Drive the Jefferson

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Front Street as part of the Jefferson Highway.

Historic highway that runs through downtown becoming popular as ‘touring’ trail

Roger Bell explained some ways the community could incorporate signage designating the Jefferson Highway route through the parish. An economical way is painting the logo on utility poles

By Juanice Gray, jgray@natchitochestimes.com

What’s in a name?

Depending on the origin, it could mean nothing or could be something historically significant. Take the Chisholm Trail or Route 66 for instance. Those roads are steeped in history and the foundation of this country. Tourists travel these highways and byways so see places that connect them to the roots of the land. Now look at Jefferson (Front) Street in Natchitoches. We know about the bricks. We know we’re the oldest settlement in the Louisiana Purchase. But did you know Jefferson Street is part of the Jefferson Highway, a series of roads that originated in the late 1800s to connect New Orleans with Winnipeg, Canada? There has been a rebirth of interest in the Jefferson Highway with states along the route adding historical markers, signage, events and promoting tourism and traffic through their towns and into their businesses.

When automobiles caught on as a better form of transportation, so did the need for better roads and routes for motorists to tour and travel.
Several members of the community attended the informational forum on the benefits of utilizing the Jefferson Highway to boost tourism.

This is due in part to the Jefferson Highway Association, a group of self-proclaimed “roadies” who love Americana and that goes with it. Glenn Smith of Muskogee, Okla., is president and he and fellow members Mike Curtis and Roger Bell met with a group of interested citizens to educate residents on the history of the route and discuss opportunities for promotion and development. Curtis said the trail was built by people along the route before there was a state highway system, when bicycles became a popular mode of transportation around 1891. With the boom of automobiles in the early 1900s, the need for roads intensified and travel for necessity soon gave way to “touring.” When the US Postal Service initiated Rural Free Delivery (RFD) they became advocates for roads. The Jefferson Highway soon became a “prototype of how other road systems came into being” Curtis said. Communities along the route clamored to become a part of the highway. This was happening across the country with “named highways” developing and bringing motorists from coast to coast and north to south.

In 1926, about a decade after the US Highway System was initiated, named roads ended when the numeric system for roads was implemented. Roger Bell said sociability runs soon became popular, a process where motorists lined up parade style and traveled the Highway creating excitement and interest along the way. Tourist camps popped up where motorists would stay the night. One was located in Natchitoches. Historians are researching the location, but it is believed it might have been near the site where Watson Library stands. As people began to travel the Jefferson Highway, commerce grew with hotels, restaurants, gas stations, retail locations and more.

Today, travelers are again making the journey north and south as a vacation trip. Some of the original structures have become tourist sites and



many states, including Iowa and Oklahoma, have put up signage and historical markers. The Jefferson Highway has significant interest for historians, roadies, bus tours and vacationers. Natchitoches has the opportunity to utilize what is already existing, the historic highway stretching straight through the Historic District, as yet another promotional tool that could boost the economy. Smith said on a side note that Louisiana has more streets and roads named for the Louisiana Highway than any other state he has traveled.

The Jefferson Highway Association (JHA) is looking to Natchitoches for their 2019 convention. For more information on the JHA, visit www.jeffersonhighway.org.