My research into the history of Wisconsin’s highway system has led me to building a collection of maps, some originals, some copies. Among them are official highway maps from the 1920s, ’30s, ’40s and ’50s as well copies of the Wisconsin Highway Commission’s 1918 map of the then-new State Trunk Highway System and a 1913 map from a group called the National Highways Association showing the Wisconsin segments of a proposed national highway system that was never adopted.
Among the most valuable and significant maps in my collection would have to be this more recent acquisition, the 1911 Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey’s map of state geology and roads. It was this map which the newly formed Highway Commission used to plan what would become the nation’s first numbered highway system.
This is not a glove compartment road map but a large – roughly 4.5′ x 5′ – canvas-backed wall map that would have been used in class rooms, offices and railroad stations. It is also one of the few maps from the era which shows all of the roads in the state in this much detail. The 1917 legislation which created the Wisconsin Trunk Highway System specifically directed the Highway Commission to use this map (or a later version of it) in laying out the system. W. O. Hotchkiss, who along with F. T. Thwaites, is credited with creating this map, was appointed to Wisconsin’s first Highway Commission in 1911 – the same year that this map was published – and served as the Commission’s first secretary.
By all appearances the map shows every road in the state no matter how minor. “Main traveled roads” are shown in red and would have been those more heavily traveled routes between cities and probably would have been better maintained than lesser roads. Such roads were also more likely to have been chosen for state trunk highway routes when that system was developed in 1917. One obvious exception to that, however, are the routes between the cities of Beloit and Janesville in Rock county. Three main roads connected the two cities in 1911 just as they do today, one west of the Rock River (the Afton road, now Afton Road), one running more or less parallel to the river (the river road, now U.S. Highway 51) and one to the east of the river (the prairie road, now Prairie Avenue).
The 1911 map shows that the Afton road and the prairie road were ‘main traveled roads’ which makes sense since they were on higher ground than the river road. The river road passed through low lying areas for much of it’s length and likely would have been a difficult slog in wet weather. For some reason, however, when laying out the state trunk system the Highway Commission chose the river road as the route of Wisconsin State Highway 10 between Beloit and Janesville, the route which would become U.S. Highway 51 when the U. S. Highway System was adopted in 1926.
Finding routes in the extreme northern portions of the state must have posed a significant challenge for the Highway Commission. The 1911 map shows but a single road connecting Hurley to points south and that was probably a logging road. Indeed, later highway maps show that segments of U.S. 51 in this area were still unpaved as late as the 1940s.