Historic Auto Trails


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A road’s promotional growth

In the early months of 1917, Illinois became a hotbed of promotional activity for the nationally renowned Burlington Way, a division of the National Highway Association. The purpose was to stimulate dramatic growth, and invigorate tourist and economic activity throughout the Midwest, from Minnesota to Louisiana.

In February 1917, two cities became political seedbeds for development of the highway. In two separate meetings in Illinois, namely Carbondale and Bloomington, delegates met to discuss the finer details of the Burlington Way, ranging from sign boarding to advertising. Their purpose was to devise a strategy that would stimulate a sense of purpose for all parties involved.

While seeds were being planted in Bloomington and Carbondale, broader movements were taking place in other parts of the country. Key figures involved in promoting the Burlington Way at that time were newly elected Director General of the International Pavedway and widely recognized "father" of the Burlington Way, H.C. Wilhite; and publicity hounds J.V. Teeples, director of the publicity for the Burlington Way, and W.H. Holsteen, president of the Burlington Automobile Club 1. An article in the Illinois State Journal boasted about the efforts of these individuals.

"Unprecedented progress has attended the development of the Burlington Way, whose orange and white markers lead the motorist, if he wishes, through 200 towns, over seventeen hundred miles of ‘the best marked trail in the world. 2"

Former Director General H.G. Spaulding felt Wilhite’s leadership would lead to the Burlington Way becoming "one of the best highways in point of merit and note in the country." J.L. Waite, editor of the Burlington Hawk Eye, agreed. In a letter published in the Illinois State Journal, Waite stated,

"I am greatly pleased with the progress made and I just feel like congratulating my old friend Wilhite, who did so much to start this enterprise and who opened our eyes to its importance in a national as well as a local sense."

Many cities and towns became involved with improving the roads in and around their communities. In Illinois, the Springfield Motor Club and Springfield Commercial Association sought to raise money for the road by forming the "Committee on Trails and Good Roads."

The association also sponsored public events meant to advertise the route. From October 15-19, 1917, the group sponsored the 400-mile "Burlington Way Good Roads Association 2nd Annual Sociability and Inspection Run" from Jacksonville, Ill., to Corinth, Miss. To promote the event and encourage participation, a poster was published, which said, "All tourists and motor enthusiasts are invited to join the official party at any point on the Route at the time set forth in the above schedule." The poster also included a schedule and map of the cities the event would traverse.

Sociability runs were of paramount importance to multi-state trails associations. Not only did they acquaint auto enthusiasts, they instilled community pride, and afforded a sense of connectivity to each other and their parent corridor association.

Many clever promotional gimmicks played a part in the sociability runs, including those used to help underwrite the event’s costs, provide suitable transportation and foster local participation. For instance, the Burlington Way group named the Comet Six Automobiles, manufactured by the Comet Automobile Company in Decatur, Ill, as the official automobile of the run. And to get townsfolk along the route involved, the Comet Royal Hawaiian Serenaders, a quartet of Native Hawaiian Vocalists and Ukelele Players from the State Fair offered to "accompany the party and render free concerts at all towns en-route. 3"

Another way communities could celebrate their successes was to participate in their association’s state and regional annual conventions. One such event was the First Annual Convention of the Shiloh National Park Division of the Burlington Way, held in Western Kentucky and Tennessee in 1917.

1 .H. Holsteen was also a member of the Burlington Way Good Roads Association General Council. Holsteen, W.R. Turnbull, and L.R. Craig were responsible for amending and revising the constitution and by-laws of the association.
2 "Unprecedented Progress Marks Development of Great Burlington Way," The Illinois State Journal, Agricultural Section, Part II, February 17, 1917, HA2.015. HA, Iowa DOT.
3 "Burlington Way Good Roads Association 2nd Annual Sociability Run" Advertisement, HA2.017. HA, Iowa DOT.

Registration of the Burlington Way - Part 1

While promotional strategies for the route were being employed across the country, an attempt to register the route through Iowa was also taking place.

On Feb. 24, 1917, H.C. Wilhite and M.E. Winters filed a route registration application with the Iowa State Highway Commission (ISHC) on behalf of the Burlington Way. In the application, Wilhite identified himself as "promoter" and Winters as "supervisor" of the Burlington Way Good Roads Association of Iowa. Two days following its receipt, ISHC Chief Clerk F.W. Parrott rejected the application on the grounds the 1913 Road Law required an association’s president and secretary to sign the registration form. On March 12, a new application was filed, this time signed by President Carl Weber and Secretary A.E. Nissen.

In his deliberations considering approval of the route’s application, Parrott expressed reluctance to accept the registration for two main reasons: (1) the western route conflicted with two other registered routes, namely the Red Ball Route and Center Point Motor Club Route; and (2) the route map submitted with the application identified two routes through Iowa (an eastern route that followed the Mississippi River from Davenport to Cresco, and western route from Burlington to Chester, with both routes intersecting in Cresco).

Registration of the Burlington Way - Part 2

With regard to his second concern, Parrott questioned the logic behind the establishment of two routes, he said he saw no reason why they should "desire to have two parallel routes registered under the same name. 4 "He stated that doing so was "contrary to the intent of the law regulating the registering of said highway route." Parrott apparently interpreted the following provision of the 1913 Road Law to mean that only "one" route could be registered with the same name.

. . . the State Highway Commission shall, after investigation, adjudge the application meritorious and the route to be worthy of the protection of this act, it shall issue to the association a certificate. . . 5

To alleviate his concerns, Parrott suggested that the road association register only the western route from Burlington to Chester as the Burlington Highway, reserving the eastern route for another name.

In a handwritten letter to the ISHC, Nissen rebutted Parrott’s conclusions and suggestion. Nissen began by pointing out that the Center Point Motor Club Route, known to him as the "Black Cross Route"(registered in 1914), no longer existed. Nissen went on to say that the main promoter and secretary of the route, Cedar Rapids Mayor Dr. Mark C. Newland, had directed him to cover the Black Cross Route markings with the "Orange and White Markings of the Burlington Way." 6 By doing so, Newland had in essence transferred interest in the Black Cross Route to the Burlington Way.

Nissen acknowledged the fact that the Red Ball Route (from St. Louis to St. Paul) was a "competitor," but only in the sense that the Red Ball and Burlington Way shared the same alignment from Cedar Rapids to Iowa City, a short distance of both routes. Because the Red Ball Route’s sponsors had expressed no concerns with the shared alignment, Nissen felt that it should not affect approval of the Burlington Way’s registration.

Finally, Nissen explicitly dismissed Parrott’s concern regarding the eastern route, stating that "it goes thru an entirely different territory (underlined by primary author)" and suggesting that they entailed two separate and distinctive routes.

Nissen’s arguments apparently did not sway Parrott’s opinion in the matter. Parrott responded to Nissen’s letter by once again indicating that ISHC was willing to approve the western route from Burlington to Cresco, but not the eastern route because "registration of two routes under the same name any where within the state is clearly a violation of the statutes. 7 "He reinforced his decision by mentioning another section of the 1913 Road Law which stated that only a "continuous" highway may be promoted and maintained by an association.

All communication between the ISHC and Burlington Way’s sponsors curiously ended in March 1917, and did not resume until September 1917. During the interim period, Burlington Way Illinois Secretary H.C. Wilhite wrote to Iowa Secretary of State W.S. Allen seeking information about the status of their organization’s route application and the $5 fee. Puzzled by the letter, Allen responded by saying that he had no knowledge of the aforementioned issues. He continued by admonishing the inflammatory tone and inferences made in Wilhite’s letter, stating that "you claim that this department objected to the registration of the ‘Burlington Way’ as a whole, but that you suggested that the ‘Parent Trail,’ Burlington via Cedar Rapids to Cresco could be registered."

4 F.W. Parrott to A.E. Nissen, March 21, 1917, HA2. 015. HA, Iowa DOT.
5 S.F. 531, Chapter 12, Section 3, 35th Iowa General Assembly, 1913
6 A.E. Nissen to F.W. Parrott, March 26, 1917, HA2.015. HA, Iowa DOT.
7 F.W. Parrott to A.E. Nissen, March 28, 1917, HA2.015. HA, Iowa DOT.

Registration of the Burlington Way - Part 3

Unfortunately, Wilhite had written the letter to the Secretary of State under the erroneous assumption that the ISHC had officially denied the Burlington Way’s registration, when in fact, the ISHC had expressed a willingness to approve a portion of their application that included the proposed western route. How Wilhite arrived at this conclusion, and whether he had actually corresponded with or spoken with Nissen prior to sending the letter, is unknown. But, it is apparent that Wilhite had confused the Secretary of State’s Office with the ISHC.

After receiving the Secretary of State’s letter, Wilhite wrote Nissen regarding the status of the application and accompanying fee. His tone, as well as the words he choose to use, would suggest that Wilhite had become very agitated over the entire application issue. In a rather accusatory tone, Wilhite said he hoped that Nissen would not "try and dodge this matter by coming back and saying you never got the $5.00 for the TREAS Annual Report shows you received the amt for the registering of the Burlington Way." Wilhite also informed Nissen that the "New Orleans Chamber of Commerce will get behind the Burlington Way with all her force (to resolve the matter)." 8 At the time, New Orleans was one of many southern cities interested in having a route that stretched from Lake Michigan to the gulf.

Once Parrott learned of the confusion surrounding the Burlington Way’s application, he approached Wilhite and explained that an application had indeed been filed with the ISHC. He also shared information about the exchanges that had taken place between him and Nissen earlier in the year. Having alleviated Wilhite’s concerns, the organizers of the Burlington Way decided they would register the western route between Burlington and Cresco. The route was approved by the ISHC Dec. 1, 1917.

8 H.C. Wilhite to A.E. Nissen, September 19, 1917, HA2.015. HA, Iowa DOT.

Years Later

In the fall of 1919 at the Annual Convention of the Burlington Way Good Roads Association, the organization decided to change the route’s name to the Mississippi Valley Highway. Theo. W. Hawkinson, a state representative with the Mississippi Valley Highway, wrote to the ISHC in June 1920 requesting that their records reflect this decision.

On July 1, 1920, ISHC Auditor C.R. Jones wrote a letter to Hawkinson informing him that the Mississippi Valley Highway association was required to submit a route registration application on behalf of the Mississippi Valley Highway for the route to be registered under that name. Two weeks later, C.B. Nicholson and H.C. Wilhite submitted an application to the ISHC requesting that a route be registered from Ely, Minn. to New Orleans, La. While the exact registration date is unknown, the highway was approved in the fall of 1920. 9

9 Correspondence relating to the Mississippi Valley Highway may be found in the Historic Archives in the Iowa Department of Transportation Library.


The Burlington Way exemplified the Good Roads Movement. The route was established by Americans so inspired by its importance to the future of their communities, the state and nation, that they were willing to champion its cause. And by its very nature of being a multi-state route, it instilled a new public mindset that envisioned a network of national highways.

The route’s registration in Iowa also illustrated the organizational and managerial challenges that had to be overcome, while striving to fulfill the dream of establishing a national roadway.

Clearly, the route became one of the foremost attractions for tourists across the country. By 1917, the route stretched over 1,800 miles and represented over 2 million people in 200 cities and towns.