Research last week led me to “auto trails,” mostly two-lane highways that began replacing horse-and-buggy roads early in the 1900s.
I drafted a sidebar—a little explanation that sits outside the main story—for a project….which has nothing to do with auto trails. Here goes:
When Americans first drove cars early in the 1900s, roads were meant for horse-and-buggy travel. For quite some time, the United States government and individual states didn’t build or maintain road systems. So-called “auto trails” arose. Best known is the Lincoln Highway, from Chicago eastward to New York and westward to San Francisco.
Most trails were paid for by entrepreneurs who signed up roadside businesses to join their groups. Money came first, and quality came second.
From 1910 to 1920, the number of America’s registered vehicles grew from half a million to nearly ten million. Long distance travel became a kind of “free for all,” as the old saying about horse racing went.
The Wisconsin state highway engineer stated wryly, “The ordinary trail promoter has seemingly considered that plenty of wind and a few barrels of paint are all that is required to build and maintain a 2000-mile trail.” Wisconsin became the first state to number its roads. Others followed.
In the early 1920s, the Federal and state governments began to take over the American highway system. President Dwight Eisenhower helped to establish an interstate highway system in 1956 that’s still part of our long-distance road tripping today.
Learn more about auto trails from the Federal Highway Administration.