The US numbered Highway System
Thanks to the Modern Federal Interstate
Highway System, it is now possible to travel across the
country from coast to coast without seeing anything, unless
steel guardrails and signs are your thing. Just about each
exit on the interstate highway system looks and sounds and
smells just like the next one. This progression of "State
of the Art Highways" has its place in America for fast
trips, freight hauling and the like but it is not the most
appealing place for the motorcycle rider. Even though the
Eisenhower Interstate System is 99% complete with more that
45,000 miles of slab, there exists another older form of
Interstate Highway system in the US that I personally find
more pleasurable to travel. It is called the US Highway
system but is actually a group of state highways that retain
the same identification across state boundaries. The Eisenhower
Interstate System has consumed some of the old US Interstate
system, but most remain and you might want to consider riding
them when possible.
the early days of automobile travel almost all roads in
the US were named, and most were named after the wagon trails
that had been carved by some pioneering spirit of the past.
The "National Old Trails Road" and the "Lincoln
Highway" set the standard of the time. By 1925 the
Trails Association had listed over 250 routes. Some of these
you might have heard of since they ran through Kansas. The
"New Santa Fe Trail", "Atlantic-Pacific Highway",
"National Roosevelt Midland Trail", "Pikes
Peak Ocean to Ocean Highway", Union Pacific Highway"
and the "Victory Highway" were all ways to cross
Kansas. Many early highway names changed from time to time
to honor a different place or individual or group.
of the association's meetings were political, deciding on
whom to honor, federal of confederate, man or woman, living
or deceased instead on how to improve the roads. Many parts
of these roads were indeed trails. Needless to say motorcycle
travel would have been tough. In 1924 the Reno Evening Gazette
the transcontinental highway associations,
with all of their clamor, controversy, recrimination and
meddlesome interference, build mighty few highways
9 of 10 cases these associations are a common nuisance and
In 1910 there were half a million vehicles in the US. By
1920 there were 10 million, by 1930 there were 26 million
and without a network of highways most of these vehicles
were not traveling very far from home. Long distance travel
and freight hauling was still overwhelmingly by railroad.
1923 some folks from the Mississippi Association of State
Highway Departments adopted a standard for highway signing.
They decided on the round, octagonal, diamond, square and
rectangular shapes that are still in use today. Before that
a skull & crossbones was a favorite warning. Signs such
as DRIVE SLOW - DANGEROUS AS THE DEVIL and DANGER GO SLO
1924 the annual meeting of AASHTO (American Association
of State Highway and Transportation Officials) was held
to discuss "How shall interstate highways be named
and marked?" A subcommittee was formed with a member
from each state to layout an interstate highway system.
The representative from Wisconsin doodled on a bar napkin
a sort of shield that the board accepted, and is still used
today. Wisconsin in 1917 passed a law to number all of their
highways and disregard their names, ahead of their time,
wouldn't you say? The joint board convened on May 27th,
1924 in the Baltimore Hotel in Kansas City to finalize the
naming / numbering convention for interstate highways and
to begin the process of laying out the highway system for
the entire nation.
expected the states, the Trails Associations and the big
cities all fought over some major political issues. Use
names, not numbers, my state does not have enough highways;
we don't want a highway to Cleveland! And so forth. More
meetings were held in major cities and a consensus was quickly
agreed that future highway needs could be foreseen that
would be sufficient for a long period of years. After finally
getting Kansas to give up their highway names, after fighting
over the various signage designs, and after reducing the
committee size to five plus the US Agriculture Secretary,
the map was completed. They decided on 8 major east/west
and 10 north/south routes. Numbers were then added to the
next most important routes, 32 highways in all covering
Joint Board's report and map had expanded the total mileage
to 75,800 miles and had determined a naming convention:
North/south roads are numbered odd from east to west. East/west
roads are numbered even from north to south. Principal N/S
routes are two digits ending in 1 or 5. Principal E/W roads
are two digits ending in zero. Three digit roads are short
sections, cutoffs, and crossovers. Alternate routes are
100 plus the principal route. Branches are sequential, first
being 1XX, then 2XX and so on. This was complete on October
26th, 1925, less that a year and a half, which is pretty
amazing considering today's glacial speed at which our politics
operate. The new roads were named and the sign guys were
very busy. The Board's final report stated that absolute
consistency was neither possible nor desirable.
course some Cities, States and Trails Associations threatened
and fought and went kicking and screaming the new convention
was completed at 96,626 miles in November 1926 with the
final adoption on US66 for the Chicago-LA road. The 1926
atlases were mostly wrong due to the last minute US66 and
other minor changes. Finally admitting defeat, the Lincoln
Highway Association on September 1, 1928 disbanded and the
Boy Scouts of America laid 3000 concrete posts along each
mile of the road, each containing a small bronze bust of
Abe and the words: "This highway dedicated to Abraham
Lincoln". It traveled through Kansas.
highways EVEN numbers, major roads end in ZERO, starting
with US10 near the Canadian border.
N/S highways ODD numbers, major roads end in ONE, or FIVE,
starting with US1 near the Atlantic Ocean.
Three digit roads are less important than two digit roads
and have some number significant with the main road they
are associated with.
St. Louis has the most major routes passing through the
city. US40, US50, US60, US61.
US6 was the longest road at 3,365 miles, from Provincetown
MA to Long Beach, CA.
Interstate highways have the same N/S & E/W rules except
they start their numbers from the south I-10 in Texas and
the west I-1 in California.)