Jump to content

Early Road Mapping History early 1900s

Recommended Posts

Ya that is kind mind blowing at the cost of it back then, for that time it was a lot of money. Now days we just get a GPS for couple hundred dollars and it has the entire country including places to shop, eat, airports, government facilities, etc....  

Link to post
Share on other sites

Well, it wouldn’t be of much interest to anyone other than me - but posting it here anyway:

Top photo below is a short story my great grandmother wrote up of her 1st auto ride (indicated elsewhere as having occurred in 1907).

As she indicated, roads then simply didn’t exist. The ‘improved gravel roads’ she referred to around Lansing and Flint (Michigan) amounted to 2-track wagon trails that might have had a drainage ditch dug on one side in low spots. Some may have had gravel spread where deep rutting occurred. But the bigger problem was in finding gasoline! She referred to ‘gas stations’, but there weren’t any then - some stores had 50gal. drums delivered with a hand-pump attached. Some farmers had stationary engines and that was the primary market for gasoline in MI in 1907. Around Saginaw and Bay City there were a few boats with gasoline motors.

For an extra fee the store would filter the gasoline through chamois into your tank - most people carried their own.


The route she indicated I calculated the trip to be 403 miles (one way) on TODAY’S roads. No idea what it would have been then - probably could safely calculate another 30% onto that. She also referred to the lumber companies’ supply trails - those were the only ‘roads’ existing in her county (Second picture below - map from 1906). The railroad she referred to was also owned by a lumber company. Which brings us to the ‘black stumps’ she described the car being piloted around her father’s yard:

Those were old-growth White Pine stumps the lumber company attempted to burn when they cleared the land in 1880. The sandy soil was perfect for the pine but nothing else. When her father built his house there nearly 30 yrs later the fire still looked like it had just happened — nothing decomposed.

Somehow they actually farmed there. The sandy soil was unsuitable for crops, but they kept a garden and on about 150 acres they grazed a dozen cows. Using horses, they eventually pulled the ‘black stumps’ and arranged them into rows. Their intact root systems worked as an impassable fence for the cows.

*I don’t know how they did it*

Thought I had a picture of it on this phone, but I don’t — when I was a kid she had what I always thought was a piece of driftwood hanging on a wall. I thought that was pretty tacky and odd since she was known for her exquisite taste. It wasn’t driftwood. When she was a toddler it was her job to go out into the yard every morning and collect pine knots the lumbermen had ripped out of the trees. Her mother used them to start the stove in the morning. They were still strewn around in great heaps - also having survived the attempted burning and stripping of the land some 30 yrs earlier. At three years old she had the foresight to save ONE (I say that because she did recall using them all up). That is stunning to me to this day. I’d bet that is the only one left too — in a state that was once 2/3 covered in White Pine, as of 2018 there were only 49 acres left https://www.mlive.com/life-and-culture/erry-2018/10/b15c4aa2ac8013/7-places-to-see-oldgrowth-fore.html, but even that has now been overrun by Beech trees.

How did a 3 yr. old think to save that?

Last picture below, 112 years later - here is the car. Or one like it anyway, a 1907 2-cyl REO nearing the end of restoration. Its owner found it and an identical (still unrestored) in a barn in Lake Odessa MI. He was asked to estimate their values and bought them both on the spot. It’s a BIG car. The owner is 6’ tall and is actually in the picture. I’m 6’1” and the back of the rear seat was about level with my eyes. No wonder she was terrified of it.

Assuming Uncle Charlie’s car was brand new, out of 3,967 REO’s built in 1907 (couldn’t find a breakdown between 1 and 2 cyls they built that yr), I’d say there’s a 2-in-3,967 chance that between it and its unrestored twin we aren’t looking at the very car.

Well, better odds than winning the lottery anyway....



Ben P.


P.S. The ‘road’ she lived on was actually named after them, but they called it the ‘swamp road’ - because it is, and it’s still pretty much flooded and impassable before June. 10 years ago I was on a 4th of July camping trip and tried to take my VW Jetta down that road — and got stuck!

The locals still call it the Swamp Road.

BTW, this trip was the one and only time she ever met her grandmother. That’s what roads were like prior to 1920.




Edited by Ben P.
Typo’s (see edit history)
  • Like 3
  • Thanks 1
Link to post
Share on other sites

Very cool to be able to have the documentation of the first ride by your Great Grandma like that. I remember meeting my Great Grandma but don't remember to much of what she said think I was about 4 then.

Link to post
Share on other sites

*deleting this post later*
Guess I had to think about that Brice,

Basically she was lucky enough to live long enough to tell all those stories, but she was also very particular about writing them all down and not just in letter form.


That one generation very keenly recognized, at the time, that the automobile changed daily life for regular folk unlike anything else prior — not the railroads (1827 - 1st US RR), the telegraph (1837), the telephone (1876), not even electrification (1879 - 1st transmitted to paying customers).

Of course you can open up any history book and get the year and inventor(s) of all these things, but how it affected daily life you’d have to get into the accounts of regular folk. They ALL talked about it. Sadly, most of this happened in letter form - and 99% of that has been lost 2 generations ago.


I remember as a teenager working at a famous local resort - one evening I noticed a large family sitting in a circle passing old b+w photos amongst themselves. They suddenly stopped and dispersed. A few min. later one of the maids burst into the office with an armload of old photos and letters.  She exclaimed, “They threw them all away! We have to save them!” I’m guessing someone died and the attic was cleaned out - all the photographs and family letters gathered - must have been talk amongst the family and they decided to gather together and look at them as a group one last time and throw them away.

I’ll always remember that. The maid was crying. I thought about it and told her they had clearly given it a great deal of thought and that “It’s not up to us, but what you are doing is grave-robbery and I think you’ll regret it.” Which made her cry harder but I feel the same.


At any rate, in the days when a trip to the next town (7-10miles) was an all day affair by horse and buggy — the automobile abruptly changed everything. In rural areas like her’s the car came first. Electrification wasn’t offered until the 1930’s — when no one could afford it. Her own house wasn’t electrified until the late 1940’s. They didn’t get a telephone until the 1950’s. They had a car, but were all farmers and still lived within walking distance of Church, school, and town. No one used a car to ‘drive to work’. Couldn’t if you tried — the roads.

Somewhere (couldn’t find it today) I have a photo of a county truck that had attempted to plough the snow on that road in 1940. It got stuck and they abandoned it there until spring. My grandmother, who was about 12 at the time, STILL talks about she and the neighbor kids playing on that all winter. ‘The greatest snowfort of all time’. Horses were the only reliable transportation right through the 1940’s.
Gotta find that picture....

Edited by Ben P. (see edit history)
  • Like 1
Link to post
Share on other sites

My grandmother (1901 - 1996) said the roads had deep ruts so you didn't have to steer much, the tires followed the ruts. She said the first cars she saw were Oldsmobiles.  She said if the car got stuck in the mud, there were no tow trucks, you had to get a farmer's horse to pull you out. Then they put "macadam" on the roads, whatever that is.

  • Like 2
Link to post
Share on other sites

⬇️ appeared in a 1954 book, but is a truly un-attributable common story often told as a joke. I remember my grandfather telling it. Probably my favorite. 


  • Haha 2
Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
  • Create New...