All Roads Lead to Walnut, Iowa



Iowa State Highway #83 enters the town of Walnut from the south, where most traffic is en route to and from Atlantic. At the south end of Walnut’s main street, “Antique City Drive,” it turns directly westward and heads toward Avoca, six miles distant.

It was fellow Walnut Genealogy Society member Jim Hansen who was probably the first person to tell me that the straight-line highway from Walnut to Avoca was not always along this route, but rather made a southward bend through a valley. This was the route also followed by the grade-conscious Chicago and Rock Island Railroad in its first line through southwest Iowa. Both the “old Avoca road” and the Rock Island are gone now, and their memories are fading fast.

The Society’s president, Gayle Stuart, picked up on our interest in the old Avoca road and remembered an old family map of Iowa (1924) which showed the road in its early form. Sure enough, on this map the route between Walnut and Avoca takes a distinct dip to the south. But it also revealed much more.

Only after bringing a copy of this map home for further scrutiny, did we see what had missed our attention before: that along this very stretch of road was written the word “Lincoln.” What did this mean?

Back in 1926, there survived the phenomena of “named highways.” The most famous of these, the Lincoln Highway, has been written about by historians and is now familiar to most people. It was superseded by U.S. Highway #30, but original stretches have been identified and preserved by those interested in such things.

As is the case with rivers, the map makers have a challenge in marking these named highways. The word “Lincoln” will be separated from the word “Highway” by a long distance and one really has to search it out to trace its course. But the old Avoca road was a long way from the Lincoln Highway and that was not even a possibility.

Fortunately, the map had a list of the named highways at the bottom, and even gave the style of the distinctive markers, each one used as waypoints along its course. That was a necessity, since the roads took many jogs and turns and their unpaved surfaces gave little clue to which fork in the road the designated route followed.

One of these roads was the “Detroit-Lincoln-Denver Highway,” which had its own distinctive marker sign. A little more scrutiny turned up the missing links: “Detroit” down between Council Bluffs and Underwood, and “Denver” up between Hamlin and Guthrie Center. How about that? Dig a little and uncover a lot!

Questions that now open up: Did this route follow the road leading northeast out of Walnut toward Elk Horn? It appears to. How old was this route? Was it an Indian or Military trail, as so many later routes followed? And, was it older than the railroad line? Maybe instead of the old Avoca road following the railroad…it was the other way around. Did it go through Walnut before there “was” a Walnut? It gets really interesting. The story isn’t over yet.

Part 2:

We found resources online from the Iowa DOT (Department of Transportation). There is a map showing the major auto trails and something new: there were two roads running together through Walnut. The DLD was there, dated 1921, but the other was the River-to-River Road, dating from 1916!

This was very interesting, because one of Walnut’s early auto repair facilities was called the “River-to-River Road Garage.” We learned later that one of our WGS members may have torn this building down! Now we know, at least, where the name came from.

Still later, we learned from another member that the River-to-River Road ran right through the farm on which he grew up! This was near Minden, and he can recall each turn and twist the road took on its path to Council Bluffs.

But the new DOT map raised some problems. It definitely ran through Walnut, but instead of angling up to Elk Horn, it turned straight north near the Shelby County line and ran up to today’s Highway 44 before turning east. Then, it took a more southerly course to Guthrie Center than our earlier map showed. There was another route which seems to follow the earlier course from Elk Horn to Guthrie Center, but it is called the “Hamlin Short Route.” The DLD and R-R roads are still running together, however.

What to make of this? Attention is going to have to be paid to the dates of the maps. There were changes made, even in this short time span.

Part 3:

More maps, more problems. DOT has a wonderful collection of maps and pictures from the auto trails era. That is great, but there are more things that do not agree.

There are 1914 county maps which show the “major” roads, and this set has the best version of the “old Avoca road” that we have seen yet. But on this map, the roads are not named, just shown in red.

This map confirms that there was no road running west from present #83 at the 2 mile line south of Walnut until 1939. This confirms old plat maps. The road that ran west is at the 1 mile line, on the north edge of the Buttenschon quarter, and had three (count ’em) school houses within one mile of each other! That’s what the map shows! The oldest plat maps indicate that this might have been the route of the old Avoca road before it left Walnut going straight west (or so we had thought).

Then there is a 1912 map. It has some interesting features, and one big problem. There the River-to-River Road clearly goes south out of Walnut and turns east at the first mile line! Over in Cass County, it might turn north, maybe at about where the Shelby County line is. But there is a link connecting with Atlantic, where the White Pole Road is making its way across Iowa. As we have seen, two highway associations (DLD and White Pole) tangled in eastern Iowa. But this is the old R-R road, before DLD came into the picture.

Here we have to point out that the dates we cite are the dates when the various road associations registered their routes with the state. There is much room for variations on just when and how they were actually set up, and no doubt room for some politics to enter in, too. In Nebraska, the DLD took over the old OLD (Omaha-Lincoln-Denver) route and not without some grumbling. Did something like that happen in Iowa between them and the R-R road? It would be interesting to know.

Finally (for Part 3), our member, whose farm was dissected by the R-R road, does not remember that route going into Walnut at all, but going north out of Avoca to Harlan! We have seen one map which indicates this at a later time. Our member is pretty young, though, so admits he does not know the earliest routes. (!) He recalls considerable traffic along the route, but not when their dirt surface was reduced to a quagmire of mud by rains or thawing. He does not recall any painted poles along the R-R road, but does remember both the “White Pole Road” out of Council Bluffs, and one he called the “Yellow Pole Road” running northeast out of Glendale (eastern Council Bluffs). This is a new one to us.

When the weather gets REALLY nice we want to trace the route of the old Avoca road, on foot, if necessary.  Now that we know it was part of the River-to-River Road and the Detroit-Lincoln-Denver Road, it is even more fascinating.  Look for more discoveries ahead!