by Judy Aulik
In a strange burst of synchronicity a century ago, two numbered highway systems arose: that of commercial map publisher Rand McNally, and that of the State of Wisconsin. One interpreted the national blazed trails, the other rejected it entirely. W.W. Rowland catalyzed the latter.
Rand McNally cartographer John Brink understood that a road map with written trail names along its roads was confusingly cluttered. His $100 idea was to place a legend on the Auto Trails (and Junior Auto Trails) maps with a number, the trail marking, and the trail name. Routes were tagged with the number in white in a dark rectangle. Although Rand McNally did attempt to sign these roads, the waterproofed cardboard signs were unlikely to survive the way Goodrich’s Guide Posts would. The clutter Brink removed, however, reappeared in advertising of area hotels and restaurants in certain road maps.
Consider using a highway map to navigate. The maps of the last 90 years had alphanumeric symbols printed on each highway, and road quality was designated by the type or color of line used. Try navigating through a major city if these signs are absent from the road! Navigating the state had the same trouble prior to 1918. Before the State Highway Trunk System, you were lucky to have a map. The Journal map insets, and accompanying text, plus The Call of the Open Road showed you if, for instance, a road was unimproved and likely to be muddy, but unless a trailblazer had marked the route, you wouldn’t know if you were on the correct road unless it followed a railroad or river.
After Wisconsin State Highway Commission employees A.D. Hirst and W.O. Hotchkiss developed the system, numbering the highways from 10-99 according to the length of each, in one mad week in May, 1918, county highway departments erected numbered road signs. The first major style was a wooden post with a flared top. The cut yielded triangular sign, with the route number above WIS in the tapered point was painted on the face. It was also used as a milepost, with the mile number painted on the round post beneath the route sign.
Although the state official 1917 map was not intended for the tourist, it bore some resemblance to the modern road map. By 1918, it was improved. Blazed trails were deemed illegal in the state, although only the Yellowstone Trail was truly affected. However, the map still looked a bit makeshift, with the state trunk highways in red, overlaid on the Poole Bros. map base. Mileages between cities or intersections were still unlabeled, and highway surfacing unmarked. In use, until the mid-’20s, Wisconsin official maps, although free and accurate, fell short of the nearly streamlined maps The Milwaukee Journal and its Tour Club provided at low cost for the auto tourist.
-End Part Two-
Special thanks to the AGSL guest blogger, Judy Aulik. With an extensive road map collection of her own, Judy Aulik has served as past President of the Road Map Collectors Association, an organization founded in 1996. Now boasting a membership of several hundred in the US, Canada, and Europe, the club publishes a quarterly newsletter, has a website, Facebook page, and hosts an annual “Road Map Expo.” Judy is a retired Adult Services Librarian with a PhD from UW-Madison. She recently spoke to the Wisconsin Map Society about the history of the Milwaukee Journal Tour Club, and its influence on highway signage and mapping.