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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.

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