Henry County to Iowa City – The Red Ball Route.

The Long and Winding Road by Paul Breeden.

As long as man has been on the planet, there have been roads built to connect us with each other. At first, it was simply a dusty path or winding trail that was well-worn. Today, it’s four lane highways stretching for miles and miles, built with asphalt, concrete, and ribbons of steel.

In days gone by, across America, there was the Cumberland Trail, the Lewis and Clark Trail, the Oregon Trail, and for our Native American brothers and sisters, the Trail of Tears. More recently, there has been the Great River Road, the Avenue of the Saints, and of course, the mother of all American roads, Route 66.

For the Boller family, growing up in southeastern Iowa – Henry County, to be specific – there were two main highways that we used to connect to the outside world…

First, there was U.S. Highway 34, which runs east and west through Mt. Pleasant, taking us to local destinations like Burlington, for a beautiful picnic lunch in Crapo Park on the Mississippi River, or to Fairfield, where we picked up my Grandma Edie when she rode the Rock Island from Trenton, Mo. On special occasions, we’d take the BIG road trip, following Hwy 34 for what seemed like forever, all the way to Denver, Colorado. Do you see the mountains yet, Eric?

Admittedly, Highway 34 provided a nice escape from Henry County, but the road our family used the most was old U.S. Highway 218, which took us north and south out of town. For summer vacations, we’d go south on 218 to get us to St. Louis for a Cardinal’s ball game and a Broadway show at Muny Opera. But, for the Boller family, who lived in Henry County for 70 years (1896-1966), the most highly-trekked section of highway was that very familiar trip from Wayland, or Mt. Pleasant, to Iowa City.

Interestingly, it was only recently, as I was digging a bit deeper into the history of Iowa roads, that I discovered that both Highway 34 and Highway 218 actually went by different names in the early days. Allow me, here, to tell you a bit of the story.

As you can imagine, when the “horseless carriage” came into existence around the turn of the century, there were no hard-surface roads running between Iowa communities – only dirt trials used by horse-drawn wagons. These narrow pathways quickly turned into mud baths whenever it rained or snowed, and I remember my dad, George Boller, telling me about his father’s wild adventures venturing through rain, snow, and mud as they made their way from Wayland to Iowa City for Hawkeye football games around 1910.

To put things into perspective, it wasn’t until 1897 – when Clinton Street was paved with bricks (see below) – when Iowa City finally had its first hard-surface streets!

Read more about the early days of Iowa City’s brick streets.

In 1911, the American Automobile Association, organized in 1902, urged national legislation for a transcontinental highway. One of AAA’s members, Robert N. Carson of Iowa City, became the primary promoter and advocate for what he called the Red Ball Route, a north-south network of gravel and paved roads running from St. Louis to St. Paul, going through Hannibal, Mo., Quincy and Hamilton, Ill., to Keokuk, Mount Pleasant, Ainsworth, Riverside, Iowa City, Cedar Rapids, Waterloo, Waverly and Charles City in Iowa, and to Austin, Faribault, Northfield, Minneapolis and ending up in St. Paul, Minn.

Over a period of several years, Carson worked diligently with communities up and down his proposed route, encouraging them to get on board with his Red Ball plan. Carson made it very clear that inclusion relied on each locality’s officials pledging to keep their stretch of the route in good condition for “automobilists” to traverse. For that reason, each community formed its own Good Roads Committee.

The term “Red Ball” came from the Santa Fe Railroad. It was their way of describing important shipments of high priority freight and perishables. In the 1890’s, such trains and the tracks cleared for high priority shipments were marked with that red circle. In the picture above, county road crews are seen at work along or near the Red Ball Route using horse-drawn elevating graders and other equipment.

(P-0213) Circa-1910- Here’s an Iowa State Road Map on a penny-postcard – features a great overview of the highway system that is developing at the time.

As the Red Ball Route was taking shape across eastern Iowa, the Iowa State Highway Commission ruled that any new road needed to be 26 feet wide with the grade not exceeding 4 percent at any point. The roadway was to be covered with 12 inches of macadam, including a two-inch surface of finely crushed stone.

Once the road was built in their area, the Good Roads committee would mark telephone and telegraph poles along the route with the Red Ball’s official insignia, a three-foot white band with a red ball six inches in diameter on both sides of the poles. While that sounds efficient, the only problem was that for every new road that came into existence – and there were many – a different symbol was needed in helping motorists identify what road they were on!

Here is the record-setting highway marker on a telephone pole in front of the Jefferson Hotel, at corner of Washington and Dubuque Streets in Iowa City – looking south.

In 1916, the telephone pole pictured above set a record by displaying more road symbols than any other pole in the world! River-to-River, Red Ball, Waterloo & Keokuk Belt Line, St. Paul-Burlington-St. Louis, Kansas City & Gulf, Black Diamond (now Melrose Ave.), M & M, Red Cross, Burlington Way, and Orange & White routes are all displayed. And, to top it off, there’s the ‘AAA’ (American Automobile Association) symbol, assuring motorists that everything is up to snuff in Iowa City.

Henry County, where the Bollers lived, invested $10,000 in the Red Ball Route in 1916, cutting down hills, filling in hollows, straightening the road and repairing bridges. But in the end, it all seemed worthwhile because under Robert Carson’s supervision, these countless Good Roads Committees succeeded in making the Red Ball Route one of the best roads in Iowa.

Interestingly, the Red Ball Route became an integral part of University of Iowa football as well, especially when it came to the important cross-state rivalry between Iowa-Minnesota. By 1922, when a large delegation of Gophers made their way to Iowa during homecoming weekend over the Red Ball, Johnson County decided it was time to replace their gravel-based road with pavement. This decision started a domino effect, forcing Linn County, to the north, to scramble, matching Johnson County’s road improvement plan. By 1927, the entire route between Henry County to the south, and Cedar Rapids to the north, was paved. I can recall my dad, who attended his first Iowa football game in 1926 when he was just five-years old, telling me about the amazing blessing of the paved cement road to Iowa City, cutting in half the amount of travel time needed for the 1 pm kickoff in old Iowa Field!

(L-0072) Above left – 1938 Johnson County Highway Road Map.

Sadly, by 1926, all of these roads with colorful names had been re-marked by the state, with colorful road symbols being replaced with mundane numbers. The Blue Grass Route, for example, which ran east/west through Mt.Pleasant became Highway 34, while the east/west Lincoln Highway up in Cedar Rapids became Highway 30. The River-to-River Road that stretched from Davenport to Council Bluffs became Highway 6, and the Boller’s Red Ball Route from Henry County to Iowa City became boring old Highway 218.

My dad, George Boller, being from Wayland, Iowa, made this 50-mile trip from Henry County to Iowa City on numerous occasions throughout his lifetime. In the late 1930’s, my dad traveled to and from Iowa City to go to college, meeting football stars like Nile Kinnick and others from the famed 1939 Ironman team. Read more here.

In 1954, dad drove daily from Wayland to Iowa City to be trained as a printer/linotype operator so he could get a good-paying newspaper job in Mt. Pleasant in 1955. And then in 1965, dad took yet a better job at The Daily Iowan in Iowa City, driving, once again, that 50-mile trip on a daily basis from November ’65 to June of ’66, when we moved our whole family to Iowa City. And finally, the old Hawkeye took his final road trip on Highway 218 as we brought him back to Wayland from Iowa City to be buried at North Hill Cemetery in 1994.

Click here to read about Samuel McFarland, Henry County Newspaperman, Statesman, and Civil War Hero. A fellow traveler on the National Road from Mt.Pleasant to Iowa City.

Today, Robert Carlson’s original vision of a single highway from St. Louis to St. Paul now exists. Old Hwy 218 has given way to a 4-lane highway that runs the 527-mile distance, it is now designated as The Avenue of the Saints. Praise be!

So, now you know both the numbers and the rest of Our Iowa Heritage road story! Here’s a tip of the old hat to The Red Ball Route and Old Highway 218. We will never forget you!


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Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

The Red Ball Route – The original Avenue of the Saints, by Diane Langton, Cedar Rapids Gazette, May 18, 2014

Highways of Iowa City – Overview, Jason Hancock, IowaHighways.org

IC History: Iowa City’s early crossroads, Marlin Ingalls, Little Village Magazine, July 8, 2013


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