In 1915 political and business leaders in Iowa created the Jefferson Highway Association. They proposed an interstate route from Winnipeg, Manitoba, to New Orleans, Louisiana. Because the road bisected the Louisiana Purchase, organizers named their association and proposed road for Pres. Thomas Jefferson, who had secured the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.
Highway associations and their namesake routes flourished during the 1910s and 1920s. Among them the Lincoln Highway, the Dixie Highway, and the Ozark Trail, all interstate routes, emerged to promote travel in a particular region of the country. Led by political leaders, good roads advocates, and chambers of commerce in contiguous states, they stitched together a network of existing state, county, and municipal roads. Key features of each organization included promoting modern highway construction, expanding overland interstate travel, and securing economic opportunities from the exponentially increasing number of cars and tourists.
Edwin T. Meredith of Des Moines, Iowa, became the driving force of the national Jefferson Highway Association. A well-known leader of the state Democratic Party, a successful publisher of farm and home periodicals, and a nationally recognized advocate for good roads, Meredith conceived the idea of a major north-south interstate route to complement the east-west Lincoln Highway. In November 1915 in New Orleans he presided at the first national meeting of the Jefferson Highway Association.
Approximately three hundred delegates from seven midwestern and southern states gathered to obtain a portion of the Jefferson Highway designation, or the "Pine to Palm Route," for their state. Oklahoma and Texas delivered the two largest delegations. Arguing over location of the highway consumed most of the two-day meeting. Led by David N. Fink, president of the Commercial Bank of Muskogee, the Oklahomans secured the route at the expense of promoters from Arkansas. At the conclusion of the conference attendees agreed to locate the road by "cardinal points," that is, by selecting specific communities through which the route would pass. Muskogee became the "cardinal point" in Oklahoma. Each chapter of the Jefferson Highway Association paid a nine-dollar-per-mile membership fee based on the route's mileage in their state.
At the Kansas border the highway entered Oklahoma at Picher. Following established section line roads, the route went to Miami, southwest to Vinita, then south to Pryor, Wagoner, Muskogee, Checotah, Eufaula, and Canadian. South of Canadian the Jefferson Highway paralleled the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railway. This path overlapped parts of the historic Texas Road. In many places the roadway ran beside the railway, and in other locations it used abandoned railroad roadbed. At Calera it returned to section-line rights of way to Durant and Colbert. The Jefferson Highway passed through no fewer than twenty-eight Oklahoma communities. At Colbert a privately owned toll bridge transported travelers to Texas. Toll ferries or toll bridges provided the only crossings at most of the major watercourses bisecting the road.
The Oklahoma Highway Department never labeled the Jefferson Highway on its official maps. Local members of the association wasted no time marking the route, using distinctive blue-and-white metal signs stenciled with a black "JH" on the white background in the middle. They nailed these markers to trees and utility poles. Except for some municipal streets, none of the road was paved.
National and state organizations of the Jefferson Highway Association provided no money for highway improvements. The national office promoted the road by publishing maps, guide books, and press releases. State chapters lobbied officials, usually county commissioners, to maintain and modernize the route and promoted municipal and county bond issues. In 1919 construction began on a new bridge across the Canadian River near Eufaula. Jefferson Highway Association leaders in Muskogee took credit for initiating this project. All along the route highway association members encouraged and sometimes organized work days for surface improvements. In 1916 sixty businessmen in Muskogee contributed money for such a project.
Local leaders realized the economic impact of overland travel. Perhaps the most ambitious project in Oklahoma along the Jefferson Highway occurred in Muskogee. In 1921 the Muskogee Kiwanis Club decided to build a car camping site at Spaulding Park. They raised three thousand dollars and constructed a large pavilion containing cooking facilities, modern restrooms, and showers, and they built camp sites. By July 1922 more than fourteen hundred car campers had used the park. No doubt Muskogee merchants welcomed the tourists' dollars as well.
The Jefferson Highway Association's goals and purposes and the significance of its namesake route began to fade in the late 1920s. By 1929 the organization ceased to function. First, under pressure from federal officials, state legislators and the governor worked to bring the Oklahoma State Highway Department into compliance with federal guidelines and to the level already established by neighboring states. In 1924 two laws changed the department's role. One gave the agency, for the first time, the authority to build and maintain roads. This act removed county commissioners as the main entity for state highway work. A companion bill became law, providing the agency a steady stream of funding. Most of the 2.5 cents-per-gallon gasoline tax went to a highway construction fund. With the authority to build and maintain roads and with money to complete these tasks, state highway department employees became the primary force for good roads.
Second, federal and state highway authorities worked together to create a national network of interstate highways. In 1925 meetings began; the following year the officials established the U.S. Highway System. These interstate routes became eligible for federal funding and received numerical designations that remained consistent from one state to the next. The Jefferson Highway was no exception. States first started the numbering system, and by 1921 Oklahoma highway department employees had labeled the Jefferson Highway as State Route 7 from Picher to Vinita and then as State Route 6 to the Red River. Following the creation of a national numbering system, the route of the Jefferson Highway became U.S. 73. In 1935 the road received the current designation, U.S. 69.
The Jefferson Highway Association, like its sister organizations, served several important functions. First, members vigorously, vocally, and visibly promoted good roads. They knew the automobile promised easy, expansive travel and that readily useable highways were immediately needed. Second, because many of the leaders of state organizations came from the business and merchant classes, they expected to accommodate an influx of car-carrying visitors. The economic opportunity of good roads did not escape them. Finally, the efforts of the Oklahoma Jefferson Highway Association, along with the other groups along the route, played a key role providing a foundation for a national interstate highway system.
William P. Corbett, "Oklahoma Highways: Indian Trails to Urban Expressways" (PhD. diss., Oklahoma State University, 1982).
"Jefferson Highway Oklahoma Tour Guide," jeffersonhighway.org, accessed 20 November 2016.
C. Dub West, Muskogee from Statehood to Pearl Harbor (Muskogee, Okla.: Muskogee Publishing Company, 1976).
"Muskogee History (pre-statehood to 1950)," Vertical File, Muskogee Public Library, Muskogee, Oklahoma.
The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Bill Corbett, “Jefferson Highway,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=JE010.
© Oklahoma Historical Society.