Wednesday, March 25, 2020

The Auto Trails: North America's Predecessors to Numbered Highways

In the early 20th century, with the advent of the automobile becoming inexpensive enough to be affordable by the Middle Class, America's highway infrastructure was nearly non-existent. 

Road networks were essentially a series of dirt roads and plank roads outside of major cities, and the interurban railways of the day were usually more reliable forms of transportation. 

Historic Yellowstone Trail Marker in North Fond du Lac, WI. Image: RoyalBroil, Wikipedia Commons
From these paths, an informal network of roads began to coalesce that would be become known as Auto Trails. Today we're going to look at this system, and how from the Auto Trails, the US Highway System, and later the Interstate Highway would come to fruition. 

To understand the Auto Trail in the context of transportation history, one must go back to the beginning of the development of the transportation system of the United States, which begins thousands of years before the United States even existed. 

One of the most fascinating things I learned on my ride on the Coopersville & Marne Railway was that the 1858 track of the railroad followed "an ancient water route first cut into the earth by glacial events." And indeed, parts of our transportation system were naturally formed, and from that formation, human ingenuity took over. 

From the river's course, Native American trails were developed. 

From Native American trails, pioneer trails and military routes were developed. In many cases, early Americans simply used Native American trails for moving large distances. 

From these military routes and pioneer trails, dirt roads, canals and plank-roads were built, improving the routes that were already there. 

From the canals and plank-roads, railroads and improved gravel roads developed. And from these gravel roads, the Auto Trails eventually tied them together in a network.

A 1913 example of what dirt roads looked like in the early 20th century. This eventually became US 101 in Ventura County, CA. Image: GBCNet
By the 1890's, ideas for a transcontinental highway began to unfold, undoubtedly from the successes of the Transcontinental Railroad. Despite automobiles still being very expensive, the early proposals for a transcontinental road were quite forward thinking, given what typical roads looked like during those days. 

But in 1902, the first meeting of AAA began envisioning a route from New York City to California. Good Roads Magazine noted that "The plan of a transcontinental highway is spectacular; but Congress cannot be induced to support a spectacle.", and suggested that this be a private project with state and local support, not dissimilar to how many early railroads were funded. 

The idea of mass produced automobiles that could be purchased by the many still wasn't a thought at this point, and the automobile was thought of more like the airplane is today. In fact, many of those who advocated for "Good Roads" did so with bicycle traffic in mind. But, the idea of Auto Trails and publicly owned automobile highways was beginning to enter the stream of consciousness. 

A map of proposed roads of the United States.
In 1911, many routes had been identified as areas where improved roads could be a public good, including many upgraded pioneer trails. But still almost none had been built. In early 1912, the first 25 miles of the Yellowstone Trail would be built, which would eventually stretch from Seattle to Plymouth, Massachusetts. 

The rest of the decade would see a tremendous amount of roads constructed, each of which with a different story, and different level of funding. One of the most well known of these roads was the Lincoln Highway, which fulfilled the promise of a New York City to California route, albeit requiring a ferry across the Hudson River, until the Lincoln Tunnel was built in the 1930's. 

The original east end of the Lincoln Highway at Broadway & 42nd St in New York City, right at Times Square.
By 1920, there were hundreds of different Auto Trails in the United States, and the idea of named roads even made its way into Canada. While many had the word "Trail" in their names, it is important to note that they were mostly independent roads, and not a national network of highways. Trails were marked with wooden signs and arrows. 

A Lincoln Highway maker with the distinctive "L" pattern and arrow. Image: Lincoln Highway Association
Most were marketed and promoted only by their associations, and while states and municipalities generally helped to fund improvements along their routes, many of these roads were little or no better than local roads, especially in rural areas. 

Auto Trails were slightly ahead of their time, as they were organized by people who saw the potential of the automobile, but were still enough of a luxury item that the US Government was not yet interested in promoting roads. By 1916 however, the impact that the automobile was going to have on transportation in the US was clear, and began negotiations to fund individual highways.

A 1922 Rand McNally Map of Auto Trails in the United States and Canada
Wisconsin began a system of numbering state highways in 1918, as the first successor to the named Auto Trails. In 1922, six States in New England began creating a system of multistate highways that were numbered as opposed to named. The states had designed and numbered the roads in such a way that could be replicated in the rest of the contiguous United States. From this system, New England Route 1 would eventually become US Highway 1 in 1926. 

From the Auto Trails, the US Highway system would develop, and in many cases, simply number the roads that were there already. While numbered roads and systems seem commonplace today, the transformation from names to numbers was not without criticism. The New York Times wrote that "The traveler may shed tears as he drives the Lincoln Highway or dream dreams as he speeds over the Jefferson Highway, but how can he get a 'kick' out of 46, 55 or 33 or 21?" Notably left out was 66, who travelers eventually would  be able to get their kicks on. 

Some names, such as the Dixie Highway and, of course, the Lincoln Highway, would stick even past the days of the US Highway, but many faded away in favor of the (somewhat) orderly numbers of the US Highway system.

The early history of the US Highway system requires a blog, or perhaps a few, to truly encapsulate, and as such, I will stop here. The Auto Trails provided a brief, but notable bridge from the dirt, unimproved roads, to a system of slightly-improved roads that would be reconstructed and re-engineered over time, in a process that continues to this day. 

Thanks as always for reading!

Monday, March 9, 2020

The Dachau Concentration Camp: My Experience (By Jet Lagged Jaff)

Our friend who goes by JetLaggedJaff recently completed a visit of Europe, and among the spots he visited was the Dachau Concentration Camp. He has graciously shared his visit and thoughts on this extremely harrowing place in which unspeakable atrocities occurred against humanity. We'll let him continue from here...

First of all, would I recommend a place like this for a visit? Absolutely. It may have been frightening, but it was also an experience you would not want to miss when you visit Germany. You can read all about the Holocaust in textbooks, but visiting Dachau will definitely give you a true connection with the prisoners. You will definitely grow as a person and have a deeper understanding and compassion for the people that died.

Entrance to Dachau, which translated means "Work Sets [You] Free". The phrase appears on many concentration camps.
Dachau Concentration camp was the first concentration camp to open in 1933. It was originally intended to hold political prisoners. The concentration camp eventually started holding other types of prisoners, such as Jews, criminals from Germany, Austria, and other occupied territories during the Third Reich. Over the war, the Nazis went from a policy of imprisonment of people they deemed undesirable, to a policy of extermination, and Dachau became a death camp.

Like all of the concentration camps, the conditions were terrible. Very overcrowded, a lot of torture, and lack of food. The main cause of prisoners’ deaths at Dachau were hunger, medical experiments, disease, and murder. A gas chamber was in place but never used, but the crematoriums were used often.


Map of Dachau Concentration Camp (Link and further information)


There were 32,000 documented deaths were recorded at Dachau, until the camp was liberated by US troops in April 1945. It was the longest running concentration camp throughout Nazi history, and was the largest concentration camp until Auschwitz-Birkenau was built.  
Inside the museum, the "March of Death" Sculpture. As the Allies closed in on the camps, prisoners were forced to march, and were usually shot they could travel no longer.
The International Memorial Inscription
The Russian Orthodox Chapel
As soon as I set foot on the grounds of this camp; it was a bone-chilling experience. The very fact that people died on these particular grounds definitely gave me an eerie feeling. It was mind-blowing to see how the prisoners lived, what forms of torture were used on them and to learn about their living conditions.

It really makes you wonder how can someone have so much hatred for a particular race, that they would want them to go through that kind of torture? That was the question that was going through my mind the entire visit. I wouldn’t want this for my absolute worst enemy.

NOTE: As part of this blog, we have made a donation to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, to make sure no part of the Holocaust is forgotten.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

RailROWMap: The Future of Mapping Abandoned Railroad Lines (Available March 29th)

It's been awhile since I've sat down and blogged, but it hasn't been because I've stopped wanting to, or had writer's block, but rather, over the last few months, I've been working to fully realize the ultimate goal of the abandoned and out-of-service railroad lines map since its inception.

And that is to create a platform which allows you, yes you, to contribute your knowledge of railroad history and mapping to the project. The vastness of the abandoned railroad network is such that the only way it can be fully realized is with the magic of crowdsourcing.

I'm pleased to announce RailROWMap will be available by the end of March, 2020.
I started mapping abandoned railroad lines as a side project on March 29th, 2016. Exactly four years to the day, I am beyond excited that the next step toward creating an accurate, crowsourced map of abandoned railroad lines is will be a reality! Both iOS and Android users will each have their own apps available in the App Store and Google Play, respectively. A desktop app to update the interface of the current map is in development as well, and will release on the same day as the iOS and Android apps.


The Google My Maps application has been amazing to this end, but a new system is needed.

In the few years that I've been active in the railroad history community, I've come to realize that no one is a complete railroad expert, but each of us has our own unique knowledge, that as a whole, is far more valuable than the sum of its parts. Human-Computer chess matches, for example, have resulted in humans learning things about the from computers, and as large a dataset as exists in the abandoned railroad network, I see the applications for such data, and how it can be useful to society as a whole, as limitless and beyond my imagination.

A perfect example would be a conversation I had with an esteemed railroad historian, who did not realize that Bolingbrook, IL had (an albeit very small) bit of railroad trackage and history, despite living just a few miles away. "Bolingbrook is a relatively new suburb, and as such, has no railroad history", he said incorrectly.

But just as relevant, there are numerous parts of our railroad I can't fathom myself, which is why the knowledge of the crowd is so necessary.

In my current system, users must email me information about railroad lines, which is cumbersome for both myself and them; but the app will allow users to create their own railroad lines on the map, and then immediately send them on the map screen, where a file will be generated, allowing me to simply add the line onto the existing data.

While the map in its current for has been available for viewing and disseminating online for the last four years, the app will be available by the end of March. Like everything on this website, it will be available free of charge, supported by ads, affiliates.

Some may argue that I'm simply "reinventing the wheel", as many other mapping alternatives are available, for instance OpenRailwayMap. However, OpenRailwayMap is cumbersome to use, and more importantly, has a steep learning curve when it comes to plotting the tracks of old rights of way. One of the goals of the app is to allow users much easier access to sending lines, as many people who may have extensive railroad history knowledge may lack the IT skills necessary to make accurate, clean maps.

For those who wish to keep using the old map, I do not envision the old map going away, however both app and web interfaces will be updated.

I say this many times, and I mean it, without you I would not be doing this, so I greatly appreciate your contributions and activity! Feel free to comment on any features you would find helpful in the app, and I will try to make it feasible, either in the first iteration of the app or an update.

Thanks as always!

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

You Can See Economic History in Nebraska's Satellite Imagery

The accessibility of satellite imagery has opened up a treasure trove of interesting things that might otherwise remain hidden in plain sight. I've past mentioned scarchitecture in this blog before, where the historic tracks of railroads, canals, roads, and other transportation systems can result in oddly-angled buildings which offer clues of the past.

Others have noticed geography playing a role in other arenas of history as well, as geologist Steven Dutch noted that the more Democratic Black Belt in Alabama matched up nearly perfectly with a 100 Million year old rock formation. (Wired)

Similarly, I noticed something interesting in regards to my abandoned railroad map, with regard to the proximity of three railroad lines that had significant portions of their routes that were never built. These were three related branches of the Burlington & Missouri River Railroad that never reached their full extent in central Nebraska. Today we explore why they were never completed.

These were the lines that ran from Palmer, NE to Burwell, NE along a 70 mile route; Palmer, NE to Sargent, NE, along a 75 mile route, and Greeley, NE to Ericson, NE along a 20 mile route. These are shown below in blue, with the unbuilt sections in pink.

Image: Google Maps, Abandoned & Out of Service Railroad Lines
I call this little oddity the Three Fingers area, given how it looks on the map. And after quickly searching online, I came to learn that there is a reason that none of these lines was completed.

Old Chicago Burlington & Quincy Depot at Burwell, 1983. Image: Stu Nicholson, RRPictureArchives.net
The Burwell Branch, along with the branches to Sargent, NE and Ericson, NE, were all intended to run farther north into the Black Hills, however economic and drought troubles of the 1890's, most notably the Panic of 1893, quite literally derailed these plans.

"First Train into Sargent, Custer County, NE, October 25th, 1899"
The Ericson Branch was the first line to be abandoned, with the last train arriving there in 1940. What was built along these branches was usually poorly maintained, but the Burwell and Sargent Branches each survived until the early 1980's, which is surprising, because as early as the 1920's, the Chicago Burlington & Quincy noted these lines were unprofitable. Ultimately, they were abandoned by the Burlington Northern, after having been passed on from the CB&Q.

Despite never having been operated, each of the unbuilt sections of grade are still quite visible on satellite imagery, with the exception of the grade which ran through what would become the Calamus Reservoir. At least thirty miles of the Sargent Branch continuing north of Sargent is plainly visible on satellite imagery, continuing until nearly Brewster, NE.
  • 41.65435, -99.38339
41.65435, -99.38339
Here's the Burwell grade as it extends past the Calamus Reservoir:

41.90571, -99.29619
The Ericson grade continues on as Cedar River Rd north of the town.

41.79088, -98.69342
So, the economic downturn of the 1890's remains immortalized in our satellite imagery, at least in central Nebraska, and even though these routes were never completed, the grades themselves tell a story of railroad lines that wouldn't make it past construction.

Thanks as always for reading!

Sunday, February 9, 2020

The Rio Grande Southern Railroad

The Rio Grande Southern Railroad was a narrow-gauge line that ran from Durango, CO to Ridgway, CO, along a roughly 160 mile route. (Right of Way)

Image: "Railway station at Ophir, Colorado" 1940. Via Shorpy
First founded in 1889, the road began construction the year after. "The RGS’s early revenues came mainly from the numerous silver and gold mines near Telluride, Ophir and Rico. Hauling hundreds of tons of precious metal ores and hundreds of passengers in and out of the area made the financial condition of the railroad extraordinarily strong for its first two and one-half years! " (RGS History)

RGS 461 at Ridgway, CO. Photographer: Richard Kindig. Forgotten Railways, Roads & Places Photo Collection.
Unfortunately for the line, the silver panic of 1893 meant the newly opened line would face unforeseen financial difficulties from then on.

RGS 2101 freight car. Unknown photographer: Forgotten Railways, Roads & Places Photo Collection.
Through most of its history, it was owned by the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad, but operated separately, although often with second-hand equipment from the D&RGW.


Despite never being a highly-profitable route, the line survived longer than many narrow-gauge lines, finally being abandoned in 1953. Part of this can be attributed to creating the "Galloping Goose", a motorcar which allowed the line to carry passengers, mail, and small amounts of cargo along the line necessary to meet demand.

RGS "Galloping Goose #6" Unknown photographer: Forgotten Railways, Roads & Places Photo Collection.

Essentially a cross between a truck, bus and diesel railroad engine, they were replicated in a few other railroads around the world, but are best known for their use on the Rio Grande Southern.

"Photo by David Fluit #4 and #5 on the D&S at Tacoma, August 28, 2015 during Railfest. This was the first time the two "Geese" operated together since 1952." (RGS History)
The right of way is still traceable in spots, and follows US-160, and several Colorado State Highways.

Further reading: “Robert W. Richardson's Rio Grande Southern: Chasing the Narrow Gauge” (Amazon) (eBay) Note: This site may earn a commission using the provided links.