The lack of standardized road signs posed two problems for travelers. The first involved the lack of standardized danger, regulatory, and direction signs. Often a danger sign might be nothing more than a hand painted picture of the Grim Reaper. The second area involved the slow progress being made on the state and national levels to devise and implement a simple system for designating route numbers. It was a situation made worse by the intense pressure of trail lobbyists.
In attempting to deal with these issues the Secretary of Agriculture, with whom responsibility for public roads lay, established a commission in 1924. It was made up of members of the AASHO and members of the Bureau of Public Roads. A year later the commission recommended a national system of nearly 76,000 highway miles. That number was soon raised to 96,626 miles. (Note: though the US Highway system continued to grow, no accurate tabulation of the total mileage was done until 1951. At that time the total was up to 163,850 miles, 18,707 of which were route overlaps. By 1964 the estimate was 175,000 miles.)
In 1926 the familiar black and white federal shield was officially unveiled. It would be used solely to designate routes of the new federal-aid highway system. Some believe the federal shield indicates that a road is a "federal highway". It does not. The federal system was never designed to replace the state highways per se. It was designed to facilitate the movement of interstate traffic through the funding of what were to remain state routes, only now interconnected into a unified national highway system.
In 1926 a new standardized numbering system was also being developed for these new US Highways. Generally, E/W routes were evenly numbered, with the principle routes being multiples of 10... such as US-20. The N/S routes were odd numbers, with the principal routes ending in 1 or 5. The reason there might be a need for more principal N/S routes was simply because, the nation's wider than it is tall and would need more N/S highways. Whenever possible, the ending "5" was reserved for highways of secondary importance. Thus, US-5, not being a trans-national N/S route, did not have the importance of US-1. It very well may have been considered to be in the same category as US-3 which runs from Boston to the White Mountains... hardly serving the population centers that US-5 does.
As much as possible, all routes were numbered consecutively from north to south and from east to west. This system did have some limitations. For instance, between US-10 and US-20 there were only four possible consecutive even numbers: 12, 14, 16, and 18. Yet, depending on the spacing of the main US highways, there might have been a need for more than four routes. To deal with this problem a third number was sometimes added to designate highways that branched off of the principle US routes. Thus, US-141 would the first branch off of US-41 near the Canadian line; US-241 would be the second branch etc. This system does not always hold up. According to this system, US-202 should be the second branch off of US-2 that runs through northern New England. But, a review of current and older atlases does not show that the first branch, US-102, was ever built.
Those designing the new US highway system found it necessary to include new specific route categories. Thus were created the Bypass, Business, Alternate, and Temporary, US route designations. After US-5 was born, the old highway route from Hartford to West Springfield that remained on the west side of the Connecticut River was named US-5A. As alternate US-5 route it was connected to the main parent highway on both ends. As sections of US-5 were relocated to bypass West Springfield's busy center, US-5A's route also had to redrawn so that it always reconnected back with the original highway. US-Business and US-Bypass routes did the same. Both became more prevalent as increased traffic flows could no longer be funneled into the hearts of larger cities and towns. US-Business routes offered travelers or commercial traffic an option to visit the local business district and still easily connect back with the main parent highway.
Here in New England the new federal numbering system conflicted with parts of the HCNES system. First there was the N/S, even/odd problem. There were also conflicts with the federal scheme using numbers already in use here in New England. It would be confusing for drivers to have, say, US-7 coming up the up from Pittsfield intersecting HCNES RT-7 (The Mohawk Trail) in North Adams! But, under the voluntary nature of the state/federal partnership, states were not required to give up their pre-existing route numbers. Some states even had their highway route numbers written into their state constitution!
Here in New England the states did forsake some of the old HCNES routes. Since the 1920s much that had survived of the original HCNES system has been modified. Today, no coherent system seems to exist in the State... except that routes with very low numbers indicate major cross-state highways... such as RT-2 and RT-9.
NATIONALLY STANDARDIZED HIGHWAY SIGNS:
Back on the federal level, dealing with the lack of standardized road signs was the next problem to be dealt with. In 1927 AASHO literally wrote the book... the "Uniform Manual For Highway Signs", which gave birth to most of the road signs we know so well today. AASHO recommended that the color red and the octagon shape be used exclusively for stop signs. The color yellow and the diamond shape would always mean caution. White signs were strictly for informational and regulatory purposes. The AASHO also recommended that these signs be used on all highways receiving federal aid. By 1931 Massachusetts went further and required that all cities and towns use these standardized signs.
"US-5: A Highway to History" © Robb Strycharz, 1996-2006
CHRONOS hourglass logo © 1993 CHRONOS Historical Services.