This year is the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Yellowstone Trail, the second transcontinental highway in America and the first to go through the northern states.
It went through 18 counties in Wisconsin and eventually became U.S. Highway 10.
The highway was called the Yellowstone Trail because it went through the Yellowstone National Park. In 1912, a group of businessmen gathered in Ispwich, S.D., to explore ways to improve the economic status of their communities. They hit upon the idea of combining the public’s growing interest in Yellowstone National Park and its growing love affair with automobiles by creating a highway that would aid travel to the park and bring tourists into towns along the way.
From this meeting emerged the Yellowstone Trail Association. Their idea was to combine numerous county roads into one long highway that would span the United States from Plymouth Rock, Mass., to Puget Sound, Wash.
The trail would follow closely along the established railroads, not only in consideration of farmers along the way but to increase the chances for help should the driver’s car break down. Its advantage would be that travelers would not need to carry extra fuel, water or food as there were towns and villages that were seldom more than 25 miles apart and during the summer vacationing season, the weather would be cooler for travelers than the existing Lincoln Highway.
The Association did not build or improve the roads – their contribution was in advertising and promotion. Realizing the economic advantages, progressive businessmen strove fiercely to convince the Association to route the trail through their counties.
Cities along the route were required to contribute $25 to the Association towards its advertising efforts, put the road in good traveling condition and arrange the appropriate signage half-way between it and the cities to either side.
With no highway numbering system, the Association chose to have the trail marked with metal signs bearing a yellow circle and black arrow pointing the direction to be taken by the motorist. Between the signs, the trails came to be additionally marked with hoodoos – yellow bands painted on telephone poles, rocks, trees and fence posts.
In May of 1915, one of the traveling representatives for the Yellowstone Trail Association came to Waupaca to secure interest from advocates of good roads in Wisconsin.
The route to the West coast had been completed and the Association planned to proceed from Minneapolis through Amherst, Waupaca, Weyauwega, Fremont, Oshkosh and Milwaukee and then down to Chicago.
The first Trail Day, when everyone along the route was asked to work to improve the roads, was set for June 7 and a relay planned for June 15.
Erle Whipple of Waupaca was chosen to serve as the county representative, or “Trail Boss.”
Each community formed its own local association. In Waupaca, there was a membership fee of $1 to belong to the association. It was hoped that in time Waupaca, Weyauwega and Fremont would join to create a county association to better coordinate work on Waupaca County’s section of the Yellowstone Trail and bring large numbers of tourists into the communities.
The Yellowstone Trail appears to have entered Waupaca from the west past Chady’s Corners (State Highway 54 and County Highway QQ) to Hillcrest Street (known at that time as North Fulton) and then merged into Granite Street. Some believe that shortly after the initial route was established it was diverted from Granite Street to West Fulton Street.
It turned onto Main and preceded to Badger where it turned south and merged into School Street until turning south onto Churchill Street. From Churchill, the Trail followed Appletree Lane through the original Barnes Apple Orchard and past the Bunker Hill School, which was located on the south side of what is now U.S. Highway 10.
To help create excitement for the project, a relay was organized to run from Chicago to Seattles. The relay ran from June 15 through June 19. It took the drivers 97 hours and 10 minutes to cover the 2,430 miles.
In an article put out by the Yellowstone Trail Association, Weyauwega received a special mention for having “a mile of torches and red fire with a background of men, women and children” to encourage the driver through their section of the relay.
A trail day was set up in Waupaca for July 16, but it was postponed to allow a survey of the road between Waupaca and Weyauwega and to formalize plans. Farmers between Waupaca and Weyauwega were organized into teams for the portion of the road that some felt needed the most attention.
Meanwhile, work on grading and laying gravel on the Yellowstone Trail in Farmington was moving smoothly. The town’s farmers worked with the city’s merchants, who closed their stores in order to work on the roads.
Weyauwega also was noted for its hard work on the roads under their domain. In an Oct. 7 newspaper article it was noted “last Friday morning armed with shovels, picks, hoes, rakes and every conceivable road-making tool, all the able bodied men of the village set out to build the longest piece of road that has been built this season by the local road builders. When night came a full half mile of clayed and graveled road showed for their day’s labor.”
Before road work began in 1916, a meeting was called and Whipple discussed making the area more cattractive to tourist. He suggested that signs be placed to welcome people as they entered Waupaca. He also wanted “odious speed warning” signs removed, as he believed people knew what the speed limits were.
Seattle or bust
In 1916, the Yellowstone Trail Association made arrangements with the U.S. War Department to carry an official message from Plymouth Rock, Mass., to Seattle, Wash.
The route was divided into 14 relay sections and the 3,489 miles were anticipated to be traversed in 120 hours. The seventh section, from Milwaukee to Minneapolis, was under Whipple’s direction.
To assist in this huge endeavor he set up managers in eight sub-relay sections, Waupaca’s being Walter Nelson. Depending on the distance, each sub-relay section’s car had to travel 30 to 70 minutes.
He was also responsible for providing experienced drivers with high-powered cars that could average 30 miles an hour and then arrange with police departments to permit these cars to travel through their areas without the drivers getting arrested for speeding.
His first driver was to pick up the message in Milwaukee at 4:30 a.m. Wednesday, Sept. 13, 1916. At Fremont, Dr. P.J. Christofferson in his 90 hp Cadillac 8 was to receive the letter at 8:15 a.m., travel through Waupaca around 8:45 a.m. and precede to Stevens Point, where at 9:45 a.m. it was passed on to Arthur Clements in a 55 hp Buick.
Besides Whipple, Christofferson was accompanied by Stevens Point’s sub-relay manager, J.L. Seeger.
He actually passed through Waupaca almost two hours ahead of time and despite rain affecting road conditions was only behind the original schedule by a small amount and that was due to a freight train holding the car up at a railroad crossing.
Along the route, there were ups and downs in attaining the proposed time between communities, but at the end of the Wisconsin portion, the relay was one hour and eighteen minutes ahead of schedule.
When the final dispatch was received from Seattle, the transcontinental trip had taken 121 hours, and the trip was considered a rousing success.
Public works project
In 1918, Wisconsin began giving highways numerical designations and the Yellowstone Trail through this region was named Highway 18 with special markers placed along the route to tell travelers it was part of the Yellowstone Trail.
The practice of numbering highways would not become more standard throughout the nation until 1926 when Congress passed its Federal Highway Act.
It wasn’t until 1922 that the Yellowstone Trail was officially opened, particularly between the Twin Cities and Chicago.
In 1924, the newspaper reminded its readers: “The citizens of the communities served by the Yellowstone Trail must realize that all of this did not just happen; that in order to reach this prominent place it has taken consistent effort year after year; it has taken constructive plans carried out and put into effect so that they were useful; it has taken money and sacrifice; and it has taken systematic organization. These things had to be done, not on paper alone, not on the spur of the moment, not for a week or a month, but for year after year.”
A longer version of JJ Johnson’s article on the Yellowstone Trail appears in the Waupaca Historical society’s newsletter.