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Jefferson Highway

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River Drive and Jefferson Highway, St. Cloud

Colorized postcard featuring a view of Jefferson Highway and River Drive in St. Cloud, with the Tenth Street bridge in the center left, ca. 1917.

The Jefferson Highway, established in 1915 and named for President Thomas Jefferson, was a product of the early twentieth century’s Good Roads movement. Its route followed existing roads that extended from Winnipeg to New Orleans. In this way it passed through Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and Louisiana on variant routes. Like other named routes, the highway faded from public awareness after the advent of the federal numbering system in 1926.

The Jefferson Highway was a product of the early-twentieth-century promotion of “good roads” for the emergent automobile. By the mid-1920s, the US had approximately 250 named automotive trails. Some, like the Jefferson, were designated as memorial roads.

The Jefferson was a north-south counterpart of the well-known Lincoln Memorial Highway, a transcontinental route that extended from Times Square in New York City to San Francisco. Another memorial highway, the Theodore Roosevelt International Highway, crossed the country from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Oregon.

Each of the named highways had a distinctive symbol that appeared on signs and telephone poles along its route. The Jefferson Highway’s logo consisted of the interlocking letters “JH” rendered in cobalt blue on a white background framed by top and bottom bands of cobalt. Like some of the other named highways, the Jefferson also had metal signs. Their design consisted of a white background with directional arrows, graphics of a pine tree and a palm tree, and the words “Jefferson Highway” and “Winnipeg-New Orleans.”

The Jefferson Highway, along with other named highways, was promoted by a private group of “boosters” who advocated for good roads and extolled the benefits of proximity to the route. The Jefferson Highway Association (JHA), which had formed in 1915, sent its general manager, Missouri businessman J. D. Clarkson, to Minnesota in 1916 to help finalize the route.

Three paths had been proposed for the highway that began from the Iowa border: one western; one central; and one eastern. Basing their decision on such factors as road conditions, accommodations, and scenery, the JHA selected the central route.

The Jefferson Highway in Minnesota passed such iconic state landmarks as the State Capitol and the Cathedral of St. Paul. In that city’s northwest, it shared the route of the Yellowstone Trail along University Avenue. Further north, near Bemidji, it shared the route of the Roosevelt Highway and passed the famous statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. Near Little Falls, it followed the Mississippi River past Charles Lindbergh’s boyhood home and the road that was later designated part of the Great River Road.

The Jefferson Highway also passed through the state’s first state park, Itasca, known to generations of travelers and tourists as the headwaters of the Mississippi. It traversed the park and crossed the headwaters via a small bridge. Workers hired by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and Works Projects Administration (WPA) redesigned and rusticated the site in the 1930s and early 1940s.

Like other highways, the Jefferson inspired businesses along its route, such as cafes and garages, to reference the road in their names. The Jefferson Highway Transportation Company, for example, operated throughout Minnesota and Iowa along the route of the highway. The bus company was established in 1920; by 1925 it was acquired by the Zelle family, which continued to operate it as the Jefferson Lines.

Numerous highway associations, the rapidly increasing number of automobile travelers trying to follow a bewildering array of named highway markings, and varying state and local regulations, all contributed to the establishment of the federal numbering system in 1926. The Jefferson Highway became a series of federal, state, and county roads as well as city streets. This network includes US Route 65, US 10, US 71, University Avenue in St. Paul, and Broadway Avenue from Minneapolis to Robbinsdale. Whereas most of the Lincoln Highway became US Route 30 along Interstate 80 corridor, no single federal highway traverses most of the Jefferson’s original route in its entirety.

The Jefferson Highway and other named automobile routes, however, did not immediately disappear from public memory. The JHA, reorganized in 2011, has had annual conferences and has been working to preserve, promote and map the original route and its associated resources.

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Henry Jr., Lyell D. The Jefferson Highway: Blazing the Way from Winnipeg to New Orleans. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2016.

——— . “Following in the Lincoln’s Wake: The Jefferson Highway.” Lincoln Highway Forum 15, no. 4 (Summer 2008): 34–46.

Jefferson Transportation Company records, 1883–1996 (bulk 1913–1996)
Manuscript Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
http://www2.mnhs.org/library/findaids/00474.xml
Description: Records of a Minneapolis-based bus company that was also involved in retail and hotel projects in Minneapolis and Saint Paul. Includes business records of subsidiary, related, and acquired bus companies, and personal and business papers of long-time company president Edgar F. Zelle and other members of the Zelle family.

Sommer, Barbara W. Hard Work and a Good Deal: The Civilian Conservation Corps in Minnesota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2008.

“Story of the Minnesota Contest: Central Route Officially Adopted, St. Paul to Winnipeg.” Jefferson Highway Declaration 1, no. 7 (August 1916): 7–8.

Walsh, Margaret. “Minnesota’s ‘Mr. Bus’: Edgar F. Zelle and the Jefferson Highway Transportation Company.” Minnesota History 52, no. 8 (Winter 1991): 307–322.
http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/52/v52i08p307-322.pdf

Weingroff, Richard F. “From Names to Numbers: The Origins of the U.S. Numbered Highway System.” AASHTO Quarterly (Spring 1997).
https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/infrastructure/numbers.cfm

Related Images

River Drive and Jefferson Highway, St. Cloud
River Drive and Jefferson Highway, St. Cloud
Map of the route of the Jefferson Highway, 1917
Map of the route of the Jefferson Highway, 1917
Construction of Jefferson Highway
Construction of Jefferson Highway
Construction of Jefferson Highway in Anoka County
Construction of Jefferson Highway in Anoka County
Traffic on Jefferson Highway
Traffic on Jefferson Highway
Source of the Mississippi River, Itasca State Park
Source of the Mississippi River, Itasca State Park
Map of the route of the Jefferson Highway, 1921
Map of the route of the Jefferson Highway, 1921
Section of the Jefferson Highway in Little Falls
Section of the Jefferson Highway in Little Falls
River Drive and Jefferson Highway, St. Cloud
River Drive and Jefferson Highway, St. Cloud
A tour bus on the Jefferson Highway, 1925
A tour bus on the Jefferson Highway, 1925
Jefferson Highway, Itasca State Park
Jefferson Highway, Itasca State Park

Turning Point

In 1916 the Jefferson Highway Association finalizes the route of the Jefferson Highway, which begins in Winnipeg and terminates in New Orleans.

Chronology

1915

The Jefferson Highway Association (JHA) forms in New Orleans.

1916

The JHA sends general manager J. D. Clarkson to Minnesota to select a final route through the state.

1917

JHA staff begin a series of “sociability runs,” traveling from Canada to New Orleans promote the JHA. The runs continue through 1918.

1917

A bill passed by the Minnesota legislature creates a Department of Highways, the predecessor of the Minnesota Department of Transportation. Charles Babcock becomes the department’s first commissioner.

1918

The 10,000 Lakes of Minnesota organization is formed; it will later become a quasi-state agency.

1920

The Jefferson Highway Transportation Company is established, providing bus service along the route.

1922

175 miles’ worth of concrete pavement is poured along the highway from Faribault to Little Falls; a community celebration occurs in Little Falls on November 9.

1930

Workers install a state line marker between Minnesota and Iowa to commemorate the “completion” of the Jefferson Highway on October 28. The governors of both states attend the commemoration ceremony.

1941

The Civilian Conservation Corps replaces the Jefferson Highway bridge in Itasca State Park at the headwaters of the Mississippi River with a dam and rusticated stone crossing.

2011

The JHA is reorganized in Lee’s Summit, Missouri.