Auto Trails

America’s First Roads

Some evolved from the footpaths of 19th century American travelers, others were born from the wagon trails of Americans moving from east to west, some were even developed exclusively for motor travel after the rise of the automobile began.

As roads for auto travelers increased across the country, it quickly became clear that the need for usable roads that were properly marked and controlled was a desperate one. Local governments were primarily responsible for the auto trails in the beginning which meant they were concerned mainly with the routes through their individual towns.

Various highway organizations began popping up across the country to maintain and mark the trails. Most of them were just a group of people in one town or another keeping track of the section of road that ran through their town. Little consideration was given to regional travel, let alone transcontinental travel. Business people of the 1920s recognized what the development of these regional and transcontinental routes could mean for their livelihoods and they began creating the private highway associations that promoted the development of each of these routes. This early highway system consisted of roads that were usually marked by colored bands on telephone poles or fence posts.

Eventually the highway association system became a little more professional, like the Lincoln Highway Association. Owners of restaurants, hotels and other traveler-oriented businesses joined their route’s highway association to promote it and compete with the other highway associations to lure travelers in their direction.

It didn’t take long for the chaos of such a system to set in. Contributions from businesses along the routes tended to pad the pockets of the so-called “highway professionals” salaries the highway associations claimed to have. What was left of the money after that seemed to go to publicity of the route. Not much was left over to develop and improve the “good roads” they advertised. And there were getting to be too many different auto trails. Markers for the various routes often shared poles with other routes for their markers. Some were said to have as many as 11 markers painted on one pole. Spotting the route marker for a motorist was difficult. Spotting them on a map seemed just as challenging – at one point in the early 1920s there were over 300 different named highways on maps, most not even marked on the ground.

Was the public money for highway improvements being spent in the best ways to serve the auto traveler? That was the question in the mid-1920s when the Joint Board of Interstate Highways met. Made up primarily of state and local officials, they established a numbering system for the major auto trails: The east-west highways were even numbered – U.S. Highway 2 was along the Canadian border while U.S. Highway 90 ran along the Gulf Coast. The north-south routes were given odd numbers, with U.S. Highway 1 running along the Atlantic coast and U.S. Highway 101 traveling along the Pacific coast. The administrative and financial responsibilities were given to the states.

The Auto Trails system was officially replaced with the current numbered highways system in 1926.


This is by no means a complete list of auto trails, I seem to add to it every month. For many of them I have the name but no other information and for others I have quite a bit of information, including the numbered highways that replaced the named trails. Please let me know if you have any information to add!


From Names to Numbers: The Origins of the U.S. Numbered Highway System – Federal Highway Association Website

U.S. 40 Today – Thomas R. Vale & Geraldine R. Vale, 1983, University of Wisconsin Press