Historic Auto Trails



Custer Battlefield Highway sample signs and designs On Nov. 10, 1919, President G. J. Weiderman and Secretary W. D. Fisher filed an application with the Iowa State Highway Commission (ISHC) for registration of the Custer Battlefield Highway (CBH). According to the application, CBH was proposed to start in Omaha, Neb., cross the Missouri River into Council Bluffs, Iowa, continue north along the Iowa side of the Missouri River to Sioux City, and cross the river into South Dakota. From there, the route was to continue across South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana, ultimately terminating in Glacier National Park near the Montana-Canada border. However, the route was ultimately rerouted in 1924 to stretch from Des Moines to Glacier National Park.

Seeking increased tourism, the Custer Battlefield Highway Association advertised the splendors along its roadsides including the Badlands National Park, Mount Rushmore, Black Hills National Forest, and Custer State Park (the largest state park in the United States at the time) in South Dakota. Continuing westward, the trail passed Wyoming attractions such as Devils Tower, Bighorn National Forest, and Yellowstone National Park. In Montana the route passed through three national forests: Beartooth (Beartooth National Forest was established in 1908. In 1932, the forest was divided between Absaroka National Forest and Custer National Forest and the name preserved as the Beartooth Ranger District of Custer National Forest), Jefferson (The Jefferson National Forest in Montana was established in 1908. In 1932, it was transferred to Lewis and Clark National Forest, the name surviving as the Jefferson Division of Lewis and Clark), and Lewis and Clark (located in west central Montana). The trail terminated at the Montana – Canada border, with tourist attractions such as Blackfeet Indian Reservation (Blackfeet Nation), and Glacier National Park. 1

Custer Battlefield Highway scenic posterAs was often the case, registration of the CBH encountered obstacles that delayed its approval. Although the application for the CBH was filed in 1919, the Custer Battlefield Highway Association failed to provide diagrams of the route’s signage and maps of the route. Following correspondence between ISHC Chief Engineer Fred R. White, and CBH secretary W. D. Fisher, the required documents were received and route approved Dec. 23, 1919. Road crews began grading the highways, replacing wooden bridges with concrete bridges and marking poles along the route with their insignia by March of 1920. 2

Changes to the route

By 1922, Fisher wrote to ISHC expressing concerns that the western side of the state was not receiving enough attention in terms of road construction and maintenance. ISHC’s White reassured Fisher that the roads between Council Bluffs and Sioux City would receive a large amount of construction that year, including drainage, permanent bridges and culverts, and graded roads that would be finished by the end of 1923. Despite the promised actions, the Custer Battlefield Highway Association was unsatisfied. In March 1923, the ISHC received correspondence from CBH Vice-President Sherman Q. French stating that Iowa’s lack of financial and moral support over the past three years has impelled the association to change the route of the CBH. 3

The route was originally registered as “... entering Iowa from Hudson, S.D., and then following down the east bank of the Missouri River to Sioux City, Onawa and Council Bluffs, Iowa, there again crossing the river and leaving the state.” 4 The revised route followed only primary roads as it traversed Iowa (with one exception to pass through Rock Valley), whereas the old route was a confusing mixture of township, county and primary roads as it followed the Missouri river from Hudson to Council Bluffs. 5

The revised CBH was proposed to cross the river at Canton, S.D., following Primary Road No. 19 east to Inwood, Iowa, and continue south and east to Rock Valley, Iowa. From Rock Valley the new route was planned to pass through Sioux Center and continue south through Le Mars, east on Primary Road No. 5 through Cherokee, Storm Lake and Fort Dodge to Webster City. From Webster City the route turned south, continuing to the intersection with Primary Road No. 6, following that roadway to Ames, and then traveling south from Ames to Des Moines on Primary Road No. 1. 6

Animosity between the ISHC and CBH regarding the route relocation ensued for the majority of the following year. In September 1924, Custer Battlefield Hiway News announced the proposed changes to the route and asked for public support, stating, “Sioux City, Council Bluffs and Omaha [will] be taken off and that a new route be laid out from a point near Canton to Des Moines and then later to St. Louis. The Chamber of Commerce of Sioux City, Council Bluffs, and Omaha are long on promises, but short on paying their pledges, and for four years now this section has been at the tail end for personal work, road work and financial support …” 7

This public announcement helped the CBH in convincing the ISHC to approve the new route by raising more funds from members and asking supporters to campaign for the new route by writing to the ISHC. The ISHC received a flood of letters from business owners, mayors, citizens, and clubs. The ISHC also received letters in support of the new CBH route from South Dakota Highway Commission Secretary G. H. Henry and South Dakota Governor W. H. McMaster. On Dec. 8, 1924, the ISHC held a meeting and ultimately approved the revised route of the Custer Battlefield Highway. Poles along the new route were marked and improvements made to the roads as well.

With the changes in the route and the ever-growing popularity of the CBH, a map upgrade was in the works. In May 1925, Custer Battlefield Hiway News announced, “Besides our regular pink maps of which we will have printed this season 80,000, we have let a contract to the National Highways Association for a seven colored wall maps, which should be ready for distribution by May 15. All members in good standing will receive one, compliments of the Association... When you see the map you will say it is worth your $12 membership, let along the other good things you are getting for your money.” 8

Custer Battlefield color wall map

The CBH and ISHC headquarters

The Custer Battlefield Highway was not only known to the Iowa State Highway Commission commissioners involved in the route registrations, but to all ISCH staff because the ISHC headquarters was located on the CBH Path in Ames. Boone resident Donald McGlynn witnessed development of the CBH as a child, and reflected on its path through Ames in an article for the Boone County Historical Society, saying, “…some time after World War I, Highway 17 was named Custer Battlefield Highway. Custer Battlefield Highway started in Des Moines on what is now Highway 69, continued on north to Ames and intercepted the Lincoln Highway south of the railroad tracks. The highway, which is now County Road E-41, proceeded up to Main Street in Ames and went west at Iowa State College, and turned north on Highland Avenue to 13th Street. It then wound west through Ontario to the County Line Road, turned north a short distance and then turned west on the Jordan Road. It then turned north and continued on to Fort Dodge….”  9

Custer Battlefield Highway pole marking in front of the Iowa State Highway Commission headquarters

The CBH legacy

The CBH Association’s success was, in large part, owed to Secretary W. D. Fisher who was able to: coordinate the route through multiple states; juggle correspondence with scores of individuals and businesses; and communicate effectively with ISHC commissioners. Fisher proudly boasted, “… the Custer Battlefield Hiway now ranks as one of the leading highways in the United States and all of us should be proud of the wonderful work accomplished and the high standing we now hold not only in our own territory, but all over the United States.” 10

Despite delays in registration, deficient funding from cities along the Missouri River and changes to their route, the Custer Battlefield Highway Association successfully registered and maintained their famed route. At a time when many of the other registered routes were losing tourist interest and funding, the CBH continued to be one of the most celebrated trails in the country.

1CBH Brochure, Box 2, Folder HA2.023.
2McGlynn, Donald (2000, August). "Highway 17 has Heritage of its Own". Trail Tales, The Journal of Boone County History, No. 91, 16. Box 6, Supplementary Materials, Road Association - Custer Battlefield Highway - Newsletter.
3Letter from Sherman Q. French to Iowa State Highway Commission, March 27, 1923, Box 2, Folder HA2.023.
4Letter from C. R. Jones to F. R. White of Iowa State Highway Commission, November 10, 1924, Box 2, Folder HA2.023.
5Letter from C. R. Jones to F. R. White of Iowa State Highway Commission, November 10, 1924, Box 2, Folder HA2.023.
6Letter from C. R. Jones to F. R. White of Iowa State Highway Commission, November 10, 1924, Box 2, Folder HA2.023.
7Custer Battlefield Highway Association, (1924, September). "Fifth Annual Convention a Real Success: excellent Attendance, Good Reports and Interesting Addresses." [6940], 1. Box 6, Supplementary Materials, Road Association - Custer Battlefield Highway - Newsletter.
8W. D. Fisher, ed. and Custer Battlefield Highway Association, (1925, May). "Watch for the New Map". Custer Battlefield Hiway News, [6(6)], 2. Box 6, Supplementary Materials, Road Association - Custer Battlefield Highway - Newsletter.
9McGlynn, Donald (2000, August). "Highway 17 has Heritage of its Own". Trail Tales, The Journal of Boone County History, No. 91, 16. Box 6, Supplementary Materials, Road Association - Custer Battlefield Highway - Newsletter.
10Custer Battlefield Highway Association, (1923, November 15). "Fourth Annual Convention a Real Convention: Excellent Addresses, Interesting Reports, Attendance Good". Custer Battlefield Hiway News, [6(2)], 1. Box 6, Supplementary Materials, Road Association - Custer Battlefield Highway - Newsletter.