As long as man has been on the planet, there have been roads built to connect us with each other. At first, it was simply a dusty path or winding trail that was well-worn. Today, it’s four lane highways stretching for miles and miles, built with asphalt, concrete, and ribbons of steel.
In days gone by, across America, there was the Cumberland Trail, the Lewis and Clark Trail, the Oregon Trail, and for our Native American brothers and sisters, the Trail of Tears. More recently, there has been the Great River Road, the Avenue of the Saints, and of course, the mother of all American roads, Route 66.
Here in Iowa, we have had our own famous roads as well. Long before I-80 or I-35 existed, there was the Lincoln Highway, the Jefferson Highway, the River-to-River Road, the Blue Grass Route, and the one I’d like to focus on here, the Red Ball Route.
For the Boller family, growing up in southeastern Iowa (Henry County, to be specific), there were two main highways that we used to connect to the outside world.
First, there was U.S. Highway 34, which runs east and west through Mt. Pleasant, taking us to local destinations like Burlington, for a beautiful picnic lunch in Crapo Park on the Mississippi River, or to Fairfield, where we picked up my Grandma Edie when she rode the Rock Island line from Trenton, Mo. On special occasions, we’d take ‘the big one,’ following Hwy 34 for what seemed like forever, all the way to Denver. Do you see the mountains yet, Eric?
Admittedly, Highway 34 provided a nice escape from Henry County, but the road we used the most was old U.S. Highway 218, which took us north and south out of town. For summer vacations, we’d go south on 218 to get us to St. Louis for a Cardinal’s ball game and a Broadway show at Muny Opera. But, for the Boller family, who lived in Henry County for 70 years (1896-1966), the most highly-trekked section of old 218 was that very familiar trip from Wayland (or Mt. Pleasant) to Iowa City. Interestingly, it was only recently, as I was digging a bit deeper into the history of Iowa roads, that I discovered that both Highway 34 and Highway 218 actually went by different names in the early days. Allow me, here, to tell you a bit of the story.
The National Road.
Until the railroad came to Iowa City in January 1856, traveling between Iowa towns was not an easy task. Packed down dirt was the best option, and with Iowa City being the territorial, and then state capitol, several “highways” ran in and out of Johnson County. The first official pathway, called The National Road or Military Road, was built between Dubuque and Iowa City in 1839, and it eventually ran through Mt.Pleasant all the way to the Missouri border (see map below). That’s why today, much of that same route (between Dubuque and Iowa City) is called Highway 1. Click here to read more about The National Road/Military Road.
When completed in 1840, the National Road passed through the cities of Dubuque, Cascade, Monticello, Solon, Iowa City, Ainsworth, Crawfordsville, Mount Pleasant, Hillsboro and Keosauqua – nearly 200 miles in length, making it the longest continuous furrow in the world at the time.
When the Boller family arrived from Ohio in 1853, they probably got to their newly purchased farmland by taking a flatbed boat up the Iowa River to Iowa City, and then a well-worn dirt path to their final destination in the southwest corner of Johnson County. In 1896, my branch of the Boller family relocated to Wayland, in Henry County, and by then, that section of the National Road (between Mt. Pleasant and Iowa City) had become a fairly busy passageway.
I remember my dad, George Boller, telling me about his father’s wild adventures associated with venturing through rain, snow, and mud as they made their way from Wayland to Iowa City for Hawkeye football games around 1910.
Though the dirt road at the time was well-traveled, with Iowans using it faithfully for nearly 70 years, my grandfather said that it could become truly treacherous when bad weather turned the carriage ruts into a mud bath for one of Henry Ford’s Model T’s.
The Red Ball Route.
In 1911, the American Automobile Association, organized in 1902, urged national legislation for a transcontinental highway. One of AAA’s members, Robert N. Carson of Iowa City, became the primary promoter and advocate for what he called the Red Ball Route, a north-south network of dirt and gravel roads running from St. Louis to St. Paul, going through Hannibal, Mo., Quincy and Hamilton, Ill., to Keokuk, Mount Pleasant, Ainsworth, Riverside, Iowa City, Cedar Rapids, Waterloo, Waverly and Charles City in Iowa, and to Austin, Faribault, Northfield, Minneapolis and ending up in St. Paul, Minn.
Over the next few years, Carson worked diligently with communities up and down his proposed road, encouraging them to get on board with his Red Ball plan. Carson made it very clear that inclusion relied on each locality’s officials pledging to keep their stretch of the route in good condition for “automobilists” to traverse. For that reason, each community formed its own Good Roads Committee.
These committees marked telephone and telegraph poles along the route with the Red Ball’s official insignia, a three-foot white band with a red ball six inches in diameter on both sides of the poles. While that sounds efficient, the only problem was that for every new road that came into existence, a different symbol was needed in helping motorists identify what road they were on! Sound confusing?
In 1916, this telephone pole at the corner of Washington St. and Dubuque St. in Iowa City set a record by displaying more road symbols than any other pole in the world! River-to-River, Red Ball, Waterloo & Keokuk Belt Line, St. Paul-Burlington-St. Louis, Kansas City & Gulf, Black Diamond (now Melrose Ave.), M & M, Red Cross, Burlington Way, and Orange & White routes are all displayed. And, to top it off, there’s the ‘AAA’ (American Automobile Association) symbol, assuring motorists that everything is up to snuff in Iowa City.
As the Red Ball Route was taking shape across Eastern Iowa, the Iowa State Highway Commission ruled that any new road needed to be 26 feet wide with the grade not exceeding 4 percent at any point. The roadway was to be covered with 12 inches of macadam, including a two-inch surface of finely crushed stone.
Henry County, where the Bollers lived, invested $10,000 in the Red Ball Route in 1916, cutting down hills, filling in hollows, straightening the road and repairing bridges. But in the end, it all seemed worthwhile because under Robert Carson’s supervision, these Good Roads Committees succeeded in making the Red Ball Route one of the best roads in Iowa.
Interestingly, the Red Ball Route became an integral part of University of Iowa football as well, especially when it came to the important cross-state rivalry between Iowa-Minnesota. In 1922, when a large delegation of Gophers made their way to Iowa during homecoming weekend over the Red Ball, Johnson County saw the immediate need to pave the, then, gravel road, forcing Linn County, to the north, to scramble in matching that plan. By 1927, the entire route between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids was paved. I recall my dad, who attended his first Iowa football game in 1926 when he was just five-years old, telling me about the amazing blessing of the paved cement road, cutting in half the amount of time needed to get to Iowa City before the 1 pm kickoff.
Sadly, in 1926, all of these roads with colorful names were re-marked by the state, with the road symbols being replaced with mundane numbers. The Blue Grass Route, for example, which ran east/west through Mt.Pleasant became Highway 34, while the east/west Lincoln Highway up in Cedar Rapids became Highway 30. The River-to-River Road that stretched from Davenport to Council Bluffs became Highway 6, and the Boller’s Red Ball Route from Mt. Pleasant to Iowa City became boring old Highway 218.
Just a quick note: Today, Robert Carlson’s original vision of a single highway from St. Louis to St. Paul now exists. Old Hwy 218 has given way to a 4-lane highway that runs the 527- mile distance, once pegged The Great River Road, it is now designated as The Avenue of the Saints. Praise be! So, now you know both the numbers and the rest of Our Iowa Heritage road story! Click here to read more about the earliest days of this important waterway.
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.