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Retracing the route of Jefferson Highway

THIEF RIVER FALLS, Minn. - Mike Conlin has retraced the tire treads of history, traveling the Jefferson Highway from Winnipeg to New Orleans. Eighty years ago, the route was promoted as a gateway to commerce and tourism, even though it consisted ...

THIEF RIVER FALLS, Minn. - Mike Conlin has retraced the tire treads of history, traveling the Jefferson Highway from Winnipeg to New Orleans.

Eighty years ago, the route was promoted as a gateway to commerce and tourism, even though it consisted mostly of a maze of dirt or gravel roads.

Conlin, a 63-year-old retired map-maker from British Columbia who moved to New Orleans in 2000, recently drove the entire 2,370-mile route.

It roughly follows old U.S. Highway 75 and U.S. Highway 59 and Minnesota Highway 92 through northwestern Minnesota - the route of the old Pembina Trail, an oxcart route mapped out during the fur-trading era between the late 18th and mid-19th centuries - to the Twin Cities and then southward.

The trip allowed him to locate some landmarks, such as a Jefferson Highway monuments erected long ago in Winnipeg, Iowa and New Orleans.

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His goal is to reorganize the Jefferson Highway Association, promoting the historic and scenic drive through the mid-section of North America.

"I loved the country," he said from his Metairie, La., home after he returned. "It was cool to see the Mississippi River up there. We could have jumped across it."

Historic accounts from newspapers, including the New Orleans Times Picayune, Grand Forks Herald and the old Winnipeg Tribune, told of the maiden north-south trip between Winnipeg and New Orleans in 1926.

First journey

It was a frigid winter day on Jan. 24, 1926, when a caravan of 34 passenger cars and 101 automobile enthusiasts pulled into Thief River Falls, after traveling through the northwestern Minnesota towns of St. Vincent, Hallock, Lake Bronson and Karlstad, among others.

More than 300 people showed up at a banquet to celebrate the first overnight stop of the 2,370-mile journey on dirt, gravel and a handful of newly paved roads between Winnipeg and New Orleans. Delegations arrived from Red Lake Falls, Holt, Grygla, Goodridge, Middle River, St. Hilaire and other area communities.

They were toasting commerce and tourism, and the designation of the route as the Jefferson Highway, named for President Thomas Jefferson, the architect of the Louisiana Purchase, which encompasses the entire route.

The highway was conceived by civic leaders in New Orleans in 1915 and it was dedicated in 1919 as the first international north-south highway in North America.

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Jefferson Highway road markers -- with the interconnecting black letters "JH" on a white background, with blue stripes above and below -- were placed along the way.

Newspaper publishers and Chambers of Commerce hoped it would match the acclaim of other cross-country highways, such as the Lincoln Highway between New York City and San Francisco, or Route 66, between Chicago and Santa Monica, Calif.

A caravan from New Orleans made the trip north in the summer of 1919 to launch the new international highway and begin a series of promotions.

The 1926 trip was organized by the Winnipeg Tribune. Manitobans were hoping to promote Winnipeg and Manitoba as a summer destination and as an investment opportunity.

The group left Winnipeg in a blizzard, with the temperature reported to be about 25-below zero. Yet, the car buffs reached their first-day goal.

In Thief River Falls, the caravan was joined by Jule Prochener, the local car club president, and a few other area automobile enthusiasts. Newspaper accounts at the time said others joined the caravan, including a few from Grand Forks, Fargo, Detroit Lakes and other communities.

Paving history

At the time, the nation was just in the puppy love stage of its century-long romance with the automobile.

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Between 1910 and 1920, the number of registered vehicles in the country exploded, from 500,000 to 10 million.

Few roads were paved in this part of the country.

The North Dakota Department of Transportation says the state's first paved road was completed later in 1926. Records indicate that road either was a 10-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 10 between Fargo and Casselton, or Mill Road from north Grand Forks to the North Dakota Mill and Elevator.

In January 1926, the Herald reported that 2,533 passenger cars had been registered in North Dakota, up from 1,485 a year earlier. Grand Forks County had 87.

It was during that three-week caravan that the Herald printed a 6-column architect's rendition of the Northwest Wing of Central High School, designed by Sam DeRemer, of the Joseph Bell DeRemer, Architect, Co.

And UND was launching a $500,000 fund drive for its Memorial Athletic Project, which included the 15,000-seat Memorial Football Stadium and field, along with what became Hyslop Sports Center. A scale model was on display in the front window of the Odell Dry Goods store.

On the road again

Conlin's interest in the historic route was sparked in 2007, when the New Orleans Times-Picayune published an article about a developer who wanted to change the name of a road from Jefferson Highway to Jefferson Boulevard.

In the course of the debate, some of the highway's history was published. Conlin, who was searching for any connection with his home country, wondered if the highway still existed.

Over the next two years, he researched the highway and planned his own trip, with the help of Google Maps, stacked four inches high. He contacted an old friend, Gary Augustine, from Prince George, British Columbia, to make the journey together.

"We want to find out which roads are drivable, which roads are not and where the detours are," he said.

Traveling in a 1985 RV and a Toyota Corolla, they tried to drive 150 miles a day. They were slowed down in Kittson County when their Toyota bit the dust on a dusty trail.

They had driven off the pavement, in search of the original road. Pulling the Toyota after they left, they noticed smoke coming from the back of the RV.

They quickly discovered that the car was on fire. They had left it in gear, rendering it undriveable. It served as storage for the rest of the trip.

Back on the road, they toured museums and visited with historic society officials all along the route.

In Lake Bronson, Minn., they met Cindy Adams, curator of the Kittson County History Center and Museum. They located a portion of the original route, now a grass trail on the outskirts of town.

In Thief River Falls, they visited with Caryl Bugge, archivist and board member of the Pennington County Historic Society.

They traced the historic highway from 15 miles west of Thief River Falls through the city. They visited the northwest corner of the Pennington County Fairgrounds, where an old sign still marks the Jefferson Highway.

They photographed the old Sager Oil Co., which now is a house. In 1920, it was the closest gas station, located on Sixth Street, about a block from the old highway. Later, it became Bell Cabins.

"It was Bell Cabins when I grew up," she said.

They also studied a 1920 old auction sale bill for a sale of a farm located, "west of Jefferson Highway."

New corridor

Now that he's back home in New Orleans, Conlin is reorganizing the Jefferson Highway Association and beginning to promote what he hopes becomes a new tourism corridor.

The Web site is: www.jeffersonhighway.com .

He is posting photographs and a diary of highlights of the journey and exchanging information with people he met along the way.

Conlin is dedicated to making the road as recognizable as the Lincoln Highway or Route 66.

A Lincoln Highway Association keeps alive the history of the east-west cross-country highway system that stretches from New York City to San Francisco. A Route 66 organization promotes the highway between Chicago to Santa Monica, Calif., that became even more famous by a 1960s television show.

He is collaborating with historians at the Powers Museum in Carthage, Mo., which already has a large collection of Jefferson Highway historic memorabilia.

In 2007, the museum received a large mural of the highway. It also has a published timeline of its development.

Conlin used satellite images and Google Maps to plot the highway, and its original and altered routes. He noted that in some places, the road leads straight into lakes, re-emerging on the other side. In other places, it runs under what now are farm fields. In others, it's now a freeway.

"Driving on it, you could just tell you're on an old highway," he said. "The road is usually narrower, pavement is older, and buildings are older, in most cases."

In some places, the old road runs right into lakes, then re-emerges on the other side.

He's already completed the base map.

"Now, I'll add the good stuff," he said. "You'll be able to know exactly where it is," he said. "One of the things that stood out to me is that it's like a different world when you're not on the main highway. You're not seeing McDonald's and Chili's. You're seeing real people, some of them with connections to people who promoted it in the beginning."

Historians in places like Thief River Falls are following his progress.

"I think a lot of people are interested in it," said Bugge, the Pennington County volunteer archivist. "That was an era where you put the kids in the car drove and you stayed in motels. People don't do that anymore."

If Mike Conlin has anything to say about it, a new spirit of tourism and commerce will revisit the Jefferson Highway.

Kevin Bonham is a writer for the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.

Related Topics: THIEF RIVER FALLS
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