The first in a series of articles about historic highway signage. We will be featuring many, many more articles, on a great variety of sign-related topics, on the AARoads Shield Gallery.
This Midland Trail overview is made possible by the indispensable research of Devon Mich’l, the foremost authority on Nevada highway signs in general, and especially the Midland Trail. All accurate facts in here are to be credited to Devon. Any misinformation, on the other hand, is certainly due to my oversight!
The Midland Trail was an unimproved wagon trail dating to the 1860s that crossed central Nevada and served the silver and gold camps of Tonopah and Goldfield in the early 1900s. It was still nothing more than a dirt trail in 1913 when it received its name, Midland Trail, as part of a much longer transcontinental route of that name. It became the first road in Nevada to be federally funded.
In this article, I talk only about the westernmost section of the Midland Trail, from Ely, Nevada (where it met the Lincoln Highway) to its terminus in Los Angeles.
The Automobile Club of Southern California marked the route very well, starting in 1915. With the Midland Trail well marked from Ely, Nevada to Los Angeles, Southern California was now connected to the Lincoln Highway.
The Midland Trail was added to the U. S. federal highway system in 1937, with the extension of highway 6 from Denver westward. With only two exceptions (Railroad Valley, and Westgard Pass), the Midland Trail was signed as US-6. It was further given the appellation “Grand Army of the Republic Highway” in 1953.
In 1964, the great decommissioning of US routes in California truncated US-6 to Bishop, but one can find the Midland Trail by taking US-395 south from there, then turning on to California state route 14, which parallels the old road, and then San Fernando Road (old US-6/US-99 multiplex) into Los Angeles.
Highway Signs of the Midland Trail
There were four distinct generations of Midland Trail signs produced. They were all made of porcelain enamel and featured a vertically oriented red, white, and blue design. The signs were manufactured by the California Metal Enameling Company (CAMEO) of Los Angeles, and placed in the field by the Auto Club, who also did the surveying work.
First Generation Signs
Here are three surviving first-generation signs. They were placed during the initial signing of April, 1915. Each was given an identification number, as seen in the upper right corner. Sign #1 was posted in Ely at the beginning of the trail, and the numbers increased westward. #50 was in Tonopah, #60 in Goldfield, and the state line was somewhere between #69 (Lida) and #80 (Big Pine).
Alas, no state-line sign survives, but if I had to make my guess, I’d say #73.
The first generation can be distinguished by the serial number, and also the mileage in tenths, the feathered arrow, and the arced red and blue top and bottom fields.
As you can see, over the years the signs have put up with uncountable abuses – being folded in half to take up less space in the junkyard, and of course occasionally receiving a face full of 45s.
Some signs were used to identify particular hazards. Here, the center of the trail turned into a mud puddle, and to avoid bogging down and creating an impassable situation, drivers were advised to keep to the right.
Here is what appears to be the very first sign of the trail, placed in Ely. It is a 24×32 inch sign, as opposed to every other one I have seen, which is 18×24.
The legend is a bit hard to read, but here is what we have been able to decipher: all year route to California/Los Angeles: 569.6 via Tonopah, Goldfield, Big Pine.
The number of miles is a conjecture: 569.6 is plausible because it is the total distance from Ely to Los Angeles.
The second sign on the gantry (click the picture to see it) is also an Auto Club of So Cal installation: Special notice: motorists to Los Angeles take right hand road to Copper Mt., then return to this point for Los Angeles route. Perhaps the town of Copper Mountain paid for the publicity!
The photo is from a 1920 Auto Club magazine, provided to me by the Caltrans Library.
One final first-generation sign: this temporary sign has no mileages, and no identification number. It was intended as a temporary placement before a new one could be manufactured with the proper distances.
Second Generation Signs
The second generation of signage was placed between 1916 and April, 1917. That is when the US entered World War I, and such trifles as highway signage were put aside until the armistice of November, 1918.
These three signs are of the second generation. The leftmost one is the very first one from Ely, where the Midland Trail diverged from the Lincoln Highway. The arced backgrounds still remain, but are shaped slightly differently, and the font is different as well. This is the only sign set that had “Mi.” after the mileages.
Furthermore, there is no number on the front in the upper right corner. However, these signs were numbered on the back, in a black stamp similar to other Auto Club signs. Numbers for Midland Trail signs were all around 2200, according to Devon.
Third Generation Signs
The third generation, posted from November, 1918 (1919, in all practice) to 1921, was the last generation to feature the feathered arrow. The top and bottom fields were no longer arced, and the dividing line between directions was made to stretch all the way across the sign.
The first two signs are from Nevada, and the last one is from California. The photo appeared originally in a 1919 Auto Club publication.
The third generation signs had no number on the back.
Fourth Generation Signs
The fourth generation reflected the general Auto Club practice, starting in 1921, to change from feathered to block arrows. Furthermore, signs that did not feature destinations were added to the repertoire: the middle photo says, simply “CAUTION DRIVE SLOWLY” and could be placed anywhere along the route to warn of a particular hazard.
For stability, a third mounting hole was added as well. Furthermore, the signs in Nevada no longer featured Los Angeles as a destination. Finally, the fourth-generation signs did have a standard black stamped number on the back.
The fourth-generation signs were placed between 1921 and 1923. It is unknown how the route was signed after 1923 and before February 1929, when the Auto Club started using the black and white rectangle format of guide signs universally, to replace the diamonds and the red, white and blue rectangles.
Starting in February, 1929, the Auto Clubs consolidated all the sign styles into this format.
This sign is somewhat larger than the previous ones, at 36 by 24 inches. The names of the old trails are no longer identified on this set of signage.
The signs do have numbers on the back. Starting in 1934, those signs that were posted on California state highways (including most of the Midland Trail in California, which was state route 7 before being renumbered to U. S. highway 6) featured a standard California code, identifying the date, the district, and the serial number of the sign. A typical code would be “A7D40”, where A is the year (1934 is A, 1935 is B, etc), 7 is District 7 (Los Angeles and Ventura counties), D stands for “directional sign” or “distance sign”, and 40 is the serial number. Nevada signs continued to have just a simple serial number.
The Midland Trail Today
In many cases, the Midland Trail was upgraded continuously to better standards, and exists as two-lane roads in California and Nevada. For example, Historic US-6 through Rosamond, Lancaster, and Palmdale, California is the Midland Trail, as is state route 168 over Westgard Pass.
US-95 heading south out of Tonopah. This alignment was bypassed only in the 1980s by a new four-lane road. This section of 95 was built directly on top of the 1860s unimproved road that became the Midland Trail. Photo by Devon Mich’l, 2009.
For more information on the Midland Trail, to contribute any knowledge and pictures of signage, or if you’re interested in trading Midland Trail and other old highway signs, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Devon directly at 702-296-9393.
Some more photos of the older Midland Trail signs.