North Dakota Roads | Prairie Public Broadcasting

North Dakota Roads

Oct 29, 2019

On this date in 1915, the Washburn Leader noted that good roads were crucial to the growth of North Dakota. Traveling by car was not for the faint of heart. It was an adventure that might include flat tires, broken springs, boiling radiators, flooded roads, and getting stuck in mud.

The newspaper said drivers wanted good roads. The popularity of the automobile required a return to the early days of road construction. Over a hundred years before, back in 1802, Congress had appropriated funds to finance a link between the Atlantic Ocean and the new state of Ohio. The National Highway was started in 1811 and ran from Cumberland, Maryland to Vandalia in what is now Illinois. It was built with a hard macadam surface. Travelers no longer feared getting stuck in the mud.

However, the advent of the railroad had sidelined road construction, with railroads becoming the focal point of both passenger travel and freight transportation. In 1850 there were nine thousand miles of track in the entire country. By 1860 that number had risen to thirty thousand miles. Congress passed generous subsidies in land and money to companies that promised to lay rail. With the completion of the transcontinental railroad, a journey from coast to coast that once took months could be completed in days. According to the Washburn Leader, the railroad had “robbed the early road building movement of all its vitality.”

The automobile put the focus back on roads. In 1912 The U.S. Office of Good Roads partnered with the American Automobile Association to plan a transcontinental highway. It would run from New York City to Seattle. In North Dakota the road closely followed the route of the Northern Pacific Railway. It was designated by colored markers and became known as the Red Trail.

There were still challenges for drivers. The lack of bridges was one impediment. At Medora, for example, drivers either had to ford the river or wait for a train to load the vehicle onto a railroad car.

The Interstate system in North Dakota began in 1956, with the first 12 miles of I-94 completed between Valley City and Jamestown in 1958. Travelers today can easily and quickly cross the state with no fear of getting stuck in the mud or having to ford rivers.

Dakota Datebook by Carole Butcher


Washburn Leader. “The Importance of Good Roads.” “National Roads.” Washburn ND. 10/29/1915. Page 2.

Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Cumberland Road.”  Accessed 10/1/2019.

History. “First transcontinental railroad is completed.”  Accessed 10/1/2019.

Highway History. “The Lincoln Highway.”  Accessed 10/1/2019.

Mark Halvorson. Email to author. 10/1/2019.