Taking the long way home

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 20, 2009

By David Vitrano


LAPLACE – In the River Parishes, River Road goes by a number of names. On official state maps, it is often called Louisiana Highway 44. As it winds through the heart of LaPlace, it is known as West Fifth Street. One of its more curious monikers, however, is Jefferson Highway.

Unbeknownst to most who drive the road daily, that particular name refers to a time in the early 1900s when the road was part of an international highway running from New Orleans to Winnipeg, Canada.

Conceived in New Orleans in 1915, the Jefferson Highway was the first roadway of its kind in North America but lost some of its notoriety when it was renamed according to the standardized numbering system of highways in the 1920s.

Determined to return the Jefferson Highway to its historic status, Metairie mapmaker Mike Conlin set out with friend Gary Augustine of Prince George, British Columbia, Canada, on a journey retracing the route of the original superhighway.

The two started in Winnipeg on Nov. 1 and made a stop in LaPlace, just 30 or so miles from their final destination, on Tuesday.

According to Conlin, the original highway was pieced together out of existing roads and back alleys, and in some places, the Jefferson Highway has reverted to its original form. He said the trip took them down every type of road imaginable, from super freeways to dirt roads he would never want to drive an RV down again.

Still, he and Augustine managed to traverse about 150 miles daily, though the path was not always the clearest.

Augustine said, thanks to a GPS navigation system, “We always knew where we were.”

“But we didn’t always know where we were going,” added Conlin.

For the pair, though, the destination was not nearly as important as the actual journey itself, which was a realization of a plan they hatched while still in high school.

“Anybody can go from point A to point B,” said Augustine.

“Once you get off the main freeway, the businesses are all different,” said Conlin. He noted the unique shops one finds along the way are “just full of stuff, odd stuff you’d never see in Wal-Mart.”

Once the journey reached its conclusion at the intersection of Common Street and St. Charles Avenue in downtown New Orleans, Conlin said he planned to “kick back and not even look at the Jefferson Highway for a few days.” A round of golf or two, though, were definitely in the works.

Once he shakes off the dust from the epic road trip, however, Conlin said he will piece together all the people and places he saw along the way and create a map of the historic thoroughfare. He plans to sell the map on his Web site, www.jeffersonhighway.com.

“It’s a beauty,” he said.

Once that comes to fruition, the Jefferson Highway will be one step closer to taking its rightful place in the annals of American history.