Ken & Tess

Historic Auto Trails In Minnesota

trail signs

The Minnesota drivers manual of forty years ago contained a section warning prospective licensees of a phenomenon that the writers of the publication called “highway hypnosis.”

The intention of the authors was to promote understanding that a motor vehicle operator could be lulled to sleep by monotony and white noise of the road, and to urge motorists to drive for periods of no longer than a couple of hours time with breaks spaced between them.

This was in the days prior to the proliferation of handheld electronics and predating strict child-restraint laws, when matters of distracted driving typically involved one or more of the rugrat passengers riding free range in the back of the vehicle throwing a tantrum or tumbling over the front seat backrest and inadvertently kicking the driver squarely in the cranium.

Anyone who wearily spends too many semi-waking hours on the road knows that even in the era of modern everything, driver lethargy remains a problem.   Driving is boring business.   Mental stupefaction and fatigue create a nasty cocktail for somebody involved in the most potentially injurious and deadly activity undertaken by humans on a daily basis.

One way to combat boredom is to regularly vary routes taken.   For example, a motorist who routinely travels a roundtrip between Brainerd and the counties in far west central Minnesota can grab an old fashioned paper map (still available free of charge) and scheme six different routings, each affording a view of the lay of the land unique from day to day, season to season.   Over dozens of trips taken, it’s possible to learn of the stretches least passable in February, best views of colorful wildflowers in June, dangerous correction lines and hairpin turns, areas of land where cattle graze in the ditch and occasionally crap on the pavement, and spots where a split second of inattention will likely garner a cheery hello from the local constabulary.

The now-common system of numbered highways did not begin to be adopted by the federal government until 1926.  Some states, including Minnesota, beat the feds to the new system of road nomenclature by a couple of years or so, but it’s generally true that the concept of the numbered highway has yet to celebrate a one hundredth birthday.  Prior to that, visual driving navigation was done by following what were known as auto trails, many of which crossed Crow Wing, Morrison, Cass and Wadena counties leading to destinations nearby and distant.

The Big Four Lakes Trail, Jefferson Highway (for which Jefferson Bus Lines was named), Cooley Highway and Black Diamond Trail all traversed the central-counties region of the early twentieth century.  All were designated by unique signage for marking the way and all were registered with the erstwhile Minnesota Highway Department.

The modern-day Minnesota Department of Transportation has kept an interesting archival record of this little known aspect of travel and transport history.   It may be viewed here: