Highway Marking Marker

US Highway 16 at the Rock River, east of Ixonia

Historical Marker Commemorating Highway Marking




In the old days when both automobiles and roads were few in number, it was easy for those who had cars to get far enough away from home to get lost. While there were some “trails” such as the Cannon Ball Trail and the Yellowstone Trail (marked by daubs of yellow paint on any convenient object along the roadside) the long-distance traveler was usually guided by such natural features as hills, boulders, creeks and rivers, or by man-made landmarks (bridges, barns, schoolhouses, etc.). In 1917 the Wisconsin Highway Commission engineers recommended and inaugurated, with the Legislature’s authorization, the first statewide system of identifying highways by number. This highway was designated State Trunk Highway 19 (later U.S. 16) and was the first to be marked and signed by numerals. The now familiar number system was later adopted by all other states and many foreign countries.

Erected 1956

Photo taken by J.R. Manning




Back when automobiles were a curiosity and roads were little more than unpaved ruts between farm fields, pioneering motorists recognized that a system of identifying roadways was the only way to keep motorists from getting lost. An uncoordinated system of named highways resulted, usually marked with painted indicators on telephone poles. Over the years, a dizzying array of named highways cris-crossed the country.

In 1917, the Highway Department in the State of Wisconsin decided that the best way to identify trunk highways was with numbered highways. The very first system of numbered highways went into place in May of 1918. This historical marker, just off US 16 (formerly Wisconsin 19) commemorates the first system of numbered highways in America.

The World's First Numbered Highway System 

Written by J.R. Manning

Drivers today take interstates, freeways, expressways, boulevards and paved streets for granted. The Interstate system has always been there if you're under 40 but if you're older, you remember what crummy highways were once out there. Even before that, highways were anything but high and hardly a way.

Before the turn of the 20th Century, there were few, if any, routes marked for interurban transit and little need for them. The United States was primarily an agrarian society and most Americans lived their entire lives within 25 miles of home. Most cross country travelers rode first, in stagecoaches and later, in passenger trains. Many rural roads were little more than an unplowed alley between fields and mostly used by farmers to get product "to town."

The rising of what was called "The Good Roads Movement" in the United States was spurred on by bicycle riders before the days of the automobile. Many farmers resisted the building of good roads, many times because road improvements were often tied to assessments to land adjacent to the roadway. This regressive tax kept road improvement at bay in Iowa for many years with referendum after referendum going down to defeat. When the road improvement taxes were spread out over the state, Iowa came out of the mud and became a showplace of road development.

Wisconsin was a key player in the development of today's highway system. License plates were used in Wisconsin starting in 1905 and in 1907, the legislature laid out a system of county roads. By 1911, the increased popularity of the automobile made it obvious that longer distance (so called “trunkline”) roadways were needed.

In 1913, the Lincoln Highway Association started to build the first cross-country paved highway and soon, nearly 250 named trails and roads criss-crossed the United States in a dizzying array. In Wisconsin, the Yellowstone Trail entered through Kenosha and exited the state through Hudson.

Named roads used signs such as this one.
Often there was no sign, simply three bands of
color painted around a utility pole. When many
named roads used a concurrent route, a dizzying
array of color stripes might be painted around
utility poles. In time, the named highway
indicators became more confusing than helpful.

"The Yellowstone Trail" was a coast-to-coast
road that ran from Plymouth Rock to Puget Sound.
It was the only named, national road to traverse
Wisconsin, entering in Kenosha and exiting at Hudson.

Travelers who wished to venture out with automobiles used tour guides published by automobile clubs or private enterprise. Guides known as “Blue Books” and “Green Books” provided directions for motorists. Most were written like a car club tour, with directions such as “Continue north to the church, turn left and go three miles to the yellow farmhouse then turn right to the school.” Farmers who hated automobiles for many reasons, might repaint their landmark house to spite the “automobilists.”

It was a problem on many levels.

Plans were underway to try to straighten out the mess. States were wrestling with their own trunk highway systems while the federal government was concerned with interstate travel. In 1916, the first federal highway legislation was passed and it inspired the first plan for a state trunk highway system. That first plan for a trunk highway system was in Wisconsin.

In 1918, named trails were outlawed in Wisconsin which made the Yellowstone Trail, the only national trail in Wisconsin, illegal. A system of numbered trunk highways was designed to connect county seats and population centers of more than 5,000 people. The lowest numbers were to be the longest routes. To avoid any kind of perception that numbers might be a ranking of importance, no single digit numbers were used for state highways. When federal highways came into play in 1926, Wisconsin also decided that there would be no duplication of state and federal numbers. The philosophies of no duplication of numbers and no single digit state highways remains in effect today. (Hwy 2 & Hwy 8 are federal routes.)

In one week during May of 1918, county work crews went out throughout the state. Armed with stencils and paint, they marked state trunk highway routes using newly-assigned numbers. It was the first time in the world that highways were numbered and marked. Oil companies began to print maps with Wisconsin’s numbered highways shortly thereafter.

Michigan followed later in 1918 as did Minnesota in 1919. Soon numbered state highways became the norm across the country. (It must also be noted that Ohio had printed maps with numbered routes as early as 1912, however, no signage was erected in Ohio until 1922.)

The federal mandate for numbered highways did not come into play until 1926. Even numbers go east-west and odd numbers go north-south. Cross country highways end in 0, 1 or 5. This meant Wisconsin had to adjust state numbering to accommodate US Routes 10, 41, 45 and 51. US 10 is the only major highway interrupted by a lake and is continued by ferry service aboard the S.S. Badger.

The markers for Wisconsin Trunk Highways in 1918 consisted of a triangle with the apex pointing downward. It was taller than wide, with the number of the highway and the letters, “WIS” painted vertically, into the apex of the triangle. The text, “State Trunk Highway” was spelled out across the top, in very small letters. Other signs in the same shape warned of railroad crossings and other hazards. Another sign included a mile marker that indicated the distance from the eastern or southern terminus of the numbered highway. (Mile markers are still in use on Wisconsin state highways, but you have to know where to look for them!)

As federal signage came into play in 1926, the state added a rounded rectangle to contain the highway number. The signs remained virtually unchanged, except for typefaces to meet uniformity standards, until the mid 1960’s. At that time, today's familiar black box background was introduced. The word “Wisconsin” was moved from the triangle to the rectangle. “Wisconsin” was completely spelled out for the first and only time. Black outlines of the rectangle and triangle remained for a short time.

In subsequent designs of state signs, starting in the 1970's, the black outlines were removed. “Wisconsin” reverted to “Wis” and eventually was taken off completely. All text was removed from the federal shields at the same time. Wisconsin's unique triangle symbol remains as part of the sign design to pay homage to what once was, but it also easily identifies a state highway.

The next time you get twisted around and refer to a map (who needs a GPS???) and look for that familiar numbered highway, smile and remember that the very first numbered system of trunk highways came into play in May of 1918 in the State of Wisconsin.

Good resources:

Update Log 

  • June 7, 2011: Essay added by J.R. Manning
  • June 7, 2011: Added by J.R. Manning


  • J.R. Manning - Lugnuts969 [at] gmail [dot] com