Hit the Road: Early Road Development
Early road conditions on Route 33, c.1920. Courtesy of Jim Draeger, personal collection
Prior to overland road development, Wisconsin's
rivers and lakes served as the region's earliest
transportation system. The earliest overland routes
were Indian trails, which in many cases determined
the route of early roads. Roadways were established
as settlement spread across the state.
Early overland travel in Wisconsin was far from
glamorous. Roundabout routes, lack of sufficient
bridges, and the frequently mud-clogged, rutted condition
of the roads made traveling hazardous and uncomfortable.
Crossings by ferry boats were oftentimes prevented,
or endangered, by spring ice flows and, in later
years, by lumbering operations. Night travel
was particularly dangerous with no lighting and was
not undertaken except in emergencies. Accidents
were common as horses bolted and could not be stopped.
Efforts to improve Wisconsin's poor road conditions
and establish a state-supported highway program did
not begin until the decade of the 1890s as public
support for permanent, safe and efficient roads
spread across the state. In just over a century,
Wisconsin's transportation network evolved from scattered
trails and crude roads into a modern network that
connects communities within the state, as well as
making links to the nation.
These pages were developed as a cooperative project between the Wisconsin Historical Society and the Wisconsin Department of Transportation with assistance from Mead and Hunt.