The following memorandum was written by M.W. Torkelson, Director of Regional Planning with the Wisconsin Bureau of Engineering on August 26, 1955 at the request of Russell L. Williams of the State Highway Commission. Mr. Torkelson, who was involved in the initial layout and designation of the original state trunk highway system in 1917, gathered the following historical overview of this process. It is reproduced here in its entirety as-written, including a few minor errors of fact, which are referred to at the end via footnotes.
August 25, 1955
Memorandum, System of Numbering State Trunk Highways for Guidance of Travelers, Historical Background.
By M.W. Torkelson
The legislature of 1907 enacted two laws providing for the layout of county systems of highways for county aid purposes. The first state aid highway law (1911) provided for the laying out of county systems of prospective state highways by the respective county boards. With the increase in the use of automobiles, it soon became apparent that the system would be much more serviceable if the improvements were concentrated on certain continuous routes. So in 1915 and 1916 the State Highway Department was urging the county boards to lay out county trunk systems, and a very few did.
The first federal aid highway law was enacted in 1916, and this was the force that resulted in the first state trunk highway law of 1917. Its draftsmen were W.O. Hotchkiss and A.R. Hirst. John T. Donaghey undoubtedly contributed some ideas.
One of its provisions, probably the most important, was the provision for a state trunk highway system of 5,000 miles, to which federal aid projects would be confined. This system was required to interconnect all county seats and cities with a population of 5,000 or more. I shall not go into the procedure followed in laying out the system, but simply say that the layout was accomplished during the summer and fall and possibly finished in the early winter of 1917. The system was required to be marked, signed and maintained by the state.
The administrative procedure for the maintenance of highways contemplated the use of county forces with reimbursement by the state. The signing of the system held no special problems, but there was a great deal of discussion about how the system should be marked. Prior to that time, there was considerable use of the so-called Blue Books, where the long-distance traveler was guided by certain landmarks along the highway (turn right at the red barn, go 3 miles west to the white schoolhouse, there turn left and go 4 miles south to the church, etc.). This, of course, was quite unsatisfactory. A number of "trails" had been organized, among them the Cannon Ball Trail, marked by a red circle, and the Indian Head Trail, with a rather elaborate marking. Possibly the earliest was the Yellowstone Trail, whose distinctive marking was a daub of yellow paint on convenient objects on the roadside. These trails were organized by private associations and supported by funds raised through the contributions of cities that were traversed by the proposed routes. The associations did not hesitate to change the routing of the trails if a particular city failed to give satisfactory service in raising of funds, and there was, of course, some confusion. Another system had been discussed, at least, in the East, if not put into effect. The theory back of this was that directions could be indicated by markers of various colors painted along the roadsides.
The determination to use numbers to mark the state trunk highway system laid out in Wisconsin in 1917 was reached at a meeting held in the offices of the State Highway Commission here in Madison beginning Monday, January 7, 1918 and continuing through Saturday, January 12. At that meeting I proposed that the various highways be designated by numbers shown on a map. This was simply a variant of the "trail" system whereby certain definite routes were indicated by name. This system had certain obvious disadvantages in that it afforded great opportunity for rivalry in advertising. Also, the actual placing of the marking of objects along the roadside required much labor and space if actual words were to be spelled out. Imagine, for instance, spelling out "Yellowstone." The substitution of numbers for names was a very simple thing and not an original idea. It had been used many times for purposes other than the designation of highways before that, and it seemed to me to be the most simple and natural thing to do, besides being the most effective. Nevertheless, there was considerable discussion, and Mr. Hirst at first opposed it on the ground that those using it would be obliged to carry a map. This argument seems rather strange at this time, but it nevertheless was used.
However, the number system was adopted at this meeting, and then came discussion as to how it was to be used. In this, John T. Donaghey took a prominent part. It was soon decided that certain routes for continuous marking would be selected. The first of these was what is now U.S. 51 from Beloit to Hurley and thence west to Ashland and Superior. It was soon decided that the longest continuous route should bear the lowest number, and that the low numbers in general would follow the longest routes in reverse order of length. I do not recall just where No. 11 was located1, but No. 12 was located exactly as U.S. 12 is today, except for some small relocations.
Quite early in the discussion Mr. Donaghey made the point that the designation of any particular route as No. 1 would be bound to cause great dissatisfaction, and the same with others of the smaller numbers. It was therefore decided that no single digit numbers should be used, that the lowest number should be 10, and this was the number accorded to the Beloit-Hurley-Superior route.
After the decision to adopt the number system had been made, and the numbers had been accorded to the various routes on the 5,000 mile system, plans were made to have a marking crew organized in each county, and the entire system was marked in a single week during the month of May 1918. In general, stencils were used and the numbers were painted on convenient objects, just the same as the trail markings had been painted in the early days. The first state trunk highway map was printed, and gasoline and oil companies took very early notice of the system and got out maps. Other states did the same. The next two states to mark their highways were Iowa and Minnesota2, and the system soon spread all over the country.
It was not until 1924, however, that the U.S. system was marked3. It was decided that in general the even numbers should be on east and west routes, the odd numbers on north and south routes, that the major north and south highways should have a zero as the second digit, and the east and west route the figure 1 as the second digit4. The installation of the U.S. marking in Wisconsin made it necessary to make considerable changes in the numbers then used, and it was decided there would be no duplications in state and U.S. numbers, that the U.S. numbers leading to Wisconsin would be continued through Wisconsin. That is how U.S. 2 and U.S. 8 came to be established in Wisconsin.
One of the provisions of the 1917 law was that there should be a distinctive state marker. To meet this requirement the triangle was devised, but it soon became apparent that it served no really useful purpose after the public had become educated to the idea of the numbering. The long vertical axis made it necessary to use a lot of space, much of which was useless. So what remains of it today in the official state marker is merely a vestige.
Much more could be said on this point but the foregoing covers the principal features.
1 Visitors to the Wisconsin Highways website will know precisely where the original route of STH-11 led: from Madison to Superior via Richland Center, La Crosse and Eau Claire.
2 This statement is not quite accurate, as we know today Michigan was the second jurisdiction in the world to number and post their state highway designations in 1918-19. According to the Iowa Department of Transportation, that state did not mark their state highways until 1926 (although numbered routes appeared on highway maps as early as 1921), while the Minnesota Department of Transportation notes 1920-21 as the timeframe when their first 70 routes were designated.
3 Also not quite correct. According to Robert V. Droz on his excellent US Highways website, "Preliminary planning of routes to be included began in 1924. A list of proposed route numbers was ready in late 1925. The final list of US highways was agreed upon on November 11, 1926."
4 Again, an unfortunate mix-up. Since east-west routes feature even numbers, the major east-west routes would be the ones with zero as the second digit. Likewise, as the north-south routes are odd-numbered, the major ones would feature 1 as the second digit.
A copy of the above memorandum was graciously supplied for this website by Robert Spoerl, a dedicated WisDOT employee. Many, many thanks go to Mr. Spoerl for his contribution!