Natchitoches dedicated a new pocket park on Friday, Oct. 2, located on Jefferson Street next to Fort St. Jean Baptiste State Historic Site. The new Jefferson Street Pocket Park was funded in part by the Natchitoches Historic District Development Commission, the City of Natchitoches and the Cane River National Heritage Area.
The Jefferson Street Park honors the Jefferson Highway, America’s first intercontinental roadway, stretching through the Louisiana Purchase Territory from Winnipeg, Canada to New Orleans, Louisiana. The interpretive signage, created by the Cane River National Heritage Area, was unveiled at the Park as part of the Dedication ceremony.
The site of the new park was once occupied by a dilapidated dry-cleaners and two other buildings. The City acquired the land and buildings and demolished the buildings. The Park was created to not only honor the Highway, but to also help protect the natural wet lands located between the Park and Ft. St. Jean Baptiste. It was a project started by Cynthia Sutton, the Cane River National Heritage Area’s (CRNHA) former director. Rebecca Blankenbaker, the CRNHA’s current Executive Director spoke to the gathered crowd about the history of the Jefferson Highway in Natchitoches.
“Every place has a story to tell,” said Blankenbaker. “If you just dig a little deeper, you can learn a lot about an area.”
She reminded the crowd that even before the Jefferson Highway came through town, Natchitoches was a destination of travelers and explorers for centuries.
Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser also spoke at the Park dedication about how the Park plays into the idea of a Louisiana Roadtrip, his plan to bring tourism back to Louisiana. He said that Louisiana has more tools in our toolbox to bring visitors back than many other areas.
Of the park, he said that the partners really “knocked it out of the park.”
The Jefferson Highway was built as a guided road for automobile travelers from 1915 to 1925. The highway is named after the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, for his role in the 1803 Louisiana Purchase.
The original conception was formed in Iowa by E.T. Meredith, a successful publisher of popular publications such as Successful Farming, Better Homes and Gardens, Ladies Home Journal, Country Life and Family Circle magazines.
The highway was advertised as ‘From Pine to Palm Highway’, a hard surfaced roadway that can be used in all weather conditions,” said Loring Miller, a member of the Jefferson Highway Association board of directors. “Hard surfaced in those days meant rock, brick, gravel, concrete, etc. Hard surfaced meant that it wasn’t mud. It was graded and surfaced in such a way so that wagons and cars wouldn’t bog down in the mud.”
The Good Roads Movement was put together to accommodate bicycle traffic, but it advanced, of course, into the automobile traffic. By early 1926, over 235,000 vehicles were registered in Louisiana alone. A large number of automobiles were being manufactured and rolling out, yet, there were few roads for these cars to travel along. This offered an opportunity to promote tourism along the Jefferson Highway route and encourage travelers to venture further from home without having to take a train.
Jefferson Highway was organized and constructed through one Canadian Province and seven states including Minnesota, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas and Louisiana. Several years later a scenic route through Arkansas added the eighth state. This was before State and Federal highway departments were formed in 1926.
Most named highways all over the United States were lost due to the implementation of the interstate roadway numbering system and the Jefferson Highway was divided into several roadway numbers. Those numbers in Louisiana include but not limited to: US Hwy 171, LA 120, La 6, US 71, LA 8, US 165, LA 10, LA 986,LA 73, LA 44, LA 48, LA942, LA 75, US 61 and US 90.
Today, the original Jefferson Highway does not exist in many areas, having been replaced or bypassed by Interstate Highways. The original Jefferson Highway became the basis for parts of the U.S. Highway System established in 1926.
The current Jefferson Highway Association was re-organized in 2011 and the Natchitoches Convention & Visitors Bureau was a founding member of the renewed organization. In 2016, Natchitoches was featured in a documentary that was produced by Josiah Laubenstein and Darrell Johnson as they traced the original route of the highway, driving from Winnipeg, Canada, in the a 1954 Dodge Royal to celebrate the highway’s 100 year anniversary. The documentary was shown at the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and Northwest Louisiana Museum in October 2016. Natchitoches welcomed the Jefferson Highway Association and many of its members in April 2019 as the Natchitoches CVB hosted the annual Jefferson Highway International Conference with more than 60 delegates from 12 states and 3 countries.