Historic Auto Trails

The History of the Capitol Highway

The story of the Capitol Highway begins January 29, 1916, when Frank Chastain, a citizen of Leon and secretary of the related road association, wrote a letter to the Iowa State Highway Commission (ISHC) about establishing a southerly route from Des Moines, Iowa, to Jefferson City, Missouri. The ISHC sent Chastain a route registration application and requested the standard $5 registration fee. Chastain complied three weeks later. However, it was not until June 1916 that the route was officially registered with the ISHC.

As with most registered routes, this is a fairly typical beginning. Except in this case, the story lies in the answer to the question – Why did it take five months for the ISHC to issue the route’s registration certificate?

Initially, the ISHC had refused to approve Chastain’s application on the basis that the proposed route failed to meet the minimum length requirement - "while the application shows 91.5 miles in length there is not twenty-five miles in the state of Iowa." 1

According to the 1913 Road Law enacted by the 35th General Assembly, "Any Association organized to promote the improvement of any continuous highway not less than twenty-five miles in length may, by making application to the State Highway Commission, register in the office of said commission. . ."

Puzzled by the commission’s rejection, Y.B. Wasson, president of the Capitol Highway, argued that indeed the route proposed extended well beyond the required 25 miles. In fact, the route extended 91.5 miles from Des Moines in Polk County to Lineville in Wayne County.

According to the ISHC’s records, the initial registration form had been incorrectly completed, leading the commissioners to believe that Lineville was the route’s northern-most terminal point. After the error was discovered, Wasson urged the ISHC to simply make the correction to their organization’s application so the route to be registered.

The ISHC, in its effort to rigidly adhere to the 1913 Road Law, refused to make the change and sent Wasson another application to resubmit for consideration.

Once the application was returned, other issues surfaced, which further delayed the route’s approval. One of those issues was the lack of a traced route map depicting the route as it traversed Polk, Warren, Madison, Clarke, Decatur, and Wayne counties.

Based on the commission’s records, the state’s requirement that applicants trace their routes onto county maps provided by the ISHC, and then submit them to the commission along with their application, was a provision of the law often overlooked by road associations.

The maps were not only important in the application process, but they eventually were used in the development of the tourist guides, which were popular during this era for directing travelers, and promoting tourism and the communities along the routes.

In fact, the ISHC was in the process of developing a map of registered highway routes at the same time the Capitol Highway’s application was under consideration. The goal was shared by many. As observed by Chastain, "we sure need a map that is official as the maps that are out are far from correct."

It was not until March 27, 1916, three months following the road association’s initial application, when the traced maps detailing the route of the Capitol Highway were mailed to the ISHC. The delay was attributed in part to the dimensions of the maps. "The maps were so small it makes it a very hard job to follow the roads accurately." It took the ISHC another three months to approve the application and send the official certification of registration to the Capital Highway Association.

In June 1916, the route was officially registered.


In late October 1922, the ISHC received a letter from St. Charles, Iowa, resident W.H. Shannon, secretary of the Madison and Warren County Good Road Club. Shannon requested that their club have the right to "promote the improvement of the Capitol Highway and would like to have the same maintained in its present routing, especially south of where it connects with primary no. 15. . ." Through their promotions, the club hoped to insure that the Capitol Highway was included in the state’s newly established "primary road system at the earliest possible date."

ISHC Auditor C.R. Jones responded to Shannon by saying that the commission had no record of the Madison and Warren County Good Roads Club "having had anything to do with the registration of the route."

The letter raised two fundamental questions. First, had the Capitol Highway maintained their registered route for the last six years (1916 to 1922)? Given the urgency of the letter from Shannon, this was likely not the case, especially given that the ISHC had no authority to force any road association to promote and maintain their registered routes. Second, did the responsibility for maintenance of a road solely reside with the organization that originally registered the route? More specifically, was the Capitol Highway Association the only organization allowed to take care of their route, thus maintaining their status as an association?

According to the 1913 Road Law, "When any such highway association ceases to exist or when the interest in the route, name and markings has ceased, the state highway commission may, after proper investigation, cancel the records and registration herein referred to and reassign the name, color combination, designs, or other markings to any association making application for their use."

So, legally, had the Capitol Highway ceased to exist? According to the law, the Capitol Highway Association, as evidenced by the October 1922 letter from Shannon, failed to properly maintain the roads and lacked an "interest in the route, name and markings." So one might assume the route technically ceased to exist. However, it is unknown whether the ISHC ever performed a "proper investigation" into the existence or non-existence of the Capitol Highway Association. If someone were to render a decision simply based on inclusion in the 1924 Huebinger Road Guide, the Capitol Highway no longer existed.

Auditor Jones concluded his letter to Shannon by saying, "So long as there is an organization interested in and keeping the trail alive, it is not likely that official registration would be cancelled." According to the correspondence between Jones and Shannon, the crucial issues were not only how registered roads were cancelled, but who was responsible for monitoring the status of the route registration, particularly, whether the route’s registration still met the intent of the law, whether it was still supported by the registering organization and whether it continued to exist.

In general, the registration of the Capitol Highway allows a glimpse into the subtle nuances of road registration. By examining the correspondence between the ISHC and Capitol Highway Association in the context of the 1913 Road Law, two primary conclusions are clear. First, road associations were often unfamiliar with the requirements of the 1913 Road Law - the ultimate consequence being delayed registration. Second, one gains an appreciation for the gradually increasing organizational apathy that paralleled and supplemented external pressures to nationalize the system of transportation throughout the United States.

1 IHC Accountant to Y.W. Wasson, February 22, 1916, HA2.018. HA, Iowa DOT
2 Frank Chastain to F.W. Parrott, March 17, 1916, HA2.018. HA, Iowa DOT.
3 Frank Chastain, March 27, 1916, HA2.018. STHA, Iowa DOT.
4 W.H. Shannon to Iowa Highway Commission, October 26, 1922, HA2.018.  STHA, Iowa DOT. 
5 Iowa Highway Commission Service Bulletin, October-December 1922, p. 14.  “The Highway Commission has absolutely no authority to force townships to do work on any particular road.  The trustees of each township are elected by the people of the township and they are the ones who are responsible for the township road levy, collection of taxes, the spending of the money and the results accomplished.”  Clearly, the responsible of road maintenance lies not with private organizations, but rather with publically-elected officials. 


Login  |  ©  Iowa Department of Transportation.  All rights reserved.