The Great White Way | Iowa PBS Explores
Just off of i-80 between Council Bluffs and Des Moines, sits a 26 mile stretch of road with white painted telephone poles. Hundreds of them connect five communities between Adair and Dexter. While these might look like a novel roadside attraction, it is actually a historically significant part of Iowa’s highway system and it was once part of the road that connected America from coast to coast.
Just off of i-80 between Council Bluffs and Des Moines, sits a 26 mile stretch of road with these.
White painted telephone poles. Hundreds of them connect five communities between Adair and Dexter. While these might look like a novel roadside attraction, it is actually an historically significant part of Iowa’s highway system and it was once part of the road that connected America from coast to coast.
At the turn of the 20th century, Iowa’s road system was a mess. The majority of roads were no more than dirt paths, and very few were paved. Attempting to cross the state, during inclement weather, might mean being stranded in mud or snow sometimes for days. The roads were so bad, Iowa was called the gumbo state, referring to the thick, dark soil which for agriculture is great, but for road material is pretty poor.
As automobiles became more and more popular throughout the country, and the need for intrastate travel increased, Governor B.F. Carrol assembled delegates from all over the state for the Good Roads Convention in Des Moines. The delegates decided that the River-to-River Road from Davenport to Council Bluffs would be the solution to Iowa’s road woes.
Towns fought fiercely during the early days of road development. Where the roads went, money would follow. Towns began to build roads at an incredible pace around this time.
After the Good Roads Convention, the original White Pole Road was designated and followed along a Railroad route from Des Moines to Council Bluffs. Poles along the route were painted white. This helped motorists know that they were still on the correct route. Kind of like an early form of GPS. The communities that were a part of this Great White Way, as it was then called, promised motorists a straighter, leveler and shorter route across the state with a town every five to six miles along the way.
In the fall of 1912, the road extended east from Des Moines to Davenport to encompass the entire state.
By 1913, the Iowa Highway Route Registration Act allowed a commission to register trails that were more than 25 miles long. The Great White Way Association plotted their Davenport to Council Bluffs route on county maps and submitted their registration with a $5 fee. The Commission awarded a certificate to the route on July 30, 1914, making it the first certified route in Iowa.
After various mergers with other roads and name changes, sections of the Great White Way became part of U.S. Highway 6, which at one point was the longest continuous east-west route in the United States, stretching from Cape Cod, Massachusetts to Long Beach, California.
But by mid 1960s something changed.
“The act is the interstate, highway system, a 41,000 network of our most important roads.”
After the passage of the Federal Aid Highway Act, the new Interstate Highway System connected the country in a new way. By 1965 Interstate-80 saw completion. This new four lane route would fundamentally change the way Americans traveled. And the Great White Way, like so many other highways in the country, diminished in popularity.
In 2002 this old highway was renamed to White Pole Road as a tribute to the original Great White Way. And Poles along this 26-mile stretch have once again been painted white.
This highway is a small piece of Iowa transportation history. And is really a microcosm of the ingenuity and tenacity Iowa towns had during the automobile boom of the early 20th century. If there’s ever a time when you are driving from Des Moines to Council Bluffs, it might be worth it to pull off one of the exits, and experience this stretch of road, to get a sense of what it was like to drive the Great White Way.