Historic Auto Trails

Waubonsie Trail


History of the registration of Iowa's early auto routes often illustrates the challenges individual road associations faced in their efforts to gain approval from the Iowa State Highway Commission (ISHC). The Waubonsie Trail is no exception. The road association that promoted this trail struggled with, and eventually overcame, a lame-duck executive board, a delayed registration process and vandalism of their route's pole markings.

Chief Waubonsie The Waubonsie Trail traversed Iowa starting in Nebraska City, Neb., along the Missouri River and ending in Keokuk, Iowa, along the Mississippi River – a total of 289 miles. This historic trail was named after Chief Waubonsie of the Pottawattamie tribe who was an important negotiator in the Treaty of the Wabash in 1826, Treaty of Chicago in 18321 and transfer of some 5 million acres of Pottawattamie land in Iowa2.

When Chief Waubonsie and the Pottawattamie Indians were forced from Illinois to Kansas, they traveled through Iowa. Their journey started in Keokuk along the Mississippi River and continued “…across Lee County to Van Buren, Davis, Appanoose, Wayne, Decatur, Ringgold, Taylor, Page, and Fremont counties. The path they traveled became known as the Waubonsie Trail, which was named in honor of their old war chief.” 3

Registration of the Waubonsie Trail was set in motion Jan. 2, 1914, when H. C. Beard, an attorney from Mount Ayr and supporter of the good roads movement, sent a request to the ISHC asking for the necessary application forms. Beard asked that the forms be sent to U. G. Reinenger of Sioux Falls, S.D., then president of the Waubonsie Trail Association. Three days later, the ISHC sent route registration forms to Reinenger with detailed instructions on the requirements for registration, such as a completed application form, $5 fee, map of the route, and detailed description of the townships, sections and ranges through which the route passed.

Two months passed, and there was still no word from Waubonsie Trail Association President Reinenger regarding his group’s application. Then the ISHC was contacted by Beard who encouraged the commission to write a letter to H. J. Ross, secretary of the Waubonsie Trail Association, suggesting their group become better organized so their route could be successfully developed and registered. The ISHC wrote to Secretary Ross stating, “I wish to suggest in a very friendly manner that the Waubonsie Trail needs a very thorough reorganizing to stimulate new interest all along the line. I met with Mr. Taylor at Bloomfield and others lately, and I know that they are interested in keeping the trail in the best shape possible across the state.” 4

Ross accepted the commission’s advice, and in November 1914, the Waubonsie Trail Association elected new officers. C. F. Mitchell was elected president, Charles Wenstrand secretary, H. J. Ross treasurer, and H. C. Beard co-vice president.

On Nov. 27, 1914, Wendstrand wrote to the ISHC requesting new copies of the registration forms, requirements and reports on the current state of the roads along the trail. The ISHC sent a service bulletin with the registration laws, an application form, county maps for tracing the route, and detailed instructions on how to proceed. The ISHC also corresponded with Ross, asking him to consider relocating the route through Bedford, and advising him to influence the county boards to appropriate at least $30 per mile for dragging the roads in 1915.

On Feb. 2, 1915, Mitchell and Wenstrand mailed the registration form and $5 fee, which was received by the ISHC two days later. However, as was often the case with trail registrations, the response was incomplete. The route association had failed to provide the required maps and descriptions of their route. So, the registration form and fee were simply filed away, pending receipt of the other materials.

It wasn’t until November 1915, when Wenstrand proposed changes to the route, that the ISHC discovered the required documents had still not been submitted and the registration process not completed.5 After being made aware of the situation, Wenstrand filed the appropriate documents with the ISHC on March 4, 1916. Five days later, the ISHC confirmed receipt of the maps and began drafting the registration certificate.

After the Waubonsie Trail was officially registered on April 3, 1916, the association began marking poles along the route with their insignia. Unfortunately, the pole markings led to a feud that divided the citizens of Shenandoah.

Waubonsie markerIn July 1916, Elbert A. Read, vice president of the First National Bank and a concerned citizen of Shenandoah, wrote to the ISHC about the Waubonsie Trail’s path through the town. In Shenandoah, the Waubonsie Trail and the O.K. Line (from Omaha to Kansas City) traversed the same four-mile stretch of road. The town diverged into two groups: (1) boosters of the registered Waubonsie Trail; and (2) boosters of the unregistered O.K. Line. According to Read, “The Waubonsie people claim that their route is registered and that the O.K. people have no right to put any signs or markings on the poles along the highway where it is used by the Waubonsie Trail, and which highway is also used by the O.K. Line.” 6

Supporters of the O.K. Line believed that the two routes could use the same stretch of road, even though the O.K. Line was not registered.

In the beginning, the disagreement may have been solely about the use of the same four-mile stretch. However, by August 1916, the feuding was over much more than a shared stretch of roadway. According to allegations made in correspondence exchanged between the ISHC, Ross and Beard, the O.K. Line was painting over the Waubonsie Trail pole markings. Ross asked Beard, an attorney, and the ISHC to let him know what could be done about the situation. Clearly, the dispute over pole markings was creating rivalries between Shenandoah citizens and trail association board members.

The Waubonsie versus O.K. Line dispute was not the first instance in which the ISHC became involved in pole marking controversies. On Aug. 30, the ISHC responded to the allegations that O.K. members had defaced the Waubonsie Trail property, stating that it was the county attorney’s duty to prosecute the crime. On Sept. 5, 1916, the ISHC also sent a letter with a copy of the laws and penalties regarding the damage to registered routes markings to Walter Moody, leader of the O.K. Line and person alleged to have defaced the Waubonsie markers.

The ISHC’s Sept. 5 letter is the last known communication regarding the Waubonsie Trail, which likely indicates that the vandalism ceased following the ISHC’s letter to Moody. There is no record of how the two road associations ultimately settled the dispute, whether vandalism charges were filed with the county, the two parties came to an agreement themselves or the ISHC’s letter to Moody was enough to stop the vandalism.

However, it is certain that the ISHC’s correspondence was crucial in explaining the laws and penalties of such illicit actions so that the Waubonsie Trail Association, as well as other road associations in similar circumstances, could prevent or prosecute vandalism of their pole markings.

Despite the many challenges faced, the Waubonsie Trail Association, “promoter of the short way back to the farm,” 7 was successful in registering and marking their trans-state route. Through these efforts, the Waubonsie Trail Association was a valuable contributor to the good roads movement in Iowa.

1 Buchenot, Judy (1985, November 22). Unknown Title. The Naperville Sun, as qtd. in Waubonsie Valley High School, (2008). Indian Prairie School District. Retrieved May 26, 2009, from About Our School: Chief Waubonsie website.
2 Chapter of DAR, (Sept. 12, 2008). Home Page. Retrieved May 22 2009, from Daughters of the American Revolution, Waubonsie Chapter, Clarinda, Iowa Web site: http://www.isdar.org/chapters/waubonsie/
3 Fisk, James. The Waubonsie Trail Across Iowa, Unpublished, as qtd. in "The Waubonsie Trail Across Iowa". (Feb. 20, 2006). The Daily Iowegian.
4 Letter from Iowa State Highway Commission to H. J. Ross, March 14, 1914, box 5, folder HA2.090.
5 Letter from C. A. Wenstrand to Iowa State Highway Commission, Nov. 1, 1915, box 5, folder HA2.090
6 Letter from Elbert A. Read to Iowa State Highway Commission, July 1, 1916, box 5, folder HA2.090.
7 Good Work Done on the Waubonsie Trail, Public Spirited Citizens Along Its Route Accomplishing Wonders. (Jan. 15, 1912). Belleville News-Democrat, as qtd. in Hawkins, Bill (March 5, 2009). Good Work Done on the Waubonsie Trail. The Jerome Journal, Retrieved June 2, 2009.


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