the kindly Western way to proffer assistance. Then, learning that I proposed to go to Omaha and turn north via Sioux Falls to the Yellowstone Trail, he advised me that the Red Ball through eastern Iowa would give good roads and a somewhat shorter route. He gave me one of the route folders, and I diverted my course a few hundred miles on his advice and found myself upon a fine dirt road, with less sand and fewer ruts than I had feared.
Two weeks before, out in Indiana, I had met some transcontinental tourists. They were plowing along, with mud thick upon their machines, and they declared that they carried a large section of Iowa soil with them, which one could well believe. For weeks rain had poured and Iowa, central and north, was declared to be impassable, or nearly so.
Yet when I came into Iowa I found the roads perfectly delightful, hard and dry and smooth. It was almost like macadam, and in many places the dirt was much preferable to macadam, for it rode easier and was far less bouncing. The dustiest day of my trip was through central Iowa.
So what could one say to the tourist who asked for information about routes? The Illinois routes are mostly gravel, with stretches of dirt. At Plainfield, Ill., I had sixteen miles of perfectly delightful black-soil roadway, level as a floor, between corn that stood ten feet high and echoed back the shooting of the open muffler, and so smooth that it was like a racetrack for miles and miles. There were clouds overhead, however, and I knew that if once they began to let fall rain the beautiful roadway would become like heavy grease and would be practically impassable for a motorcycle.
All these Western dirt roads show the zigzag courses of automobile wheels where they plowed along through the mud and left ruts of from a mere depression to more than a foot deep— more than two feet deep in places, and there the farmers were called upon to hitch up and haul them out.
But I found that the way to beat the mud is to wait for it to dry up. The roads dry up overnight. I rode, for example, through northwestern Iowa, where I heard from Buffalo to Ottawa, Illinois, that the roads could not be navigated—did in two days what must have taken two weeks a little earlier in the summer.
"Keep out of Iowa!" I was warned, but the best route was through Iowa, as soon as the rain stopped falling and the farmers had ironed out the creases, which they did as soon as the water ran out of the ruts. The result was a better road than if there had been no such rains.
The local pride in being on the Cannon Ball Trail, the Red Ball Route, the Lincoln Highway is working wonders with these Middle Western thoroughfares. The rivalry between sections is bringing the road commissioners to put extra efforts on the standard routes. In some sections, as in Ohio, the pride is to get the good roads to the trading centers, and these routes are apt to be counter to the course of the cross-country traveler, but in Indiana, Illinois, Iowa the trunk lines are being developed and the traveler finds his detours compelled chiefly by the repairing and rebuilding operations.
Whoever started the idea of giving thoroughfares a distinctive name and distinctive markings did more for the development of good roads movements than almost any other one thing, barring, of course, the inventors of the wheel, the gas engine, and the automobile.


Good Time Coming

It is only a question of a very short time now when the good roads will carry one from end to end of the country. One goes clear across New York State, from New York to west of Buffalo, for example, and finds only macadam, brick, and concrete roads. In western New York the stone roads are mostly north-and-south, however, and only well-kept gravel and dirt roads follow the lake shore. But these dry off in ten hours, after the longest, hardest rain.
One cannot help but look forward to the time when the Old Natchez Trace, the National Road, the various pioneer trails will all be thoroughly built up and marked.
The question of markings is important. Much of the road pleasure is in the association of names with places. The automobile clubs and others which are developing the good roads will have to make some additions to their present work before they arrive at the complete satisfaction which is to be theirs.
One of the simplest of these is the marking conspicuously of state lines. I have crossed seven states and there was not a conspicuous marker anywhere to indicate that fact except, by inference, the Mississippi River. I invariably had to ask where the state line was, even on the main road along the south side of Lake Erie from New York into Pennsylvania and from Pennsylvania into Ohio.
Then another set of markers indicate the names of the most important streams. One looks in vain for the name of a stream on any bridge or viaduct. One could cross practically all the great rivers and never know the name. A single board in mid-span would give the tourist infinite interest and pleasure, and it is surprising that bridges are not marked with the names of streams, and the line bridges with the names of states and counties. One can stop on any bridge and learn what road commissioners and supervisors and other political potentates constructed or caused to be constructed the bridge, but one looks in vain for the stream's name. The result is that one does not know for certain whether he is on the Illinois or the Iowa, or the Des Moines, or Des Chutes. Every one has a historical recollection of the Maumee, Miami, Wabash, but what tourist who crossed these streams with a mere road map knows the name of the stream for certainty?
But great is the work that the trail-markers have done, and fine is the sensation one has when following the painted posts. The turns are made to conform to the best roads, as a rule, and when one is around the corner, and the posts are not painted, the fact is noted instantly—then it is back up and look for the signs again. They have become indispensable for the tourist.


Copyright © S. Varner 2006