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.
For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.