Historic Auto Trails

Wilson Highway


Wilson highway markerThe Wilson Highway Association first filed its application for registration with the Iowa State Highway Commission (ISHC) on Aug. 18, 1918. The application stated that the association’s main place of business was Jewell (just north of Story City), and that the route began in Des Moines and ended in St. Paul, Minn. 1

The application was signed and approved by the association’s president, Parley Sheldon of Ames, and its secretary, Claude V. Campbell of Jewell. A later application, dated June 19, 1920, shows changes in routing, the starting point being Bedford, Iowa, and the ending point Emmons, Minn. On behalf of the association, Campbell corresponded in letters written on handsome Wilson Highway stationery emblazoned with an image of Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President of the United States (1913-1921). The Wilson Highway billed itself as “The direct route from Des Moines to St. Paul,” and in Campbell’s first letter to ISHC official T.H. MacDonald, he wrote that the Wilson Highway was “by 40 miles the shortest road from Des Moines to Albert Lea….We plan to make the Wilson the one big, leading auto route from St. Paul to Des Moines, and having the advantage of being, by long odds, the most direct route, and with a wonderfully live bunch of boosters back of it to make it a good road, we hope to succeed in making the Wilson the one big north and south road.” 2

Furthermore, Campbell expressed his desire to expedite the process of getting the Wilson Highway officially recognized as an auto route. He said, “I will appreciate it if you will advise me what to do, and also any suggestions you can offer to aid us in getting the Wilson route through each county a county road and getting federal aid on it.”

Several months later, the ISHC’s chief engineer wrote back to Campbell. His letter said, “In the development of the Wilson Highway, I believe it would be well to have this road follow the present county road systems of the counties through which it passes, except in those counties where the boards are willing to make a change in the county system and where such a change would serve the locality better than the present county system…I wish to recommend a very careful scrutiny of your route with the idea of locating it on the county road systems as they exist at present…” 3

The chief engineer went on to describe the current situation with federal aid funds: “…the Commission has been convinced that as a matter of good faith, the promoters of the Wilson Highway have no right to come now requesting that the Commission appropriate federal aid funds for the placing of gravel surfacing on the Wilson Highway. I regret very much that the matter has been placed in this status by the local people for in my judgment, the federal aid funds should be spent on the Wilson Highway, which will give us a connection with the Minnesota roads over a gravel surface.”

Communication between the ISHC and Campbell ceased until July 28, 1919, when Campbell wrote to the Commission, informing its officers that “the Wilson Highway, originally extending from Des Moines to St. Paul, the Iowa portion of which route is registered with your Commission, has now been incorporated in the ‘Woodrow Wilson Way’, a transcontinental auto route from El Paso, Texas, to Ely, Minn.” 4, and that the Commission would need to take note of and properly register minor route changes and the Wilson Highway’s new name.

A few days later, on July 31, the ISHC wrote back to Campbell saying that he would need to file a whole new application for the Woodrow Wilson Way. A letter from Campbell to F.W. Parrott, dated July 24, 1920, is typed out on new stationery, still titled the Wilson Highway, but with a new slogan: “The most direct Canada-to-the-Gulf route across the United States—from Ely, Minnesota, to Galveston, Texas.” 5 Campbell wrote of minor route changes, requesting that the ISHC show the new routing on enclosed county maps.

There was a lapse in communication for several years; then, on March 10, 1922, H.C. Beard of Mount Ayr, a Commissioner from 1913-1917, wrote to fellow Commissioner Anson Marsten about “a man [who] came to Mount Ayr a week ago last night and the next morning demanded $600 from us for the Wilson Highway through Union and Ringgold counties. He claimed to represent Parley Sheldon of Ames and to be the manager of the Wilson Highway. We told him that we were well satisfied with primary road #15….He came back here Tuesday morning and said he had fixed it with the Highway Commission to take number 15 away from us if we did not buy the Wilson Highway and said if we wanted #15 and the Wilson Highway to wire him by night at the Sheldon-Munn hotel at Ames and he would let us have it. I told the commercial club that the Highway Commission would not be a party to such a hold-up and we wired him that we would not pay.” 6 Beard went on to remark emphatically, “I wish to vigorously protest against such a thing….I wish you would give this matter full consideration and let us know whether or not this fellow is going to take #15 away from us.”

A few days later, on March 13, Anson wrote back to Beard: “We understood that the change in route for the Wilson Highway was made (which we would have to register in compliance with the law), and that the only question open for us to decide was whether we should give the number 15 to the Wilson Highway throughout the state or retain the present numbering, which would require it to run part of the way through the state on 15 and the remainder on 16. I want to say that emphatically that the Highway Commission will not tolerate the use of its action to extort money from towns.” 7

This letter of March 18, 1922, is the last documented piece of correspondence concerning the Wilson Highway/Woodrow Wilson Way.

1ISHC Registration of Highway Routes application forms, Box 5, Folder HA2.094, Documents HA2.094.0001 and HA2.094.0003
2Letter from Claude V. Campbell to T.H. MacDonald, June 25, 1918, Box 5, Folder HA2. 094, Document HA2.094.0004A-B.
3Letter from ISHC to Claude V. Campbell, October 24, 1918, Box 5, Folder HA2.094, Document HA2.094.0008A-B
4Letter from Campbell to ISHC, Box 5, Folder HA2.094, Document HA2.094.0009
5Box 5, Folder HA2.094, Document HA2.094.0015
6Box 5, folder HA2.094, document HA2.094.0018
7Box 5, folder HA2.094, document HA2.094.0020


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