Saturday, April 24, 2021

Where These Roads Came From

Just a line scratched out on the prairie....
Perhaps you might remember how I came across a book recently that I'd been trying to track down. It tells about how the paths and trails in this particular area became the roads- in many cases, but not all- of today. I was out riding this past week on that familiar stretch of dirt called Petrie Road and I was suddenly reminded of a few things that this book spoke of regarding roads. 

Early on, when these lands were inhabited only by the Native Americans, there were paths that were discernible, etched into the prairies by the people's movements. These paths were visible and follow-able to the early White settlers. They made a lot of sense because of how the Native Americans made these paths in the straightest way that made sense between points of interest. They veered away from sloughs, wetter grounds, and forded streams and rivers where it made the most sense to do that. 

Interestingly, this particular area attracted a lot of attention due to specific features of the land at the time. One was "The Big Wood", a large tract of hardwood forest, mostly maples, as I understand it, that was in the vicinity of the "Turkey Foot", where the Shell Rock, West Fork of the Cedar, and Cedar rivers converge. It was an unusual feature since most of the surrounding area was treeless and all grassy prairies. Trees typically only lined waterways. The "Big Wood" was different in that it stretched outard for an estimated five miles in all directions from the Turkey Foot. Making maple syrup, hunting the copious wildlife, and fishing were attracting humans in need of food for harder times, especially Winters, and pathways to get here were used over and over again for years, decades, and who knows how long. 

The Native Americans used a system of single file travel, so tribes and families would walk in long drawn out lines. Some reports describe lines as long as a mile or more of humans, and this sort of consistent traffic over the same lines is what started the 'roads' as we know them today. Over time, as White settlers came up these old, ancient ways, they settled here along the river at first. Eventually, settlers started taking prairieland for farming after all the riverside claims were staked out. 

Then, later on, other trails formed carrying more pioneers Westward, and these cut across claims on the prairie which made farming difficult. So, as Iowa became a state the Northwest Ordinance, set out in the late 1700's to help organize new territories for settlers in U.S. territories, was applied to Iowa. Farmers requested that roads be set along section lines, for the main purposes of stopping the trespassing of travelers over their lands on the ancient trails and newer ones. Eventually, this pushed rail development forward as a way to have passage through the rural areas for people heading through states like Iowa. By the 1860's. railroad travel started to solve the trespassing issues, and road development took somewhat of a back seat to that rail development. 

When early settlers found the ruts too deep, or the mud too bad, they simply went around, much like we still do today!

 Meanwhile, the influx of Whites pushed the Native Americans, who for the most part were not settled in any particular spot here in this area, Westward. As far as I can tell from the book I have, it was a thing that happened gradually and without animosity, but this book was focused on trails and roads, not Native American issues, so I may have that wrong. White settlers staked out claims and set up farms, while government was tasked with setting up schools and other things in accordance with the Northwest Territories Act. As money was tight, roads- when they were made- were more or less just wagon tracks or in some cases were scratched out by crude means in accordance with the grid system. 

By the late 19th Century, what we have as roads across Iowa- gravel roads and dirt roads- were pretty much laid out as we know them now. Of course, they were merely dirt paths, not unlike Petrie Road, which has a mile section that - more than likely- has never seen gravel. This is what struck me. That this 'path' may never have ever had gravel on it since the county was formatted. 

And what of those roads that don't follow the grid around here? Roads like old HWY 218, which probably traces out the original footpaths that the Native Americans made on the West side of the Cedar River. Roads like Waterloo Road, between Waterloo and Cedar Falls, some of which is now called University Avenue, are also on old Native American trail. The trail South is pretty much where 4th Street comes off the Cedar and then starts to veer over toward Black Hawk Creek and eventually becomes Eldora Road, passes through Hudson, and traces of that diagonal trail are still evident today in the form of gravel road sections Southwest of Hudson, Iowa. 

Trails that existed North and east of Waterloo have, for the most part, been obliterated by "The Grid" and have long since been covered by farm operations. But according to the book I have, one can still map out and imagine where these old trails went. I find it vastly interesting to think about while I am out on rides now. Trying to imagine the land mostly treeless, without buildings, and looking like a rolling sea of grass. 

But that isn't always easy to do when we have everything organized into rectangles and cultivated with tall corn and beans and more. But one can try. One can imagine the old roads and paths while traversing the ones we have now, and try to understand where these roads all came from.


Ben said...

Interesting stuff - thanks, and I imagine now I'll be thinking more about this when riding "non-grid" gravel roads. Not sure if there's any book/reference for other parts of the state like this, but made me think of one of my favorite roads to ride in the region - Ridge Road in Tama County. Definitely not a straight/grid road, and my imagination goes to that having been a major Native American trail as well years ago, as can see so far in either direction for game to hunt, friends, enemies? etc. and close to Wolf Creek.

Skidmark said...

The roads around here are like spokes of a wheel. What one person calls an east-west road someone else sees it as north-south.

Skidmark said...

Oh, yeah- that top shot of the road going..that-a-way, is pretty good.

blooddoc23 said...

It would be fun to dig up so old maps from the early 1800s and see what was there. A very good and interesting read. Thank you!

Guitar Ted said...

@blooddoc - Yeah, I think you are right. There is an old plat map in this book from 1845 (!) showing where the Native American trails were over the sections which are numbered, at least in the immediate Waterloo area. i could overlay that on a current city map..... Hmmm.