AMES, Iowa – Nov. 9, 2009 – Did you know that North America’s first transcontinental international highway – the Jefferson Highway – traversed Iowa along what today is primarily U.S. 65, former U.S. 30/Lincoln Way and U.S. 69? Or that you can still find remnants of the grand Pine to Palm Highway on barns and buildings throughout the state?
During November, Jefferson Highway enthusiast and historian Mike Conlin of Metairie, La., is retracing the entire route in what he has called a “Reawakening of an International Treasure” and mapping expedition. Today’s stops in Iowa included a visit to the Iowa Department of Transportation’s (DOT) headquarters in Ames Nov. 9, where Conlin had an opportunity to view the Jefferson Highway’s original 1916 Iowa route registration documents and other related materials in the Iowa DOT’s archives.
The Jefferson Highway (named in honor of President Thomas Jefferson) and Jefferson Highway Association were the brainchild of businessman, publisher, political activist, and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Edwin Thomas (E.T.) Meredith of Des Moines. Learn more about Meredith, the Jefferson Highway and formation of the Jefferson bus line by visiting the Iowa DOT’s historic auto trails Web site.
During this country’s early road-building period, auto trails were generally organized and marked at a local or state level. The Jefferson Highway, with its end points in two countries and spanning many states, was different. Its most northern point was Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. From there the route went through Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Texas, and ended in New Orleans.
Cities along the Jefferson Highway included the Iowa communities of Northwood, Kensett, Manly, Freeman, Mason City, Rockwell, Sheffield, Chapin, Hampton, Iowa Falls, Hubbard, Zearing, Colo, Nevada, Cambridge, Ankeny, Des Moines, Somerset, Indianola, Cool, Medora, Liberty, Osceola, Weldon, Van Wert, Leon, Davis City, and Lamoni. See the 1917 Iowa map of the route.
The first meeting of the national Jefferson Highway Association was held in New Orleans in November 1915 and presided over by former U.S. Senator Lafayette Young of Des Moines (editor and proprietor of the Des Moines Capital, a rival paper that eventually merged with the Des Moines Register.)
Two Iowa-based road association organizers eventually became president of the Jefferson Highway Association – W.A. Hopkins of Lamoni and Hugh H. Shepard of Mason City.
Before the route was numbered, many businesses and private citizens painted murals on their barns and buildings to help travelers find their way and experience local commerce. Some of the murals, landmarks and other memorabilia of the route still exist, including the Reed-Niland Corner gas station, tourist cabins and restaurant in Colo at the junction of the Lincoln and Jefferson highways. The site, another one of Conlin’s stops in Iowa, has been preserved through an Iowa DOT transportation enhancement grant.
For more information about Conlin’s adventures and research, call 504-638-1018 for an interview en route or visit his Jefferson Highway Web site.
[Note: Conlin has painstakingly created an interactive and detailed map of the route and is using this trip to verify its accuracy and existence of the remaining segments of the original route.]
For information about Iowa’s historic auto trails and resources available from the Iowa DOT, contact: Dena Gray-Fisher, 515-239-1922 or firstname.lastname@example.org.