While exploring along the old US 99 highway route you might be surprised to come upon an historical marker labeling this road “The Jefferson Davis Highway”. A curious and little known concurrence: one could wonder why the president of the Confederacy was so honored way out west.
The origins of the Jefferson Davis Highway date back to the “named highway” era of the early 20th century. This was a time when private organizations were designating roads right and left as official “highways” in their efforts to promote a particular agenda, be it commercial or altruistic. These named highways eventually totaled around 250 with a number of them transcontinental, although a good many were “highways” on paper only. The best of them had their routes mapped and marked with their chosen color scheme and logo on poles, rocks and fences as they were promoted nationally.
Soon after plans for the transcontinental Lincoln Highway (which became one of the most successful “auto trails") were announced in 1912, the southern ladies of the United Daughters of the Confederacy countered with a plan of their own for a southern “coast to coast rock highway” to honor their president.
The women started out slow but fought hard for the legitimacy of their road. After 1926 promoting their “trail” was a tougher battle. Once highways were brought under the umbrella of state and federal governments and were given their numbers it was more difficult to hang onto the names, especially in “foreign” territory so far from the source of the inspiration. The backers of the Jefferson Davis Highway had petitioned, as had other trail organizations, to be given just a single highway number for their route so that it wouldn’t be divied up between several of the new US Highways. They were unsuccessful. Chief McDonald of the US Bureau of Public Roads had been appealed to “in the name of one hundred thousand Daughters of the Confederacy.”
Besides, the Jefferson Davis Highway promoters were hampered in their quest for official recognition by a confusing route that included assorted loops and spurs and changing termini. Out west, the stated route at one time followed “Highway 99 from San Diego to San Francisco”, but of course 99 did not touch either of these cities! In the east, the highway never quite made it to Washington DC as it was supposed to due to a blocked bill in the House of Representatives, although a marker was placed across the Potomac in Alexandria, VA.
In the far west a few Jefferson Davis Highway monuments are scattered around although the highway was never officially recognized by the state of California. The first monument (coming from the east) is found at a rest area on I-8 soon after entering the state from Arizona. The next, at Horton Plaza in San Diego is a 1956 brass plaque (replacing one from1926) set in red tile pavement marking the first western terminus of the highway. A marker placed in 1942 on Highway 99 in Lebec was moved to Ft. Tejon State Park in 1956. The Bakersfield monument was moved off of Highway 99 and to the Kern County Museum (actually, on the edge of an obscure employee parking lot) some time after 1968. Lastly, at the most northern I-5 off ramp (Exit 796) in California at Hilt sits a large boulder with yet another plaque. This one was placed in 1944 and moved a short distance when freeway construction covered old 99 in about 1970.
No markers were placed in Oregon, leaving quite a gap in the “continuous” highway. But in the state of Washington the UDC in 1939 erected twin stone monuments at either end of the state of Washington on Highway 99 with the blessing of state highway officials. Several decades later the southern marker in Vancouver was removed from its spot at the state line and, after some animated public hearings was erected on the grounds of the Carnegie Library, now the Clark County Historical Museum. The presence of the monument was ever controversial and it was removed in 2006. However, the marker eventually was given a new permanent home, a small park (Jefferson Davis Park) a few miles north in Ridgefield, WA, right on the edge of the interstate on a short remnant stretch of old 99. A group called the Sons of Confederate Vererans spearheaded the move.
Up at the Canadian border in Blaine one wonders why the monument within feet of the imposing Peach Arch went unnoticed for so long. In 2002 State Representative Dunshee from Snohomish was aghast when he discovered it. Dunshee proposed renaming the highway the William P. Stewart Memorial Highway after a Washington state African-American who fought for the Union in the Civil War, and threatened to “rip out” the monument himself. The Blaine monument was removed and, after being stored for a few years, was transported south to the Ridgefield park and erected near to its "twin" in 2008.
It seems that those of us with no southern ties or sympathies could find a road (or anything at all) honoring the President of the Confederacy hard to swallow. Yet Davis did have a strong connection to roads in the west, even though calling him “Father of National Highways” (as does the Bakersfield monument) is a stretch. Before the Civil War Davis had a long governmental career as a congressman, senator, secretary of war and presidential advisor. In all of these capacities he exhibited a strong interest in “opening up” the west, which included securing funding for and directing surveys of wagon roads and railroads. He also proposed the use of camels by the army in the Southwest. His Egyptian and Turkish camels tread a path from Texas to California in an experiment that had mixed results and ended with the Civil War. The marker in Lebec marks the end of the "camel trail".
In a way, the Jefferson Davis Highway was always more of a concept than an actual road. The routing doesn’t seem to have been firmly established, some states officially recognized the road while other states and the federal government did not. Nevertheless, monuments went up, although to little effect out west where “US Highway 99” was already firmly entrenched by 1930. Yet to this day the UDC still promotes the highway and keeps tabs on their markers. However, it would seem that “The Jefferson Davis Highway” as an entity has never quite jelled.