Meridian Highway

Meridian Bridge across the Missouri River between Nebraska and South Dakota, courtesy Wikipedia.

Meridian Bridge between Nebraska and South Dakota across the Missouri River, courtesy of Wikipedia.

The National Highways Association was established in 1911 to promote the development of an improved national road network in the United States. Under the slogan “Good roads for everyone!” the association advocated the building and permanent maintenance by the federal government of a system of 50,000 miles of highways.

Good Roads Magazine

Good Roads Magazine

That year, the Meridian Road was organized by a group of “good roads” boosters from Kansas and Nebraska to promote the concept of a direct north-south automobile route through the central United States. One objective was to organize similar groups in other states to further that goal. The organization drafted a plan for a highway paralleling the sixth principal meridian through America’s heartland from Canada to Mexico. The proposed north-south automobile route was named after the Sixth Principal Meridian. The International Meridian Road Association initially aimed to build a road that “a full wagon-box load or a car at high gear can pass, except in wet weather.” The highway followed an Indian trade route that later served as the Chisholm Trail, the famous cattle trail from Texas through Oklahoma to the stockyards in Kansas.

The International Meridian Road Association was founded in 1912, representing Canada, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. Unlike other north-south trail associations, the Meridian promoters anticipated a winter retreat to the sunny south and a reverse trend, with southerners moving northward in the summer to seek out lakes and a cooler climate. Slicing through North America’s breadbasket, the route was largely established through six states, connecting Winnipeg, Canada, to the Gulf of Mexico in 1912.

By 1920, the Meridian Highway started to move south of the border. In his role as Secretary of Communications, future Mexican President Ortiz Rubio worked to extend the highway as part of the International Pacific Highway — the future Pan-American Highway — from Canada to Argentina.

The highway was completed in the United States in 1924 with the opening of the Meridian Bridge at Yankton, South Dakota. America’s love affair with cars and the open road was well-developed.

Meridian Road Map, 1915.

Meridian Road Map, 1915.

As the only primary north-south highway girding America’s heartland, the Meridian intersected with dozens of named trails, including the Old Spanish Trail in San Antonio, the Bankhead Highway in Fort Worth, the Ozark Trail in Oklahoma City, the National Old Trails in Wichita; the Santa Fe Trail in Newton, Kansas; the Victory Highway in Salina, Kansas; the Lincoln Highway at Columbus, Nebraska; and the Yellowstone Trail, in Millbank, South Dakota.

In 1926, most of the 2,400-mile-long Meridian Road was converted into U.S. 81, an improved two-lane highway connecting Laredo, Texas, to Joliette, North Dakota.

In 1928, the highway connected Canada to Mexico City.

In 1936, the Meridian Highway (U.S. 81) became known as the Pan-American Highway. Today, the highway extends 17,000 miles from Winnipeg, Manitoba, to the southern tip of South America.

Today, some relics of the Meridian Road still exist, including the National Register-listed Bunton Branch Bridge in Hays County, Texas; a historic 4.5-mile section of road and historical marker in Pierce County, Nebraska; the breathtaking Meridian Bridge in Yankton, South Dakota, and parts of the old highway near Fargo, North Dakota.

©Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated May 2024.

Also See:

Byways & Historic Trails – Great Drives in America

The National Road – First Highway in America

Tales & Trails of the American Frontier

Transportation History


Historic Marker Database
Library of Congress
Old Spanish Trail