In Search of...The Yellowstone Trail in Ohio

IN SEARCH OF...
THE YELLOWSTONE TRAIL IN OHIO


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December 2005

THIS WORK DEDICATED TO THE MEMORY OF HAROLD (HAL) MEEKS,
WHO PASSED AWAY DECEMBER 18, 2005
AFTER A SHORT BATTLE WITH CANCER.

At about the same time that Carl G. Fisher was putting substance to his dream of a "Coast-to-Coast Rock Highway," a group of small town businessmen in South Dakota led by Joseph W. Parmley began improvements in 1912 on twenty-six miles of roadway between Ipswich and Aberdeen. This isolated section of highway in the northeast part of the state would be the original leg of a transcontinental route soon to be known as the Yellowstone Trail, one of several coast-to-coast named auto trails that would historically pass through Ohio.

Natural sandstone pillars like this were planted along the Yellowstone Trail in South Dakota, North Dakota, and Montana. According to a 1913 article from the Aberdeen, South Dakota newspaper, "they measure from six to ten feet long, being from twelve to eighteen inches through at the base, and from six to eight inches at the top.  They are ideal markers when painted yellow with the words 'Yellowstone Trail' painted on them."  The only surviving marker with the classic obelisk shape has been moved to this street corner location in Hettinger, South Dakota.

As evidenced by the original name of the booster group—The Twin Cities-Aberdeen-Yellowstone Park Trail Association—the highway that became the Yellowstone Trail was conceived as a regional route, with its original western terminus at the nation's most famous national park. The name of the group would finally be shortened to the "Yellowstone Trail Association" in 1915, and it would be the highway itself that would become longer. One year later, a map showing a route from the Atlantic to the Pacific appeared for the first time, although it was very much tentative, especially east of Chicago and thus also through Ohio. By 1919, a more practical route was charted across the Buckeye State and points east, and the "Good Road from Plymouth Rock to Puget Sound" (Plymouth, Massachusetts to Seattle, Washington) began the grandest years of its history.

Click to expand the 1920 US map of the Yellowstone Trail

When the Yellowstone Trail first reached Ohio in 1916, it was more on paper than on the ground—drawn as a fanciful smooth line across the top of the state. After coming south and east from Chicago to Fort Wayne through a corridor that would be closely followed in later years by the final version of the Lincoln Highway in Indiana, the trail then turned north and east to cross the border and pass through nine county seats in Ohio—Defiance, Napoleon, Bowling Green, Fremont, Norwalk, Medina, Akron, Ravenna, and Warren. On the maps of today, that unlikely national route compares to a clumsy combination of numbered highways in Ohio that includes the original parts of State Route 18, U.S. Route 24, U.S. Route 6, U.S. Route 20, and State Route 18 (again) just to reach Akron—the fifth largest city in the state. A similar variety of numbered highways, mainly including what is now State Route 5, took the highway into Pennsylvania.

1927 map highlighting the route of the Yellowstone Trail
Indiana to Sandusky, Ohio.

The 1927 route of the Yellowstone Trail is highlighted in yellow, and compares favorably to the route charted by the Yellowstone Trail Association on their official map of 1919. The several cities indicated as waypoints on the tentative 1916 map are indicated with red circles.

The trail association map of 1919 traced a much more practical and historically popular route that connected the larger cities on the shoreline of Lake Erie. As a result of that wholesale change, the only Ohio towns to appear as waypoints on both the 1916 and 1919 maps of the Yellowstone Trail were the small town of Hicksville—just northeast of Fort Wayne and within earshot of the state line—and the county seat of Fremont, ideally situated on a historic 1800s turnpike road that would become the route of U.S. Route 20. From Hicksville, the newly mapped 1919 route followed the early alignments of today's State Route 2, stair-stepping northerly and easterly while passing through Bryan and Wauseon before entering Toledo. It then continued with an old version of State Route 2 that now carries different numbers, aiming awkwardly to the east by dropping a bit south to Fremont. The route then changed direction at Clyde, passing through Castalia (site of the once-famous Blue Hole) before returning to the lakeshore at Sandusky (see today's State Route 101). [Note: at least one other map source traces a route directly from Fremont to Sandusky.]

1927 map highlighting the route of the Yellowstone Trail
Sandusky, Ohio to Conneaut, Ohio

The 1927 route of the Yellowstone Trail is highlighted in yellow, and compares favorably to the route charted by the Yellowstone Trail Association on their official map of 1919. The several cities indicated as waypoints on the tentative 1916 map are indicated with orange circles.

Between Sandusky and Cleveland, the Yellowstone Trail traced the path of an existing named trail called "The Shore Road," which resembles U.S. Route 6 on the maps of today. Perhaps the trail association had avoided this marked path in earlier years because they were seeking a unique path of their own. This is what seems to have happened in Indiana, when the Yellowstone Trail avoided the established corridor of the Lincoln Highway by blazing a totally new but tediously challenging path. However, that original route of stair-steps through Plymouth, Warsaw, and Columbia Center soon increased in importance (it was also State Route 2 in Indiana), causing the state to undergo such major improvements in that second corridor that a more direct southern route to Fort Wayne would become the original route of U.S. 30, and the final version of the Lincoln Highway.

Beyond Cleveland, the route passed through Painesville and Ashtabula on its way to Erie, Pennsylvania. At least two variations of the Yellowstone Trail are shown on the several auto trails maps that I have collected, but put most simply, the route generally followed parts of original State Route 2 (designated in 1920) that were later gobbled up by the original U.S. Route 20 (designated in 1926), with some slight variations during the course of that formative decade.

Much like any highway of great length, these slight variations were common along the coast-to-coast route, with the department of highways making improvements and re-routings in their newly established network of state highways. For example, the first route between Hicksville and Bryan zigzagged furiously with the section lines, and the Yellowstone Trail would move as improvements were made to some of the old diagonal roads that had previously been avoided. [However, it is interesting to note that near Bryan, one such diagonal has been downgraded and the state route has been squared again.] Likewise, between Toledo and Fremont, the trail route after 1919 first passed through Woodville, but later through Elmore, again assumedly tracing the best roads at a particular time.

The symbol signs of the Yellowstone Trail featured bold black lettering on the perimeter of a chrome yellow circle, with a black directional arrow at the center of the circle. However, very few of these signs may have ever been posted in Ohio. Almost shockingly, the official route folder published by the trail association in 1919 had this ominous disclaimer: "The road is marked east as far as Sandusky with the regular Yellowstone Trail marker." Moreover, "the Yellowstone Trail Association makes no claim to having any intensive organization, or special information in any of that section of the road...east of Sandusky, Ohio." This flies in the face of the bold front-and-center announcement on the cover of that same folder, which reads "you don't need a log book to travel this road...follow the marks." [Well yes, it seems I do.] In fact, the tentative character that existed for the route in Ohio before 1919 remained in the state of New York for several more years. To their credit, however, the trail association did at some time set up a travel bureau in Cleveland.

"A twelve-inch band or circle with a six-inch black arrow" was the official mark of the Yellowstone Trail, although there were also signs with "L" and "R" for upcoming left and right turns.  Founder Joseph W. Parmley had this suggestion regarding the many different kinds of yellow paint:  "Now the very best yellow is the medium chrome yellow.  Buy it dry; from thirteen to sixteen cents a pound and mix linseed oil in it."  Arrows painted on signs pointed to Yellowstone National Park, which was reached by a spur road from Livingston, Montana.  This sign can be found now in the Dakota Buttes Museum in Hettinger, North Dakota.

Much like the renewed interest in the Lincoln Highway, there is no shortage of recent writing and rediscovery on the subject of the Yellowstone Trail. In 2000, On the Road to Yellowstone, a well-researched book by the late Harold A. Meeks, was published. Meeks, a retired geography professor and Lincoln Highway Association member who made his home in distant Vermont, had nevertheless made numerous cross-country trips on both the Yellowstone Trail and Lincoln Highway, which not coincidentally, have those interestingly intertwined histories in Indiana. Professor Meeks discovered two old county roads in Indiana which recall their history as part of the trail—west of the appropriately named Hamlet is a dirt road signed as Yellowstone Trail; east of Columbia City, Hal discovered an Old Trail Road. Ironically, a concrete Lincoln Highway post was placed in 1928 at the Yellowstone Inn corner west of Fort Wayne.

See map of Yellowstone Trail, and Lincoln Highway in Indiana, 1926.

This painted yellow circle with black arrow (right) is in Snoqualmie Pass, Washington, and author Hal Meeks speculated that it may be the sole surviving mark of a 1915 trail blazing trip by a Mr. Warwick.  This mark was an upgrade over "simple splotches.

No such road names have yet to be found in Ohio, leaving this writer with a potential project for the future. However, Alice and John William Ridge, authors of Introducing the Yellowstone Trail—another good book also published in 2000—recall the presence of a Yellowstone Restaurant in the border town of Hicksville. Likely, this was the last reminder in Ohio of the historic coast-to-coast route, and even more likely would raise some eyebrows among later generations who would ponder that seemingly odd name for a local eatery.

Like all the named auto trails, the Yellowstone Trail began to lose its identity with the posting of the federal highway number shields in 1926. According to Professor Meeks, the Yellowstone Trail Association closed their office in 1930, two years after the Lincoln Highway Association had finished their work. However, historians and chambers of commerce are reviving interest in the route with heritage corridors and activities in South Dakota—where the highway had its historic roots—and also in Wisconsin. For more information about the Yellowstone Trail, visit www.yellowstonetrail.org.

POSTSCRIPT
State Route 2 and the Yellowstone Trail in Ohio

The system of state highway numbering that appears on the Ohio maps of today originated in 1923. In that year, 223 numbered roads were designated to supercede the old inter-county numbering system. The most important routes in the state were given numbers from one to ten, including the National Old Trails Road (State Route 1), the Yellowstone Trail (generally State Route 2), and the Lincoln Highway (State Route 5).

However, in the short distance west of Bryan to the Indiana state line, the original State Route 2 actually diverged from the Yellowstone Trail by following a cutoff route which met the Lincoln Highway at Ligonier, Indiana—a route which compares well to U.S. 6 today. The Good Roads movement inspired by the new transcontinental routes had led to so many other roads being improved that it was now easier for long-distance travelers to find a short cut that would bypass Fort Wayne. In his On the Way to Yellowstone book, Professor Harold Meeks wrote that the Automobile Blue Book of the early 1920s charted this cutoff route as an alternate to the longer route which dropped well south to Fort Wayne.

State Route 2 has shown great resiliency in its eighty-plus years as a state route in Ohio. Three years after its original designation, with the coming of U.S. 20, it disappeared east of Cleveland. Between Cleveland and Toledo, State Route 2 was completely revised—the original path through Elyria, Norwalk, and Fremont became U.S. 20, and a new State Route 2 was traced along the shores of Lake Erie through Lorain and Sandusky, matching the final route of the Yellowstone Trail. West of Toledo, U.S. 20 followed an even shorter direct route to Chicago, and State Route 2 survived in its original corridor, although with some revisions. Most notably, after U.S. 6 was plotted on the popular cutoff route, State Route 2 was revised to follow its current path through Hicksville.

Today, State Route 2 is a major four-lane highway in much of the Lake Erie corridor, while U.S. 20 has lost much of its significance and traffic to the Ohio Turnpike. A four-lane version of State Route 2 has been extended east of Cleveland as far as Painesville. With State Route 1 disappearing at the creation of U.S. 40, State Route 2 remains today as the lowest-numbered route in the state. For more information on the numbering of Ohio highways, see John Simpson's incredible web site.