The Holy Grail of Wisconsin Road Maps

Old Wisconsin Map

Gimbel’s department store of Milwaukee offered highway maps inside this protective folder. Note the use of the term ‘Auto Trails’ which, in 1925, was about to leave our lexicon.

I’m a maphead.  I became interested in old maps when I was researching older, historic alignments of U.S. Highway 51 through Wisconsin in my (successful) attempt to plot a modern day road trip on those old alignments.  The oldest such maps that I found dated to the mid-1930s when the U.S. Highway system was roughly ten years old.  Wisconsin’s state highway system was inaugurated in 1917 and I have been trying to find a map that predated the U.S. Highway system.

Months of scouring ebay for such a map have finally paid off.  I just found the Holy Grail of Wisconsin highway maps.

Old Map Legend

The legend of the 1925 map. Five possible road surface types are listed but only one is hard surface pavement as we know it.

Maybe you have to be a true maphead to appreciate them but old maps can be a treasure trove of historical information and they don’t just trace the highway routes from city to city.  My 1925 map shows that relatively few highways were paved with what we would recognize as a solid material.  A number of highways extending from Milwaukee are shown to be “Surfaced with concrete or other permanent surfacing”, but the vast majority of roads (and keep in mind, these are State Trunk Highways) are “Surfaced with material other than concrete, largely gravel”.

Milwaukee on 1925 map

Befitting Wisconsin’s largest city, Milwaukee had numerous paved highways leading into it.

What’s more, the map’s legend shows that Wisconsin had three levels of road surface below “largely gravel” including “All weather earth roads, normally good despite rain”,  “Heavy clay earth roads, slippery after rains and heavy going after long wet spells”, and “Unsurfaced sandy roads, heavy going after prolonged dry spells”.

Madison on old map

This is Madison, the state capital. Its paved highways extended just a few miles out of town.

Unlike my 1935 map which indicates that the maximum speed limit was “reasonable and proper”, the 1925 map makes no mention of a speed limit.  Given these road conditions and the state of the art of the automobile industry at the time, speed limits were a moot point.  The muck under your tires would set your speed limit.

Wisconsin’s State Trunk Highway system was the first numbered highway network in the country when it was launched in 1917.  Its purpose was to connect all of the county seats together along with any city with a population of 5000 or more.  That population limit was reset at 2500 shortly after the system was instituted.

The numbering scheme was simple: all highways would be designated with a two-digit number or higher and the longer the route, the lower the number.  Hence, the longest route was State Trunk Highway (STH) 10 which ran from Beloit on the Illinois border straight up the middle of the state to Hurley on the Michigan border then west through Ashland and ending in Superior.

(Highway 10 no longer exists.  When the U.S. Highway System was launched in 1926 it was replaced by U.S. 51 from Beloit to Hurley and U.S. 2 from Hurley to Superior.  The number was removed from the roster of State Highways and never used again.)

Highways may be made of asphalt and concrete but their routes are not chiseled in stone.  Wisconsin’s current highway system bears little resemblence to the network depicted in my 1925 map.  Some routes, such as STH 10, were replaced by U.S. Highways or, in some cases, by Interstate Highways.

STH 15, for example, originally ran from the Illinois border near Kenosha through Milwaukee and Appleton and ended in Marinette on the Michigan border.  After this route was replaced by U.S. 41, Highway 15 was moved to the Beloit-Milwaukee route, replacing that leg of STH 61.  That segment was later upgraded and redesignated as the southern end of I-43, extending that highway’s reach from Green Bay, through Milwaukee and ending in Beloit.

Unwilling, apparently, to simply discard STH 15 altogether, highway officials kept the number in play by using it to designate a 15 mile route connecting the outskirts of Appleton to the outskirts of New London, an ignominious fate for a once major highway but at least it’s still here.  Route 66 can’t make that claim.

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