Michigan Highways: Since 1997.

Michigan Highways website header graphic

Site History

Upon reaching a quarter century online in 2022, a history of the Michigan Highways website seemed appropriate. While the site itself debuted in 1997, its roots go back even farther.

"Michigan's Route Numbered Highways" cover, 1991The site's webmaster, Christopher Bessert, has been student of Michigan's transportation infrastructure for his entire life. An early love of trains quickly morphed into an appreciation of the roads and highways of the Great Lakes State, especially considering his parallel love of all things cartography. Chris' first listing of "every" highway in Michigan dates from about 1985 and was composed on a typewriter in his mother's middle school classroom during after school afternoons while he waited for a ride home from school. Soon after, his father got the family an Apple IIe computer and the highways listing was computerized using AppleWorks software. A printed copy of the 1990–1991 edition of that listing survives today.

Fast forward into the mid-1990s and the World Wide Web was becoming a thing. Chris had been participating in Michigan highway-related discussions on the USENET newsgroup misc.transport.road. One day, an m.t.r regular, Scott Oglesby, announced he had created an entire website dedicated to the roads and highways of his home state of Connecticut and then issued a challenge to others on the forum: Create a website for your state's roads too! Thus, in June 1997, the simple computerized listing of highways in Michigan became a website.

Michigan State Highways website header image from 1998
Since this was the nascent times of the web, the first version of the "Michigan State Highways" website was hosted... sigh... on the America Online (AOL) platform. (Earliest archived version of the site—about a year after it went online—on Archive.org, alas without any of the images.) Early on, HTML for the site was actually hand-coded in Microsoft Word and saved as plain text files. On November 24, 2002, the michiganhighways.org domain name was registered and until the following July, planning was underway to transition the site away from AOL. On July 20, 2003, the new site was "officially" unveiled to the public.

In the early years, much of the information for the website came from official highway maps and other widely-distributed sources. As time has gone on, not only has Chris acquired many original historical State Highway Dept maps and documents, some of them extremely rare, but many MDOT and other transportation professionals have contributed documents, information, and resources which have allowed the site to move ahead light years compared to where it started. Decades of painstaking research of over one hundred years' work of newspaper archives has also helped round out the information on the website.

Snippet of Mackinac County State Trunkline Determination Map, Michigan State Highway DepartmentOne particular source must be acknowledged, however. MDOT Transportation Planner Peter Hanses (now retired) had single-handedly preserved State Highway Dept "State Trunkline Determination Maps" which showed every single state highway route since 1913—several years before they were even signed! At that point, the State Archives didn't even want the maps, so he had them microfilmed to preserve the information and, in 1998, made that information available to Chris. The maps contain copious amounts of information that never made it to official highway maps or most other maps and documents published by the Department and, to date, have not been made available publicly. Without the determination maps, a good portion of the historical information about the Michigan state highway system would have simply been lost and this website would be much less complete.

In 2013, the Michigan Highways website began a new transition. Previously, its route listings consisted of ten or twenty routes per page. This quickly became very unweildy, especially as the historical information for each route began to multiply exponentially based on the additional information pouring in from all directions. The decision was made to separate every route into its own listing. In addition, the original focus of the route listings on the website was on existing highway routes, but as time went on, some routes which existed in 1997, like US-27, US-33, M-107, and Holland's BUS US-31, were decommissioned. Not wanting to lose this information, these listings were retained on the site as "Historical" or "Former" routes. However, visitors did not understand why M-107 had a listing, for example, while, say, M-23 did not. The "Michigan Highways Master List: 1913–Present" solved some of this by attempting to list every single highway route designation ever used in the state since 1913, but those former routes still needed their own listing, as there is a great deal of history related to those routes, too. While this effort began in 2013, as of 2022 it continues.

After 25 years, some road-related websites have come and gone, and while Wikipedia contains some great information, it relies too heavily on highway maps and misses much of the detail the Michigan Highways website has been able to capture based on the treasure trove of information provided by past and present transporation professionals and historical publications acquired by the webmaster. As it was on day one—and as the homemade lists were before them—the website remains an ongoing effort and will keep going for many, many more years to come!

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