First in the World. Today, we take for granted the various systems of
numbered highways across the country and around the world. But, as with
anything, it all had to start somewhere, and that somewhere was Wisconsin
when it comes to numbered highway systems. By the mid-1910s, the proliferation
of "marked" highways was reaching crisis proportions. Countless
automobile clubs, tire companies, oil companies and tourist associations
erected signs along randomly-chosen routes. Sometimes these routes would
veer far from the best or most direct path only to pass through a city
which paid a fee to have the marked route run though the center of town.
Wisconsin was home to many of these so-called "auto trails."
In 1917, the Wisconsin State Legislature enacted a law which prohibited
the marking and posting of any "trails" within the state without
prior authorization from the state. By 1919, there was only one such "trail," the
Yellowstone Trail, marked within the state. (Various "auto trails" existed
in other parts of the country through the mid-1920s, however.) As a replacement
for the multitude of marked auto trails, the Wisconsin legislature, under
Chapter 175, Laws of 1917, authorized the creation and signing of a numbered
highway system, with the State Highway Commission as the overseeing agency.
By late 1917, with all surveys and field reconnaissance completed, the
State Highway Commission laid out a system of 5,000 miles of numbered state
highways on paper. During one week in May of 1918, all route designation
signage was erected and Wisconsin became the first in the world with a
signed system of route-numbered highways. Michigan, Wisconsin's neighbor
to the east, adopted a similar highway signing plan later in 1918. Since
then, every state in the US, each Canadian province and almost every foreign
nation around the world has laid out similar systems of numbered highways.
See the 1955 memo "System of Numbering
State Trunk Highways for Guidance of Travelers, Historical Background" for a first-person recounting of how
the first routes were numbered!
The Middle Years. Although the original system only consisted of 5,000
miles of state-maintained highways, that number was legislatively increased
over the years first to 7,500 (1919), then 10,000 (1923), and now to approximately
12,000 miles. In 1926, certain major state highways were redesignated as
federal highways when the US Highway system was implemented across all
48 states. Ironically, all of what was then STH-12 was redesignated as
US-12! As time passed, the state highway system was refined and improved.
The Interstate Era. Even before the advent of today's modern Interstate
Highways, Wisconsin sensed the need for faster, better, high-volume highways.
In 1953 the Wisconsin Turnpike Commission was created to study the feasibility
of constructing one or more toll roads across the state. The one major
proposal was for a toll road to enter the state from Illinois near Genoa
City—from a proposed connection with the Illinois Tollway System—and
proceed northwesterly via Madison to La Crosse. Various other proposals
were studied as well. In 1955 it was decided, though, that a toll road
through Wisconsin would not be practical, and that the state should instead
fully participate in the proposed National System of Defense and Interstate
The Interstate Era during the 1960s was the heyday of highway building
in Wisconsin. The first Interstate construction began just months after
the signing of the Interstate Highway Act into law in 1956 at Goerke's
Corners near Waukesha. Intially, the state was to be home to only two mainline
Interstate highways, I-90 and I-94, but an early proposal to run an Interstate
highway from Milwaukee to Green Bay eventually came to fruition—albeit
on a different alignment than that first proposed. The highway department
also proposed other Interstates, such as a connection between Milwaukee
and Janesville-Beloit, but were turned down by the Federal Highway Administration
(FHWA). Unlike other states, though, Wisconsin eventually constructed most
of these denied routes as freeways or expressways.
Visit the following sections of the Wisconsin Highways website for a 'continuation'
of this overview:
- Wisconsin's Interstates -
for more in-depth information on the state's portion of the Interstate
- Milwaukee County Freeways - for a review of the epoch
struggle in the building of the freeway system in the state's largest
- Introduction -
for a modern-day look at the Wisconsin State Trunk Highway system.
"Dedicated to the past, present and future of the Wisconsin State Trunk Highway system as well as other highways and routes throughout the Badger State. This website is intended to be a clearinghouse of information on Wisconsin's highways, from easily-recognized facts to the little-known trivia. It is also meant to change as the state highway system changes."