Jefferson Highway

Highway systems are not something I usually think about in a time-based sense. And when I do think about them, it’s as unfortunate developments of the 1950s that divided cities and changed American life for the worst—and continue to do so.

However, a post about the Jefferson Highway on Ren Holland’s blog got me thinking beyond this midcentury timeframe. It’s easy to forget, or perhaps never even know, that certain elements of the built landscape once had a human touch. The old mom and pop resorts that Ren writes about (which precede the standard corporate hotels of today) come to mind. And I was surprised by Ren’s observation that there was a time when highways were named with actual names rather than numbers—what a difference that makes! Today what’s left of the Jefferson Highway is known as Highway 71 in Minnesota—and the more famous Route 66? It was originally the Will Rogers Highway. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

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Construction of the Jefferson Highway began in 1917. It was North America’s first transcontinental international highway, connecting New Orleans and Winnipeg via the small towns in-between. It is difficult to imagine a world in which a project like this—building a freeway—was uncharted territory. And I think it’s fascinating to really try to imagine the cities and towns I am familiar without their interconnecting freeway systems and how that would have changed…everything.

Pittsburgh State University has a small but interesting digital collection of the Jefferson Highway Declaration where you can read about the progress of the highway as well as the small businesses and characters affected by it. Don’t forget to peruse the ads in the back.

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Mike Conlin, owner of the unfortunately empty jeffersonhighway.com, provided the above image of an early road trip and publicity tour for the project, which went from Winnipeg to New Orleans. He notes that the average speed on the 2267 mile journey was 20 mph.

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Of course when the Jefferson Highway was completed, it didn’t resemble the highways of today. This was a country road by modern standards. And here is where the story veers back into things that I do think about (a lot)—after 100 years, things change but usually they leave a trace. In researching this post, I came across DeadPioneer’s incredible Historic Minnesota Highways blog. With aerial photos and his camera, he does an amazing job of tracing the routes of these old highways as they weave in and out of the present.

Jefferson Highway

Here he’s found a portion of the road that would be invisible to the uninformed, but once you know it’s the old road, it seems so obvious. Needless to say, I love this so much.

There is a highway just west of Minneapolis that is significantly smaller in scale than usual. Its size and the green spaces within it (planted with old lilac trees) clearly mark it as from another time, but I never thought much about it before writing this. I would have guessed it to be from the 1950s, but a quick look says it was begun in 1934 as part of the WPA project.

Also interesting: it was designed to look like a parkway. It had five wayside parks and the local garden club planted those 7,000 lilac trees in the medians and cloverleafs. If that was the standard attitude towards highway planning at the time, no wonder people were so excited about these roads and the possibility of modernizing their road systems—I have to wonder what they would think about where the whole thing ended up because it couldn’t be more different in design and spirit than what they started.

Hand lettering by Rebecca Silus for the Field Office
Photographs courtesy of: the Iowa Department of Transportation, www.deadpioneer.com, Pittsburgh State University, Mike Conlin

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