Toward the beginning of the 20th Century, a lot of change was coming to the U.S. and its transportation systems. In 1908, the first Model T rolled off of Ford’s famous assembly line; complete with interchangeable parts and efficient fabrication that made it affordable enough to be marketed to the middle class (whereas previous automobile creations were very expensive and impractical). The Model T was produced for nearly 20 years selling a total of 16.5 million vehicles.
With a rise in automobile popularity in 1917, the Wyoming Legislature moved to instill better vehicle registration laws, as well as helping Wyoming join in on federal highway programs. In fact, for the next decade or so, the number of registered vehicles in Wyoming rose from 15,900 in 1918, to 24,800 in 1920, and reached 62,000 by 1930.
Driving an automobile was becoming a rampantly ubiquitous means of travel, but these early highways were hardly the concrete beasts we travel on today. No, these byways consisted of frequently traveled paths that followed along rivers and train tracks, subject to weather and wear. Travel accounts from the time listed dynamite and axes in their supplies, if that tells you anything about an average trip cross-country. “Everyone wanted good roads: the Forest Service to make it easier to fight wildfires, loggers to make it easier to harvest timber, stockmen to make it easier to care for their livestock, and local businessmen to make it easier to conduct trade.” wrote contributor Susan Douglas for The Sheridan Press in a December 2016 article.
So, local communities began forming associations, automobile clubs, and ‘good road clubs’. They began competing with each other to create the most popular roadways. Communities here in the west were competing to make roadways that led travelers to western national parks to promote tourism; parks such as Yellowstone National Park, established by congress and signed into law in March of 1872 by former President Ulysses S. Grant. Hence, one of the most successful of these groups was the Black and Yellow Trail Association.
The following history, written by Richard F. Weingroff of the Office of Infrastructure, details the history behind U.S. Highway 14, which approximately follows the old Black and Yellow Trail. The following has been edited for length and style.
U.S. 14 Chicago, Illinois, to Yellowstone National Park
In 1925, at the request of the state highway agencies, the Secretary of Agriculture appointed the Joint Board on Interstate Highways to develop a plan for marking the nation’s interstate highways. The Joint Board, which included 21 state highway officials and three officials of the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads, met with state road officials around the country, developed standardized signs, including the original U.S. shield, identified the nation’s main interstate roads, and conceived a system for numbering them. The Joint Board completed its report on the new marking system in October 1925. Within the proposed grid of U.S. routes, the report identified U.S. 14. The original description of the route read:
“From Winona, Minnesota, to New Ulm, Brookings, South Dakota, Huron, Pierre, Midland.”
Much of proposed U.S. 14 (Winona to Pierre) was also known as the Black and Yellow Trail, a named trail from Chicago, Illinois, to Yellowstone National Park. The Black and Yellow Trail had been established in 1919 as a rival to the better known transcontinental Yellowstone Trail, which had been established as a regional trail in 1912 but had been extended by its supporter along a route from Boston to Seattle (resulting in the motto: “A Good Road from Plymouth Rock to Puget Sound”).
The Black and Yellow Trail Association, based in Huron, South Dakota, was conceived to divert Yellowstone traffic to the cities along its line. The name signified links to the Black Hills and Yellowstone National Park.
The magazine Good Roads for Wisconsin took a dim view of the new trail, reflecting the State’s and the magazine’s general objections to “trail promoters.” (In 1919, Wisconsin became the first State to number its highways.) The November 1920 issue contained an article that discussed some of the magazine’s objections to the Yellowstone Trail, then added:
But this is not the entire story of the trails. Another new trail has just “swam into our ken”-the Black and Yellow Trail. This is a rival of the Yellowstone Trail. On paper it is a trail from the east gate of Yellowstone Park through Wyoming, South Dakota, and Southern Minnesota to Chicago, entering Wisconsin at La Crosse, and running through Sparta, Elroy, Reedsburg, and Baraboo to Madison. The blueprint of the trail shows it running thence through Fort Atkinson, Whitewater and Elkhorn to Highland Park and thence south into Chicago. A meeting was held at Madison on the matter recently to discuss the matter and no one from Fort Atkinson, Whitewater or Elkhorn appeared, but a representative from Janesville did, and then it was proposed to run the trail southward from Madison to Janesville and eastward to Kenosha and down to Chicago.
The trail might well be called the “Rectangular Trail.” It is now proposed to run it straight north from Chicago to Kenosha on Trunk Highway No. 15, then to verge practically straight east to Janesville on Trunk Highways 50 and 20. Thence it is to run northwestward on Trunk Highway 10 to Madison and on 12 to Baraboo, when it experiences a change of heart and leaves 12 to take up No. 33 which is the direct line to La Crosse. It undergoes a change of mind at Wonewoc, however, and instead of following 33, the first route to La Crosse, turns northward on 94 to No. 21 at Hustler and then turns westward to La Crosse. This purpose of taking this long and roundabout way between Chicago and La Crosse is so obvious that it needs no comment…
To lay out a trail or main route of travel and determine its layout by the willingness of cities and villages to contribute to the trail fund is fundamentally wrong. As the trail is supported by funds received from communities on the route, this is the inevitable process of trail-making. If the funds are not forthcoming the trail must be changed or it loses its means of support.
Whatever the merits of the Black and Yellow Trail, it provided a footnote to history on January 22, 1924. During a speech to the association, State Historian Doane Robinson revealed his idea of having statutes of historic figures carved into the Black Hills as a tourist attraction. The result, Mount Rushmore, proved as popular as he had predicted.
The Secretary of Agriculture submitted the Joint Board’s proposal to the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO) for consideration. His action reflected the fact that the roads were owned and operated by the States, not the Federal Government, and the States, therefore, would have to decide whether to adopt the proposal. Over the next year, AASHO acted on requests, many initiated by named trail associations, to change the routes and numbers.
In November 1926, AASHO approved the U.S. numbered highway system. U.S. 14 was retained, with the following description (spellings as in the original):
Minnesota Beginning at Winona via Rochester, Owatonna, Mankato, New Ulm, Lake Benton to the Minnesota-South Dakota State line each of Elkton.
South Dakota Beginning at the Minnesota-South Dakota State line east of Elkton via Brockings, Huron, Miller, Heighmore, Pierre, Midland to a junction with Route No. 16 south of Phillip.
The estimated distance: 599 miles
In 1933, AASHO approved requests by the State highway agencies to extend U.S. 14 east to Chicago. The following year, U.S. 14 was extended west to Cody, Wyoming, at the entrance to Yellowstone National Park.
Old Trails, New Highways
U.S. 14’s route comes into Moorcroft from the northeast and connects with U.S. 16 to become U.S. Hwy 14-16. It then joins with I-90 West to Gillette, departs through town onto 2nd Street and continues north out of Gillette, past the airport as U.S. Highway 14-16.
So next time you’re headed downtown on second street, or if you make a trip over to Moorcroft via I-90/U.S. 14-16, perhaps you’ll think about the history behind the path you travel. The worn down two-track it used to be, laden with Model Ts traveling a whopping 40-45 mph at their top speed. Think of the many people who drove on that byway searching the horizon for a pile of rocks to indicate they had made it to Gillette, which just a few decades before had only been a tent town base camp called Donkey Town, and smile.
Special thanks to Richard Weingroff and the Office of Infrastructure for content used within this work. To learn more about Wyoming highways, visit fhwa.dot.gov.
By: Bailey I. Knopp for 82717
“Black and Yellow Trail.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 3 May 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_and_Yellow_Trail.
Douglas, Susan. “History of Roads in the Bighorns.” The Sheridan Press, The Sheridan Press, 29 Dec. 2016, thesheridanpress.com/65563/history-roads-bighorns/.
“Wyoming State Route History.” AARoads, www.aaroads.com/wyoming/state-highway-history/.
“Yellowstone National Park.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 6 June 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yellowstone_National_Park.