In Search of...U.S. Route 20 in Ohio

IN SEARCH OF . . .
U.S. ROUTE 20 IN OHIO


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February, 2006

Just as Ohio was crossed by four coast-to-coast named auto trails, so also was the Buckeye State traversed by four nationally important east-west federal routes. While the Lincoln Highway and National Old Trails Road generally became U.S. Routes 30 and 40, respectively, two other federal routes—numbered 20 and 50—followed paths with ties to named trails that were more regional in nature. This article will focus on the route of U.S. 20, which most closely followed a route known as the Chicago-Buffalo Road.

When the federal highway system was first drawn on the national map in 1925, U.S. 20 was a transcontinental route from Boston, Massachusetts to Astoria, Oregon by way of Yellowstone National Park. However, interests in Utah, Idaho, and Oregon apparently wanted some numerical connection with U.S. 30, which—in return for the pledge of the Lincoln Highway Association to support the new federal system—generally had become the important equivalent of the Lincoln Highway. These three states were successful in their efforts, and as a result, the course of U.S. 20 was revised to terminate at the east entrance of Yellowstone Park, while the course of U.S. 30 was routed to Astoria, Oregon—much like it is today. However, some compromise was evident, because 30-North (via Pocatello, Idaho) and 30-South (via Ogden, Utah) both appeared in the first official log of United States numbered highways as diverging routes west of Granger, Wyoming.

Eventually, U.S. 20 was extended to the Oregon coast. During the 1940s, a newly improved road was opened to Albany, Oregon. By the 1950s, the terminus had been shifted another fifty miles westward to meet the Pacific Ocean at Newport, Oregon. This actually created a rare anomaly in the national numbering scheme, with U.S. 20 traversing the final western state between U.S. 30 and U.S. 40.

At its maximum length, U.S. 20 reportedly covered over 3400 miles from Boston, Massachusetts to Newport, Oregon. Then, with the truncation of U.S. 6 in California during 1965, U.S. 20 became the longest of all the federal routes, although now listed on the FHWA (Federal Highway Administration) web site at 3365 miles. According to a 1928 report by the Ohio Department of Highways, 263 miles of the route were in Ohio.

When U.S. 20 first appeared on the official Ohio highway map in 1926, it traced the paths of four state routes that had been designated only three years prior. The new federal route followed the original course of State Route 2 westerly from the Pennsylvania line through six Ohio counties to a point eleven miles west of Fremont at an intersection locally known as Busy Corners. On the Rand McNally auto trails maps of 1918 and 1921, this is the same path as the Toledo-Cleveland-Buffalo Trail, and it also compares well with Main Market Route Number One. In addition, there was some overlap in this section with the route of the Yellowstone Trail. After the federal highway was mapped, the resilient State Route 2 was relocated to its present corridor along Lake Erie.

Curiously, U.S. 20 has historically avoided Toledo, following the original State Route 102 across the Maumee River at the bridge between Perrysburg and Maumee. The route then turned north toward Sylvania on a highway originally marked as State Route 63, before resuming west toward Indiana on a highway originally marked as State Route 23 (not to be confused with U.S. 23). This westerly course was also on the path of the Toledo-Angola-Goshen Trail, which met the Lincoln Highway in northern Indiana to create the shortest route between Toledo and Chicago.

From the Pennsylvania state line to Cleveland, the first course of U.S. 20 is much like the route of today. As early as 1947, the state map shows multiple lanes throughout this same length, but with Interstate 90 (completed in the early 1960s) and State Route 2 (presently extending east to Painesville) now providing the same corridor with two major freeways, U.S. 20 has probably seen little change through Ashtabula County and Lake County in the last sixty years. Almost all of the road remnants that do survive near today's alignment occur where new bridges have been built across rivers or where grades have been separated at railroads. Thus, bits and pieces of old U.S. 20 can be found in Ashtabula (river bridge), Geneva (grade separation), and Painesville (grade separation).

In Conneaut, the original version of the present viaduct over the Conneaut River was completed just in time for the coming of U.S. 20. The builder's plate shows construction dates from 1922 to 1924. Predecessors of the federal route had crossed the river on an extension of Main Street—now known as Old Main Road—which lies just downstream (north) of the present crossing. According to the 1927 route book, the federal route followed State Street through the business district before being directionally split in a much later decade. Today, the westbound traffic of U.S. 20 follows State Street while eastbound traffic follows Main Street.

(Click to enlarge) Builder's plate mounted at the Conneaut Viaduct on U.S. 20, also known as the Chicago-Buffalo Road.

In Ashtabula, another new bridge was still under construction in 1927, according to the line conventions of the Cleveland Automobile Club's route book. Thus, the original course of U.S. 20 turned left (south) from Ridge Road to jog around a park (see today's Edgewood Drive) before continuing south on State Road. The Ashtabula River was then crossed after a right turn (west) onto what is now 46th Street, which in the 1920s was apparently known as Spring Street. This was followed by a left turn (south) in downtown onto Main Street, and a right turn (west) onto Center Street, before another left turn (southwest) onto Prospect Street took the route out of town. After completion of the new bridge, an extension of Ridge Road would meet an extension of Prospect Street to eliminate every one of those previous turns.

There are actually numbered routes following two ridge roads through the northeasternmost counties of Ohio. The route of U.S. 20 follows the north ridge, and State Route 84 follows the south ridge—both running parallel with the shoreline of Lake Erie. According to the 1920 Automobile Blue Book, the Yellowstone Trail followed the south ridge from Kingsville to Painesville, skirting the south sides of town in Ashtabula and Geneva. Later maps in that same decade have the Yellowstone Trail on the same path as U.S. 20 and the Chicago-Buffalo Highway.

West of Geneva, a railroad underpass on a newer alignment has rendered two short road remnants on each side of the railroad. A photogenic brick street marked on the map as West Main Court is on the east side of the tracks, and another marked as Romeo Road is on the west side of the tracks.

A brick road remnant on the old main street at the west edge of Geneva, rendered by the construction of a railroad grade separation.

On the east side of Painesville, another grade separation has eliminated a second harshly skewed railroad crossing. However, this underpass was built on a north-south road that required two new right angle turns in the federal route. Both of these turns have since been reconfigured. A significant stretch of old roadway may be found along the south side of the railroad and east of this underpass.

Through the business district of Painesville, the north ridge route of U.S. 20 follows Erie Street and Mentor Avenue. The parallel route on the south ridge would have passed through downtown on Main Street and Mentor Avenue, with an interesting jog around a small central park near the Lake County Courthouse. Mentor Avenue continues through its namesake city on its way to Willoughby. In Willoughby, the route of U.S. 20 turns onto Euclid Avenue and passes through the communities of Wickliffe and Euclid with no change of the street name.

Today's version of U.S. 20 enters downtown Cleveland by way of Euclid Avenue, but this is not the original course of the highway. From 1926 to 1968, the federal route diverged from Euclid Avenue and reached the Public Square by following Superior Avenue. When U.S. 6 was certified in 1932, it also followed Superior Avenue, where it remains today. Between 1936 and 1968, an alternate U.S. 20 route was awkwardly paired with an alternate U.S. 6 route on the Euclid Avenue entry. One can only speculate why the highway department waited until 1968 before simplifying this overload of numbers to the present practical arrangement.

After passing through the Public Square in downtown Cleveland, the original route of U.S. 20 continued west across the Detroit-Superior Bridge. Beyond the west end of the bridge, the highway followed a boulevard which passed through the Edgewater Park neighborhood. Today this same modernized corridor is occupied by a trio of numbered highways, with State Route 2 and U.S. 6 now joined with U.S. 20.

At the west end of the boulevard, the 1927 route book of the Cleveland Automobile Club has the route following Lake Avenue to a point in Lakewood just beyond Webb Road, where it met the trolley on Clifton Boulevard. After short southbound stints on Clifton Boulevard and Riverside Drive, the 1927 course turned west and crossed Rocky River by way of the Hilliard Bridge. After six tenths of a mile on Hilliard Boulevard, the route turned south on Wooster Road for half that previous distance before resuming west into then-rural areas with yet another ridge road known as Center Ridge Road.

Oddly, the reverse course charted in the 1927 route book follows a different path through the Lakewood and Rocky River area. The eastbound route traces Hilliard Boulevard to Warren Road, where it turned north to meet the east-west portion of Clifton Boulevard. The 1927 route then followed Clifton Boulevard easterly toward downtown Cleveland. Thus, it appears that one-way streets may have existed in this area as early as the 1920s, with Lake Avenue carrying westbound traffic and Clifton Boulevard carrying eastbound traffic.

Not surprisingly, the course of U.S. 20 has been changed at least once since that first pair of alignments. Today the route crosses Rocky River on a section of Detroit Avenue that lies between a north-south leg of Clifton Boulevard and Wooster Road. According to straight line diagrams from the highway department, Sloan Avenue is now also part of the federal route. Moreover, U.S. 20 is now apparently on a two-way version of the east-west section of Clifton Boulevard, with Lake Avenue no longer carrying any highway number.

The route of U.S. 20 leaves Cuyahoga County and then passes through North Ridgeville on its way to Elyria, the seat of Lorain County. On the east side of Elyria, the present route of U.S. 20 follows a bypass alignment around the east and south sides of the city before approaching the original route on the southwest side of the city. The old route through Elyria follows southwesterly courses on Cleveland Street and Bridge Street before angling westerly onto Broad Street. After a left turn from Broad Street, the route resumes south with Middle Avenue, then angles southwesterly onto Oberlin Avenue, which becomes Oberlin-Elyria Road beyond the city limits. A snippet of roadway marked on the county map as Hall Road may have been a previous alignment of U.S. 20.

Oberlin appears to be the first town in Ohio to be bypassed with a new alignment of U.S. 20. The federal route was relocated to new construction around the south side of Oberlin at some time around 1941. This was an alignment which had first appeared on the official highway map in 1938, but its designation at that time was State Route 585. The 1927 route through Oberlin follows what is now State Route 511 through the heart of the historic college town, where it is marked as Lorain Street. However, there is some evidence to support that College Street may also have hosted the federal route in other years.

Beyond Oberlin, State Route 511 bears westerly for several miles before turning south to pass through the community of Kipton. The east-west road is also known as Oberlin-Norwalk Road, and the north-south road is also known as Vermilion Road. One mile south of Kipton, the route of U.S. 20 is rejoined after a quarter-circle turn to the west. Years ago, the highway department used to add these curves rather freely at state route intersections, but currently is making it a practice to eliminate them because of safety concerns in merge areas.

Two miles beyond the quarter-circle turn, the highway enters Huron County and jogs through the village of Wakeman. It is believed that the present U.S. 20 jog through Wakeman—which also features quarter-circle turns—is not the location of the original route. It is more likely that the early version of U.S. 20 zigzagged through town with the highways now marked as State Routes 60 and 303. Bearing west from Wakeman, the county seat of Norwalk is eleven miles ahead.

Like Elyria, Norwalk has also been bypassed by a modern alignment of U.S. 20. The Norwalk bypass features a divided set of four lanes and several interchanges that were completed in the late 1960s. The original route enters the city on Townsend Avenue, then angles southwesterly onto State Route 61, which is also marked as Main Street. A second route into the city—now marked as Cleveland Road—was built in later years to eliminate two railroad grade crossings. It joins Main Street just three-tenths of a mile from the terminus of Townsend Avenue.

Norwalk is one of several towns in this part of Ohio that are named after locations in Connecticut. A quick study of the map also reveals the settlements of Greenwich, New Haven, and New London, as well as several township names with Connecticut roots. This is the westernmost part of the Connecticut Western Reserve, with Huron County and Erie County (Sandusky) making up most of the area known as the Firelands. In 1792, Connecticut granted the Firelands to sufferers whose property had been burned by the British during the Revolutionary War. The traitor Benedict Arnold was part of that episode.

On the southwest side of Norwalk, State Route 61 diverges from Main Street and interchanges with the present four-lane route of U.S. 20. That portion of Main Street which turns south and west from the diversion point is a remnant of the original route. After crossing the East Branch of the Huron River, Main Street becomes County Road 243, and dead-ends at the interchange. Judging from the U.S. Geological Survey map, this looks like an interesting area to explore. It would be an especially fun challenge to find traces of an old roadside rest area somewhere near here which dates back to at least 1938—the first year those primitive sites were first shown en masse on the official Ohio highway map.

Two miles west of the bypass junction is the small town of Monroeville. Watch for the wonderfully nostalgic Trail's End Motel not far from town—especially the colorful sign. Highway improvements in and around Monroeville have rendered old road remnants in two locations. Near the railroad underpass southeast of town, short sections of Norwalk Street and Main Street survive as bits and pieces of the original U.S. 20. West of town, County Road 238 is also a remnant of the federal route.

(click) This photogenic brick road remnant is now part of Norwalk Street in Monroeville. On the boulder along the roadside, there is a plaque which commemorates the site of nearby Camp Worcester, where volunteers from Ohio assembled, camped, and drilled after answering President Lincoln’s call for service in 1861.

Similar highway improvements have also been made at Bellevue, which is seven miles west of Monroeville. The original route of U.S. 20 followed Monroe Street into downtown, crossing a pair of busy railroads that were properties of the New York, Chicago and St. Louis Railroad, commonly known as the Nickel Plate Road. Not coincidentally, the main line of the Nickel Plate Road had endpoints in Buffalo and Chicago—major cities that would also become waypoints on the route of U.S. 20. By 1935, the federal route was moved to its present location on an easterly extension of Bellevue's Main Street.

Bellevue is still an important railroad town, although the previous railroads are now properties of the Norfolk Southern Railway. Large shops and sprawling yards are still active northeast of town. The Mad River and NKP Railroad Museum—my favorite railroad museum in Ohio—is located close to downtown. Most railfans could spend at least a couple hours here while exploring the large static display of locomotives, cars, and hardware, not to mention the fine gift shop.

Aside from sightseeing, Bellevue is also on the line between Huron County and Sandusky County, which defines the western limits of the Connecticut Western Reserve. This makes the location significant as the easternmost point of a state road that was authorized by the Treaty of Brownstown in 1808. By this treaty, the Indian tribes of northwest Ohio ceded a strip of land 46 miles long and 120 feet wide from what is now Perrysburg to the west line of the Connecticut Reserve, together with land a mile wide on each side. Eventually, the square mile sections that are typical in this part of Ohio were subdivided into long thin parcels fronting on the state road, although the road was not sufficiently improved until later.

Seven miles west of Bellevue is the village of Clyde. It is here that I first noticed a new name on the county map, with the route of U.S. 20 also being shown as the McPherson Highway. After a successful web search, I learned that General James Birdseye McPherson was born here in 1828, when Clyde was called Hamers Corners. General McPherson lost his life while in command of Union forces during a Civil War battle in Atlanta, tragically becoming the youngest and highest ranking Union officer to be killed in that war. Clyde is also recognized as the hometown model for Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio books.

Another seven miles beyond Clyde is Fremont, which is the seat of Sandusky County. The present U.S. 20 bypass around Fremont was completed in about 1960, and was the first four-lane bypass in Ohio along this federal route. The antiquity of the bypass is sometimes seen in the narrow median and compact interchanges that would no longer meet the design standards of today. The original route follows State Street all the way through the historic town, which was originally platted in 1816 as Croghanville. It is one of only four towns in Ohio that were laid out by the federal government—Perrysburg (1816), Gnadenhutten (1824), and Upper Sandusky (1843) are the others.

Croghanville was named from Major General George Croghan, who led the successful defense of Fort Stephenson on the west bank of the Sandusky River. In 1813, General Croghan and 160 men turned back a combined British and Indian force of more than three thousand with one small six-pound cannon named "Old Betsy." Croghan ordered his men to fire and then move the cannon around the fort as fast as possible, giving the impression that the fort was better armed. After taking the Fremont name, the city later became famous as the home of Rutherford B. Hayes, 19th President of the United States. His lovely residence and final resting place at Spiegel Grove—along with a fine library—are now a state historic site.

Fremont was also previously known as Lower Sandusky, identifying its place on the Sandusky River. Lower Sandusky was the eastern endpoint of the notorious Maumee and Western Reserve Road—a thirty-one mile long "bridge" over the Great Black Swamp that ended at the Maumee River in Perrysburg. The road thus covered the western two-thirds of the state road that had first been authorized by the Treaty of Brownstown in 1808. The Maumee and Western Reserve Road was authorized by Congress in 1823 and completed in 1826. The historically poor conditions of the road are best recalled in Ardath Dansford's Perrysburg Revisited:

For perhaps two months of the year, July and August, if they were dry enough, the road was passable. The remainder of the time it offered steady employment for inhabitants of the area in helping to pull stalled teams out of mudholes. Roadside taverns did a thriving business in providing accommodations for travelers. In 1834 to 1836, there were thirty-one such establishments, very nearly equaling the distance in miles from Perrysburg to Fremont. In response to the furor over what some called "the worst road on the continent," Ohio officials in 1838 appropriated $40,000 to surface the road with macadam. When finished in 1841 it was one of the first such paved highways, and further expenditure of approximately $125,000 by the state to construct ditches and culverts made the Fremont Pike a major access route east and west.

In 1842, one year after the first major improvements were finished, thirty limestone mileposts were placed along the north side of the road. The initial letters of Lower Sandusky and Perrysburg are shown on the west and east face of each milestone, respectively, along with the mileage from and to those pioneer towns. The first milestone is in front of a residence in Fremont at 1206 W. State Street. On my last tour of the route on 2/20/2002 (note the numerical coincidences), I counted twenty-six out of thirty milestones, most of which were replicas of the originals.

Four miles west of Fremont, the Delorme Ohio Atlas and Gazetteer labels an intersection as Fourmile House Corner. It is my guess that there may have been a tollhouse here from the years when the Maumee and Western Reserve Road was also a turnpike. Ironically, a contemporary toll road now parallels the historic route—although in 2002, truckers were clogging U.S. 20 to avoid paying the apparently steep fees required for using the Ohio Turnpike. Thus, I made it a point not to stop along the side of the busy road any more than I had to.

Near milepost eleven and at the junction with State Route 51 is the intersection known as Busy Corners. At this point, the original State Route 2, along with the named auto routes—the Toledo-Cleveland-Buffalo Trail and the Yellowstone Trail—diverged from the old state road and followed a popular path toward Toledo that passed through Elmore. The official Ohio map of 1950 actually shows this as a multiple lane route, which would seem quite redundant today. However, U.S. 20 never followed this option, and continued on the route of the old turnpike toward Woodville and Perrysburg—which in many places is still two lanes today.

Both Woodville and Perrysburg are proud of their heritage on the Maumee and Western Reserve Road. At www.roadsideusa.info Russell Rein reports that the Woodville Historical Society was active in placing milestone replicas along the highway. In 1966, they also erected a sign next to the milestone (LS 15 P 16) in downtown Woodville. At Perrysburg, there is a Milestone Park at the last marker along the route, with a new and informative Ohio Historical Society marker placed nearby in 2001.

(click) Milestone LS 30 P 1 at Milestone Park in Perrysburg. (see sign)

Perrysburg is a town steeped in history. Laid out in 1816, it is named for Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, whose naval triumph on Lake Erie led to American victory in the west in the War of 1812. Perrysburg is at the foot of the rapids of the Maumee River, just downstream from where Fort Meigs was built on the same south bank by General William Henry Harrison during the winter of 1812 and 1813. The fort withstood two sieges of the British and Indians in the spring and summer of 1813. The Ohio Historical Society recently opened an impressive new Museum and Education Center at the site.

The route of U.S. 20 enters Perrysburg on Fremont Pike and Sandusky Street, then angles west onto Indiana Avenue. After two blocks, the route then turns north toward the river for three blocks on Louisiana Avenue, which is one of my favorite streets in the entire state. The government surveyors that laid out the city showed great wisdom in platting the right-of-way of Louisiana Avenue at a width of two chains (132 feet), which now allows for diagonal parking and wide sidewalks so that patrons can better enjoy their frequent visits to the several interesting shops and eateries along the way. A memorial statue honoring Commodore Perry is at the north end of Louisiana Avenue, along the north side of Front Street.

These three blocks of Louisiana Avenue would have also been the route of the Dixie Highway, which followed Front Street into town from Rossford. However, the Dixie Highway may not have joined the route of U.S. 25 until reaching a point in the south part of town. I find it fascinating that three federal routes once radiated from the square grid of Perrysburg. Along with U.S. 20 and U.S. 25, the route of U.S. 23 bore south-southeasterly along an extension of Louisiana Avenue that is still known as the McCutcheonville Pike.

At the Perry Monument, the route of U.S. 20 turns west from Louisiana Avenue onto Front Street and crosses the Maumee River into the city of Maumee. In Maumee, the route is also known as Conant Street, and on the way through town, two more federal highways are intersected—U.S. 24 and an alternate route of U.S. 20. The alternate route, first signed as U.S. 20-South from 1932 to 1934, put three of the four biggest towns in Fulton County—Swanton, Delta, and Wauseon, the county seat—on or near its path. It was renumbered as U.S. 20A on the official Ohio map of 1935, and maintains that designation today.

North of Maumee, Conant Street bends to the north and becomes Reynolds Road. After a few miles through the busy west side of Toledo, U.S. 20 finally resumes westerly with a left turn onto Central Avenue and aims toward Indiana on the old Toledo-Angola-Goshen Trail. Two miles beyond the Fulton County line, the route quickly passes through the settlement now known as Assumption, which takes it name from the local parish church. The maps and road guides from the 1920s show the place name as Caraghar—the surname of the owner of the community's general store.

Most of the route of U.S. 20 west of Toledo follows earlier roads which traced section lines and half-section lines. This includes a twenty-two mile straightaway from Lucas County to the western part of Fulton County. East of Perrysburg, the route generally followed paths that owed their heritage to geology and geography, with geometry strongly coming into play where the shortest possible path across the Great Black Swamp was necessary. The only area in the eastern part of the state where the road traces a rectangular survey grid is between Oberlin and Norwalk.

During those years when there was a U.S. 20-South, this part of U.S. 20 was marked as U.S. 20-North. Although the northern route was an original part of the federal highway network, there was no southern alternate until 1932. The important U.S. 20 designation was restored to the favored northern route when U.S. 20-South was renumbered as U.S. 20-A on the 1935 map.

West of Toledo, communities and villages on the route of U.S. 20 are few and far between. Like Assumption, the crossroads community of Oakshade is one of the smallest dots on the map. The incorporated town of Fayette—which thus gets a splash of yellow on the Ohio map—is located in the northwest corner of Fulton County, and is supposedly named in honor of the Marquis de Lafayette. Four miles west of Fayette, U.S. 20 enters Williams County, the tenth and final Ohio county to be traversed by this version of the federal route.

In Williams County, Alvordton and Pioneer are the only incorporated villages on the route. There is one significant section of old road remnants southwest of Pioneer. Now disguised as Road Q and Road 13, an old right angle corner in the route was long ago replaced by a new curve and bridge crossing at the West Branch of the St. Joseph River. Another quarter-circle arc that is twelve miles easterly from the Indiana line returns the route of U.S. 20 to its final westerly bearing. Ironically, U.S. 20 leaves Ohio within earshot of the Ohio Turnpike—the modern toll road which opened in 1956, replacing the federal route as the main highway across the top of the Buckeye State.

(click) A mechanical drawing of the typical milestone placed between Lower Sandusky and Perrysburg on the north side of the Maumee and Western Reserve Road, an early state road in Ohio that became the route of U.S. 20.

 

 

A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE MILE
Excerpted from “Mileposts and Milestones”
Michael G. Buettner
May 2001
 

The complete article was originally published in Issue #28 of Buckeye Ramblings, the official newsletter of the Ohio Lincoln Highway League.

Our standard distance of a mile actually traces its history to the plowing capabilities of one team of oxen. The familiar measure of 5280 feet is rendered by the length of eight furlongs (“furrow-long”), which was the distance that a team of oxen could supposedly plow before requiring a break. During the time of Queen Elizabeth I (circa 1590s), the statute mile of 5280 feet was legislated as an important measure, given that by law, no building construction was to be done within three miles of the gates of London.

The etymologic origin of the word “mile” dates back to the mille passum, or 1000 paces, of the Roman soldier, which equaled a distance of 5000 feet. It is important to note that the Romans also had a measurement called the stade, which was one-eighth the distance of their mile. Because legal matters in old England were recorded in Latin, the stade and the furlong, although having no relationship to the other, became intertwined in use. Thus, when specifying the statute mile, a furlong of 660 feet became the controlling element, with the factor of eight retained from the Roman stade/mile ratio to create the mile of 5280 feet that we are familiar with today.