As much as I’ve read about the creation of the nation’s highway system, I’d never heard that idea of a Rand McNally cartographer lead to the original U.S. Highway numbering system.

As I’m watching TV at breakfast this morning, there’s a rerun of a Travel Channel Mysteries at the Museum episode that includes a segment titled, “First Road Maps.”

The story talks about how Rand McNally cartographer John Brink came up with maps with numbers and symbols in the late 1910s, which it sells to the federal committee that set up the U.S. Highway numbering system in 1926.

Before the numbers, the free market determined road routes. And free market in this case anybody with a sign, hammer and nail was free to put up road directions or name a route. Our own U.S. 80 in San Diego County was part of the Dixie Highway, the Old Spanish Trail, Bankhead Highway and a couple of other routes created by highway associations; what because U.S. 101 (Pacific Highway) and U.S. 395 were also part of named routes. Check out this story from the Federal Highway Administration.

Of course, out here in the west, the Automobile Club of Southern California’s maps and road signs were seen as the unofficial-official signs long before the 1926 federal action.

One note… the clip here is condensed from the actual episode; if you can catch the full show, the longer segment includes some great photos of the visual clutter of road, attraction and directional signs that were posted in the pre-U.S. Highway days. ⚙


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