by Judy Aulik
Wisconsin officially numbered and sign posted its highways between 1916 and 1918, following the state trunk highway system (STH) designed by A.R. Hirst. Illinois followed in 1918 with its first round of state bond highways (SBI), and Michigan began its M system in 1919. After a five year gap, when Rand McNally resumed publishing road maps in 1917, later coupled with a proprietary, rudimentary, coated cardboard road marking system and an arbitrary space saving numbering system, it resulted in a peculiar set of road maps with five distinct highway designations, including the blazed trails, such as the Lincoln Highway. Had Rand McNally chosen the detail allowed by Wisconsin’s unusual county trunk highway lettering systems, it would have had six!
The Wisconsin State Historical Society has digitized maps of this era, as they have unquestionably passed out of copyright. Wisconsin, northern Michigan, and northern Illinois comprise District No. 8 in the Auto Trails Map series. Cartographer John Brink had an entry in a company contest which won him $100. His big idea: make a clearer highway map by numbering the major roads and trails, using a map legend which assigns a Rand McNally route number to each trail.
However, the decluttering concept fell by the wayside as his employer began to sell advertising, primarily for garages and hotels. printed in red in the clear space left.
Clearly, the extra information could prove helpful to the auto tourist. However, Brink’s Rand McNally route numbers, in white on a dark rectangle, generally conflicted with the route numbers used by the states. For example, the National Parks Pike, its eastern terminus in Madison, was designated as No. 9 on the Rand system; STH 19 (designating the highway as the 9th longest in Wisconsin) from Madison west; and blazed in red, black, and white for the National Parks Pike. After 1926, the Federal Highway system, which took over the best state routes, cleared up the confusion. The No. 9 route east of the capital city eventually became US 151; plus STH 19 west, on into Iowa (Primary Route 19; also the National Parks Pike), US 18.
Other highways the Federal Highway System also subsumed included SBI 4, which became US 66; a westerly stretch of the Yellowstone Trail in north central Wisconsin, which became US 10; and the mother of all renamings: the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial Highway (ca. 1915), which became SBI 5 (ca. 1918-1967), which also was co-blazed as the poorly publicized and long forgotten Atlantic-Yellowstone-Pacific Trail (1923, per the Iowa DoT) in northern Illinois, which was taken over by US 20 (ca. 1938, now Business US 20 in segments). Confusing, yes, but that’s why road maps and highway history are so fascinating!
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.