Vintage highway sign photos
Taken by my paternal grandfather during the 1950s
In 2009 my father and my uncle dug these out of a box of old family photos and gave them to me, knowing I'd appreciate them. That was about 20 years after I had begun taking road sign photos of my own, and until then I had the mistaken notion that I was the first in my family to have this strange hobby. Is it possible that this sort of thing can be passed down through bloodlines?
That was also about 20 years after my grandpa had passed away, so unfortunately I never had a chance to ask him about these photos. However, I have been able to discuss it with my dad, as well as with some of my aunts and uncles, and the text that follows is sprinkled with information I've gleaned from them.
During this time, my grandparents lived in Denver. I'm told that every summer they would drive to the American Baptist Convention, which was always held at a different location. They usually didn't bring their children, so unfortunately my uncles and aunts don't have any recollection of most of these trips. I'm also told my grandpa had a sense of humor, and often the reason he'd stop for a photo was because he thought something was funny. You'll see one example of that below, but most of the photos on this page simply show highway signs. Why did he consider these worthy of a photograph? We can only speculate, but here's a theory: as grandpa was growing up, reaching adulthood, and starting his family, that was all during a time when cross-country travel was no trivial matter, and it wasn't something that the average person did very often (if at all). After WWII, long-distance automobile travel became more popular, so perhaps when grandpa started venturing out more, he was eager to document the places where he had been, and the new sights he was seeing. Apparently he was very interested in big public works projects, such as dams - that may be a factor in the last photo below.
I'll update this page with more information as it comes in, but for now, let's get on with the photos. We'll begin with a shot from Arizona:
Historically a handful of states experimented with color-coded highway signs - AZ DoT tried this from the early 1950s to the early 1960s. Arizona based its colors on the direction of the highway: northbound route shields (both US routes and state routes) were orange, and southbound routes were green. Westbound traffic was reassured with blue markers, while eastbound drivers saw brown markers. Since the photo above was taken along westbound US 66, that shield would've been blue. US 89 was co-signed with US 66 along a 52-mile-stretch between Flagstaff and Ash Fork. Westbound US 66 carried southbound US 89 traffic, so that shield was green (explaining why the two appear to be about the same color in that monochromatic photo).
It's more difficult to locate the shot below. It could've been a blue westbound shield, photographed in the early morning, or else an afternoon photo of a brown eastbound shield:
Those photos were likely taken on a trip to visit one of their daughters, who by then was married and living in southern California. (There may have been a Baptist Convention out that way, too, but I'm not certain - if anyone knows where historic Conventions were held each year, I'd sure appreciate you passing that along.) Below is a shot taken along US 40/NJ 48:
Today NJ hwy. 48 runs only about 4 miles, from Penns Grove to US 40. But originally it continued further east, co-signed with US 40 all the way to Atlantic City. Apparently this duplex was eliminated in 1953, which makes a good case that the photo was taken in or before that year. The Baptist Convention was in Atlantic City one year, and US 40 would've been an obvious route to use between there and Denver. Below is another shot from US 40, perhaps taken during the same trip:
Below is a photo taken somewhere in Minnesota:
That's my grandpa's car in the background: a white 1941 Chrysler New Yorker, with a "Straight 8" engine and overdrive, which he probably purchased in 1948. He likely found the notion of "Tractors with lugs" amusing... and I do too, now that I think about it. Next is another shot from US 16, so it seems likely that it was from the same trip:
Probably in the Black Hills somewhere - perhaps this was the route grandpa used to get to a Baptist Convention in Milwaukee or Green Lake, Wisconsin. Below is another South Dakota shot taken along US 16:
Identifying the location of this photo was pretty complicated, and it didn't help that it's not a very clear shot - it may have been taken through the glass of a car window. I'll start by getting to the bottom line: I believe this was taken near Chamberlain, at the Missouri River crossing (these two routes were co-signed in that area from 1939-1976, as illustrated on the map on this page). If you dispute this, then you can read on to find out how I arrived at this conclusion, and then contact me if you have reason to believe I'm mistaken on any of these points:
Today US 16 begins in Rapid City, and exists only to the west of there, into Wyoming. SD 47 is a north-south route, running down almost the exact middle of the state. So today these two routes do not intersect. However, until 1980, US 16 did continue east of Rapid City, running all the way across SD and into Minnesota, essentially along today's I-90 corridor (in fact, the reason US 16 was eliminated east of Rapid City is because I-90 replaced its functionality). So prior to 1980 these two routes did intersect (and I-90 wasn't built through this area until the early 1970s, so prior to that US 16 was the primary east-west route across SD). SD 47 joined US 16 near the point where the two routes crossed the Missouri River. However, this introduces another complicating factor: that of Lake Francis Case (an impoundment on the Missouri). Construction of Ft. Randall Dam began in 1946, and apparently by 1954 enough water was backed up to begin generating electric power (the entire project was completed in 1956.) The USGS Oacoma quadrangle is dated 1952 (pre Lake Francis Case), but the Chamberlain quad was 1974 (post lake). (Iona NW quad was also 1952, and shows the undammed Missouri River, but also indicates areas of future inundation.) The 1952 quads indicate that SD 47 was co-signed with US 16 between Oacoma and Chamberlain (US 16 crossed the Missouri via a bridge that no longer exists... well, actually it exists, but it's been moved. Today's Business Loop 90 (King Avenue) bridge is a twin truss bridge. But one of those bridges was originally about three blocks north of the present location... in fact, some of the old pilings are still there). This map also indicates the historic routing of SD 47, which went pretty much due north from Iona, on a relatively direct route to Oacoma. But part of this route was soon to be under water, so apparently it was just a few years later (by 1955) that SD 47 was changed to its current alignment (which heads more northwesterly out of Iona, towards Reliance). The point of all this is that, if the photo was shot prior to 1955, then the only place it could've been taken was along an approx. three-mile stretch between Chamberlain and Oacoma. If it was after 1955, then it could've been anywhere between Chamberlain and Reliance (an approx. 10-mile stretch). However, there appears to be a fairly large body of water in the background. Just behind the shields there appears to be a structure - perhaps an ornamental gateway of sorts at the bridge approach, or maybe an historical marker - either of which would make sense at the location of a river crossing. The words visible on the pylon appear to say "American Island", and based on other photos I've found on the web, the full inscription was probably "American Island Park". This makes sense, because there was indeed such an island in the Missouri near Chamberlain before it was submerged by Lake Francis Case (in fact, this island is even mentioned in the 1804-1806 journals of Lewis and Clark). Elsewhere on the web I learned that there was a public park of sorts on this island, with a pool, golf course, race track, shooting range, cottages for rent, etc. Grandpa may have known that this park was soon to be lost forever... maybe that's why he took that photo. (This area has changed a lot since this photo was taken. Today SD 47 runs along old US 16 for about 2 miles near Reliance. But this has been the case only since about 1976, and the photo was obviously taken long before then.)