Last year you may remember celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the Iowa DOT and another famous auto trail—the Lincoln Highway. But did you realize the first official state route in Iowa was actually another lesser-known stretch of road?
Yep, it was the Great White Way, also known as The White Pole Road.
The White Pole Road started as a marked promotional road between Des Moines and Atlantic with, as you may have guessed, poles painted with a six foot band of white to mark its path. In fact, members of the White Pole Auto Club used to meet in my hometown of Menlo, which served as the half-way point.
As the Good Roads movement took off, this southwest Iowa stretch extended to Council Bluffs in 1910 and then, in the fall of 1912, extended east from Des Moines to Davenport with plans to eventually extend from Chicago to Denver.
During these early years of road development, competition was fierce to get auto tourists to travel your route. There was even a “Great Automobile Race across Iowa” on Dec. 28, 1912, to determine the fastest east-west route across the state. Driver Don McClure of Oskaloosa proved the Great White Way as triumphant crossing Iowa with the quickest and most direct route, 36 minutes ahead of Peter Peterson in his Pope-Hartford on the River-to-River Road. While providing great entertainment, these touring runs and other similar publicity stunts helped to sell newspapers as well. The editor of the Des Moines Register and Leader-Evening Tribune, Harvey Ingham, also served as the president of the Great White Way Association while the competing Des Moines Daily Capital’s editor promoted the more northern River-to-River Road.
The Iowa Legislature created the Iowa State Highway Commission in 1913, and the Iowa Highway Route Registration Act gave the Commission the role of registering named trails that were more than 25 miles long. The Great White Way Association plotted their Davenport to Council Bluffs route on county maps and submitted their registration with a $5 fee on Oct. 6, 1913. On July 30, 1914, the route was awarded a certificate, making it the first certified route under the provisions of the newly-formed Commission.
Although it was significant within the state, the White Pole Road was overlooked in lieu of the more northern Iowa Trans-Continental Route as the federal designation of the Lincoln Highway route through Iowa in September 1913. But it was noted that advertisements in publications such as Motor Age proclaimed that “Pathfinders claim that the Great White Way, with banked turns, few jogs, and wide smooth stretches, is the premier route across the state, and advise its selection in preference to the Iowa link of the Lincoln Highway.”
By the time the 1920s came around, interesting names for roads gave way to numbers, and rivals began to merge, to accelerate the push to get Iowa out of the mud. The White Pole Road from Dexter to Council Bluffs and the River-to-River Road from Dexter to Davenport combined to form Whiteway 7. Soon after, the U.S. route numbering system was designed to alleviate the confusion of route designations changing from state to state. This is when our stretch of road became known as U.S. Highway 32.
In the 1930s, U.S. 32 became U.S. Highway 6, which at one point was the longest continuous east-west route in the United States, stretching from Cape Cod, Massachusetts to Long Beach, California.
In the 1940s, more people and businesses were moving from the railroads to the highways adding to road congestion and the need to bypass busy cities. In response, the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1944 designated an Interstate System across the nation. U.S. 6 was awarded to serve as the route for the new Interstate 80. At first there was much excitement about the Interstate System but two-lane routes would ultimately be bypassed all together by new four-lane routes that would whisk travelers quickly across the country.
Fast forward to 2002, when the towns of Adair, Casey, Menlo, Stuart, and Dexter saw their proximity to Interstate 80 as an opportunity to bring auto tourists back to their towns. City leaders wanted to lure motorists off the busy four-lane roads to experience rural Iowa up close. The White Pole Road Development Corporation formed as a 501(c)3 with the mission to create a tourism industry that brings new visitors and related revenues to each of the five communities and improves the quality of life with its residents.
The name White Pole Road was selected as a tribute to the original road that connected the five communities and served as the nucleus to the Great White Way. More than 700 telephone poles have been painted white along the 26-mile byway and, 100 years later, we’re using history to create our future.
If it hadn’t been for the tenacity of the leaders in our communities in the early 1900s to keep our towns on the map, the Great White Way Highway wouldn’t have existed and the other major transportation routes would not have merged with ours and to pass through our corridor. White Pole Road may not have been part of the first River-to-River Road designation project that originated from Governor B.F. Carroll’s Goad Road Convention in 1910, or designated to be the Iowa route for the Lincoln Highway in 1913, but I’m glad that our good road stayed on the map. By running parallel to Interstate 80 we’re able to tap interstate travelers to bring life back into these small Iowa towns along the original White Pole Road. It’s the people who built this original road and it’s the people building it again in spirit through our grassroots leadership and small-town attractions.
We invite you to come take a drive on its 100th anniversary year and reflect on all those that have cruised before you.
For more information on the White Pole Road Development Corporation, please visit www.whitepoleroad.com.