Highway 41 Revisited

Route 66 is the mother road and mother lode of American auto travel mythology.  Wisconsin is not on the fabled route that runs from Chicago to Los Angeles, but we are not without a mythic highway of our own.  You can’t get your kicks on Route 66 here, but you can get it done on Route 41.

That’s what millions of travelers have been doing ever since 1926 when the federal government pledged to expand funding for a modern “trunk” highway system that would run from coast to coast and border to border.  East-west roads received even numbers, ergo 66 for the Chicago-Los Angeles route. North-south roads were odd-numbered, ergo 41 for the route that ultimately connected Copper Harbor in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to Miami, Florida.  It was one of only a few highways  in the country where a traveler could spot a moose at one end and an alligator at the other–with no more than  2,000 miles in between.

Sign at the northern end of Highway 41 near Copper Harbor.

A ribbon of smooth concrete, with two lanes divided by painted stripes visible in the dark, and with identifying signs mounted within reasonable distances to keep drivers from getting lost, the 1920’s U.S. highway system was state of the art for its day.  Much has been written about the primitive state of American roads prior to the construction of the Interstate System in the 1950s. We all know the story of how President Eisenhower, recalling an all but impossible cross country journey with military vehicles in 1919, vowed to build a new system once he moved into the White House.  American roads were terrible in 1919, but had Ike made his road trip ten or so years later, his opinion might not have been so negative and our current highway system might not be the same.

The difference between 1919 and, say 1929, was federal funding.  Realizing that the automobile required better roads than horse-drawn wagons and that the states could not be relied upon to create a uniform system of roads, the federal government first offered the carrot of regular funding in 1917.  The program was expanded throughout the 1920s. Wisconsin, for example, told the feds it would need money for over 5,000 miles of urban, rural and cross-country highways and, eventually, got it.

Route 41 was number one in Wisconsin. It connected the most populous part of the state, starting at Kenosha and Racine, then north through Milwaukee and on to Fond du Lac, Oshkosh, Appleton, Green Bay and Menominee. Then it was on to the wilds of the UP and down to the shore of Lake Superior.

It was a vacationer’s route. Chicagoans heading north to the Wisconsin lakes came up 41, then turned off onto adventurous  state routes to Waupaca, Oneida, Vilas and other resort counties.  Snow birds went south, through Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Georgia, down to Naples on Florida’s Gulf Coast. There 41 turns straight east across the Everglades to Miami, still two lanes, still flanked by ditches filled with waterfowl and ‘gators easily spotted out the car window.

One difference between the highways of the 1920s and the Interstates of the 1950s, is that the highways ran through villages, small town and cities. Their purpose was to link downtowns to downtowns.  In Chicago, for example, Highway 41 was and still is Lake Shore Drive.  Appleton ran it down College Avenue. Milwaukee followed a different course, choosing to run its stretch of 41 on 27th Street. It wasn’t on the lake, but still in the heart of the city.

Historic Highway 41

Small towns vied to bring the new highway down their Main Street. The term bypass, unheard in the 1920s, first reared its ugly head in the  early 1930s and bits and pieces of Route 41 were moved to the outskirts. The death knell for down town commercial districts started to sound as soon as the highway moved out of town. It was only a matter of time before the Interstates demolished and/or carved up  urban neighborhoods and pulled downtown stores to malls positioned off the exit ramps.

It you look carefully you can still see relics of the old Route 41 in Wisconsin.  The heavily remodeled or tumbled down remains of cheese stores, root-beer stands, gas stations that sold only gas, and mom and pop  motels with a string of rooms fronting the road and the “office” in the family home nearby.

Route 66 has a legion of fans who preserve its history. Route 41 has one too, at least in Milwaukee. The annual gathering of Historic Highway 41 will take place on Saturday, June 2 on 27th Street.  Go to http://www.historichwy41.com. Get it done on 41.

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