Journal Express, Knoxville, IA

November 28, 2013

Road to Iowa history

Courier staff writer

---- — OTTUMWA — The Iowa Department of Transportation librarian fielded a lot of questions in Wapello County this week. But he knew most people were thinking, "The DOT has a librarian?"

Leighton Christiansen finds the books, essays and articles needed by engineers when they are researching highway design. He also lists and cares for thousands of photos, maps and other documents generated by the DOT. For the 100th anniversary of "official" Iowa transportation, Christiansen and his colleagues found some of the most popular photos in order to tell the story of boats, railroads and the relatively new innovation of automobiles.

One photo showed an old-fashioned car sunk to its axle in mud on an Iowa road deep with wagon wheel ruts. History lovers at the Ottumwa Public Library "Reminisce Society" event reacted audibly to the picture.

"When it rained, folks would say that the [wonderful] roads in Iowa are as wide as they are deep," said Christiansen.

But as mechanized farm equipment became more accessible, farmers began producing far more than they and their neighbors needed. Agriculture was changing the economy. Or it could, if farmers were able to get their product to market. That was one of the first big motivators for getting Iowa's roads in shape.

In the early 1900s, there were a few miles of paved roads. The rest were either gravel or dirt. The interstates didn't exist. The changes from 1913 to 2013 would make for a stunning before-and-after image. Christiansen said Iowa has 100,000 miles of roads (the distance from one side of the United States to the other is roughly 3,000 miles) and 24,000 bridges.

Early on, one popular idea involved sticking planks onto the surface of the roads. One long set of planks for one wheel, and about a yard to the left, another long set of planks for the other wheel. Wapello County boosters were advocates of road improvement. Like other officials, they wanted visitors to bring their business to their neck of the woods. Over time, 19th century Wapello County came up with $8,000 for wooden planks, Christiansen said.

Though the railroad changed the transportation landscape in Ottumwa, there were regular stage coaches coming to town from the 1830s to the 1870s.

Yet the landscape did change, the librarian said. The state Legislature decided that Iowa's primary roads would be the roads from every county seat to Des Moines. Towns with more than 1,000 in population were priorities, too. By 1932, Wapello County's main roads, the equivalent of Highway 63 and Highway 34, were paved. Safety became more important: The year 1932 was the first year drivers needed to get a license. The cost was 25 cents.

Not every change seemed to make a lot of sense, said some of the older audience members.

The librarian agreed, naming the time the highway department started painting center lines on the roads. There had been head-on collisions. Unfortunately, said Christiansen, someone had decided Iowa blacktop would have all its center lines painted black.

"After 1954, they [switched] to yellow lines with reflective material," Christiansen said.

— To follow reporter Mark Newman on Twitter, see @CourierMark