The Jefferson Highway was an early network of highway routes, like Route 66, the Dixie Highway, or the Lincoln Highway, that was created in response to the motoring public’s clamor for good roads. Like those other highways, it was a consistently marked route designed to make navigation easy for motorists. Unlike its better-known cousins, however, the Jefferson Highway wasn’t confined to the borders of the United States. Starting in Louisiana, it wound northward through seven states to a terminus in Canada, making it the only international highway among those famous routes.
The idea for this grand highway came from E. T. Meredith, a former US Secretary of Agriculture. Meredith’s intent was to create a fully paved, north-south highway that would honor Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States, and his role in securing the Louisiana Purchase. Early promotional material promised the highway would be a year-round vacation route. Meredith and his planners met at New Orleans in November 1915, and work began on the Jefferson Highway soon thereafter.
Appropriately, the Jefferson Highway began in the heart of the Louisiana Purchase itself, New Orleans. From there, as a series of local roads it ran northwest through the bayous and parishes toward Baton Rouge and Shreveport. Just outside Shreveport, the Jefferson became part of US Highway 80 and turned west into Texas. At Mineola, Texas, the highway returned to a northerly direction and was carried on US Highway 69.
The Jefferson Highway spent about another fifty miles in the Lone Star State, and then just north of Denison, Texas (birthplace of 34th US President Dwight D. Eisenhower), it crossed the Red River and entered Oklahoma. Passing through the cities of McAlester and Muskogee (immortalized in Merle Haggard’s song “Okie from Muskogee”), the Jefferson met old Route 66 and US 60 at Vinita. For a few miles, the Jefferson Highway shared the pavement with Route 66 as it turned toward Kansas and Missouri.
Just north of Miami (the locals pronounce it “my-AM-mah”), Oklahoma, the Jefferson Highway had the first of its two splits in the route. The western leg followed US 69 northward into Kansas, passing through Fort Scott on the way to Kansas City. The eastern leg followed US 60 into Missouri, where it turned northward and followed US Highway 71 to Kansas City. In Kansas City, the Jefferson Highway intersected US Highway 40, the famous old National Highway.
The Jefferson Highway briefly returned to being a single route in Kansas City, but split once more just north of the city. It remained split for a little over fifty miles, reuniting finally just south of the Iowa border. The Jefferson wound across the prairies and cornfields of Iowa toward the state capital, Des Moines. At Ames, Iowa, the Jefferson again crossed another historic highway: the Lincoln Highway, US Highway 30. It followed US 30 eastward for a few miles, turning north again and continuing on to Minnesota as part of US Highway 65.
At Albert Lea, Minnesota, Interstate 35 overlies the Jefferson Highway’s old route and modern motorists are obliged to join the Interstate until reaching the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. North of the city, the highway left the Interstate and returned to surface roads. The Jefferson continued on through the glacial regions of Minnesota to St. Cloud, Wadena, and Thief River Falls until it reached the Canadian border. The final portion of the Jefferson, in Manitoba, was carried on route 59 to its northern terminus at the Manitoban capital of Winnipeg.
The Jefferson Highway ultimately did indeed enjoy a vogue as one of America’s premiere vacation highways, and was popularly known as the "From Pine to Palm" route. When the Federal government began assigning route numbers to roads in 1926, most of the Jefferson was incorporated into the new numbering system. The "Jefferson Highway" designation was quickly forgotten, and only survives today as the name of some city streets, mostly in Louisiana.
Powers Museum, "More on the Jefferson Highway", Powers Museum Home Page. 2004. <http://www.powersmuseum.com/about/jeffhwy2.html> (July-August 2004)
Lyell Henry, "Along the Jefferson Highway", Lincoln Highway Association Newsletter, Along the Lincoln Highway. 2004. <http://lincolnhighwayassoc.org/iowa/newsletter/003/003.html> (July-August 2004)
Mary Warner, "Jefferson Highway", Morrison County (Minnesota) Historical Society online. 2001. <http://www.morrisoncountyhistory.org/histjh.html> (July-August 2004)