A Treatise on Numbering Home
  Today, there seems to be little rhyme or reason to the way North Carolina numbers its highways. There's no real distinction between even-numbered and odd-numbered ones, or 2-digit and 3-digit routes, or low-numbered and high-numbered routes. But such was not the case when state highways were first numbered. A rather clever numbering system was once used -- not one terribly obvious when looking at an old map, but one that was quite logical and served the state well. Only small fragments of this system survive today. This page explains the old numbering system, and how and why it was changed.
  North Carolina's highways were probably first numbered in 1921. Early that year, the state legislature passed a watershed "Good Roads" bill, which provided $50 million to pave, construct and maintain the state's fledgling road network. Although I've never seen such a thing as a 1921 official map (it's the Holy Grail), the State Highway Commission formed as a result of the '21 bill was charged with issuing maps of the proposed road network by that summer and distributing them to the counties for comment; it is hard to imagine these maps not carrying route numbers. At the latest, numbers were assigned by March 1922: County maps with that date clearly show them.

The state's major highways were numbered as two-digit multiples of 10, like so: 

North Carolina, 1920s
    This system didn't cover all major routes, though, and conversely some stretches of the "multiple-of-10" highways weren't that important or went unpaved for many years. But generally, the multiples of 10 traversed the state from border to border, or from mountains to sea. 

Old N.C. 50 signEven among these nine highways, a system is discernible. North Carolina's most important highway at the time, the Central Highway, was given the lowest available number: N.C. 10. (The Central Highway actually dates from 1911.) The state's other major east-west route received 20. Routes 30 through 80 were assigned to north-south highways; 30 was the easternmost such route and 80 was westernmost. N.C. 60 was a "diagonal" route, but still fit into the 30-to-80 pattern well. Finally, N.C. 90 was an east-west route that didn't go through as many important cities as 10 or 20 did. 

As testimony to 10's importance, note that it's the only primary highway that touched all the others. 

The modern-day equivalents of the state's original primary highways are: 

N.C. 10: U.S. 70 east of Asheville; U.S. 19 west of Asheville 
N.C. 20: U.S. 74 east of Asheville; U.S. 70 west of Asheville 
N.C. 30: U.S. 17 
N.C. 40: U.S. 117; U.S. 301 north of Wilson 
N.C. 50: U.S. 1 
N.C. 60: U.S. 421 
N.C. 70: N.C. 41 south of Lumberton; N.C. 211 north of Lumberton; U.S. 220; U.S. 29 north of Greensboro 
N.C. 80: U.S. 52 south of Salisbury; U.S. 401 north of Salisbury 
N.C. 90: U.S. 64 

The network of primary routes was used as a base to number other highways that were still important but didn't traverse the entire state. Such roads were given 2-digit numbers, with the first digit matching that of the "parent" highway. Off route 20, for example, came N.C. 21, 22, 23... all the way up to 29. The next map shows all the two-digit spur routes emanating from the original N.C. 20. (Only 20 and its 2-digit spurs are shown.)

N.C. 20 and related routes
    Numbers were generally assigned in ascending order from east to west (for N.C. 10, 20 and 90) or from south to north (for 30 through 80) based on where the spur routes hit the parent route. This rule wasn't perfectly obeyed, though: N.C. 23 lied between 21 and 22, instead of between 22 and 24. N.C. 26 and 27 intersected each other in the center of Charlotte: 26 was Tryon Street and 27 was co-signed with 20 along Trade Street. In the late 1920s, N.C. 29 was renumbered as an extension of N.C. 69; even so, 69 still managed to touch 60 pretty far west. 

One fragment of this system that still survives today involves present N.C. 11, 16 and 18. All three of these roads cross U.S. 70 (which was originally N.C. 10); 11 crosses 70 furthest east while 18 crosses it furthest west. 

Under this system, most of the 2-digit numbers were assigned. Those that weren't mostly ended in 8 or 9, such as 38, 39, 49, 78, 79 and so on. One-digit numbers originally weren't used at all. But there were many more routes to be numbered, and that's where the 3-digit highways came in. 

Three-digit state highways were almost always short; their first two digits usually denoted one of the 2-digit routes which they touched. For example, off N.C. 27 came 271, 272, 273... et cetera. The digit 1 was used first and zero was used last; most of the original 3-digit highways ended in low nonzero digits as a result. There was often little order to the numbering, however, and in some cases (like N.C. 288 and 289), 3-digit routes didn't touch their parents at all. This map, from 1931, shows some of the spur routes from the original N.C. 28: 

N.C. 28 and spur routes 

Many of the state's original 3-digit highways survive today. Most of today's 27x routes just west of Charlotte date from this period, because they were (are) spurs from the original N.C. 27. The N.C. 281 is on the map above survives to this day as well (it also runs into South Carolina nowadays). And if you've ever wondered why N.C. 694 in Asheville and N.C. 751 in Durham have such strange numbers, it's because they were once spurs off 69 and 75, respectively. 

As a result of this scheme, North Carolina had some unusually high numbered routes. While very few states got even as high as the 300s in numbering their roads, an N.C. 897 existed as early as 1924, and N.C. 901 and 902 popped up around 1929. Such highways would have been good candidates for the title of Highest Numbered Road In The Country at the time. 

Many of the earliest modifications to this system were simple assimilations of what had been county roads. In Mecklenburg County, for example, Providence Road (today's N.C. 16) was Mecklenburg County Road 5 in 1923, but became a state highway (N.C. 261, originally) around 1929. Most of these additions were three-digit highways. Other numerical designations, such as N.C. 28 (today's U.S. 64) west of Murphy, were "waiting for the road to get built".

  By July 1930, the first single-digit highway was posted: N.C. 9, over modern Leesville Road between Durham and Raleigh. 

A host of minor renumberings occurred throughout the decade. N.C. 13, for example, had four completely different routings during the 1930s. 

As ingenious as the original system was, it didn't last too long. Almost from the start, several routes would get renumbered each year. While some of the renumberings conformed to the original numbering system, "violations" were created often. 
1933-34: The great renumbering. The implementation of the U.S. highway system in 1927 created the sticky situation of having two sets of route numbers: Every U.S. highway also had an older state designation. In a few cases roads with the same number crossed, such as N.C. 19 and U.S. 19 on the first map at right. To add to the confusion, changes were made to the early U.S. system virtually every year. Some highways, such as U.S. 64, weren't added until the early 1930s; others, such as U.S. 121, 217 and 411, lasted only a few years and then vanished. 

At first the state was apparently determined to let its original numbering system prevail or at least co-exist with the U.S. routes. On the 1930 official map, state route numbers are placed atop road alignments, whereas U.S. markers are placed to the side and shown less frequently than state numbers are. The back of the 1930 map features drawings of state markers (above) but not U.S. routes. Commercial touring guides use N.C. but not U.S. designations, implying that the state route numbers were easier to follow. 

However, by the early 1930s most states had reworked their numbering systems to accommodate the U.S. routes. North Carolina joined the fold in 1933-34. Given the maps I have, my best guess is that this process was undertaken in two steps between the end of the 1932 "touring season" and the beginning of the 1934 season. 

The first step was to remove N.C. state designations from U.S. highways. This resulted in an intermediate phase where no roads had redundant numbers, but some numbers were still used twice. The second map at right illustrates the upshot of Step I: N.C. 19 still intersected both U.S. 19E and U.S. 19W, but was no longer signed to the south along U.S. 221. (221 was rerouted at this time, which is a separate issue.) Also after the first step, N.C. 64 (still) touched U.S. 64 in Randolph County, and U.S. 15 and 501 each (still) came within two counties of their same-numbered state routes. 

The second step was to renumber the N.C. highways that used the same number as one of the state's U.S. routes. N.C. 19 became N.C. 26, as the third map shows. Apparently a few U.S. routes (52, 220, 264) were also added during this process. 

As a result of the great renumbering, some numbers, such as 19, 23 and 70, would never again be used for state (diamond) highways. Other highways such as 20, 26 and 50, whose alignments became part of the U.S. system, were re-used on other roads. Some of the original primary highway numbers, such as 10, 40 and 80, managed to survive, but only as short fragments of what they had been.  It was also at this time that many one-digit numbers were first used; N.C. 2, 3 and 7, for example, date from this period. 

1932 Gousha map 
Original scheme 
1932 Gousha map 

1933 General Drafting map 
After Step I 
1933 General Drafting map 

1935 Gousha map 
After Step II 
1935 Gousha map
Even after the great renumbering of 1934, the U.S. highway system continued to mutate throughout the decade. It stabilized by 1938, however, and would see no major changes until the early 1950s. In fact no U.S. highway in North Carolina has been decommissioned or significantly shortened since the 1930s: every big change to the U.S. system since then has involved either the introduction of a new route or the lengthening of an existing route. 

1937: The South Carolina renumbering. Around 1937, and definitely by 1938, several highways that crossed between North and South Carolina were renumbered so that the roads kept the same number in both states. Most of the renumbering took place in S.C., but a few N.C. routes were renumbered, too. Modern-day N.C. 9, 161 and 904, for example, date from this period. In some cases the South Carolina renumbering (as well as the Virginia Renumbering later on) had a twofold effect: some numbers were appropriated from intrastate highways, which themselves now had to be renumbered.

  1940: The Virginia renumbering. Around 1940, a minor renumbering was undertaken with state highways that crossed into Virginia. The concept was similar to that behind the earlier South Carolina renumbering. Many of North Carolina's current state highways that cross into Virginia, such as 93, 104, 103, 8, 96 and 35 (that list runs west to east), date from this era. This was a collaborative effort; in some cases Virginia renumbered its roads to conform to existing North Carolina routes. For example, Virginia renumbered its old 96 to 89 to match N.C. 89, which was not changed. 

There never was a "Tennessee Renumbering", as anyone who looks at a map can attest. 

N.C. 264 and U.S. 264Later in the decade sprouted the only known example in the last 60-plus years of a state highway that used the same number as a U.S. highway: N.C. 264. N.C. 264 was an extension of U.S. 264 from Zebulon (Wake County) northwest to Durham. Perhaps N.C. 264 was a planned extension of U.S. 264. In any event, 264 ends in Raleigh today, and old N.C. 264 is now numbered as N.C. 98 and 96. 

By the end of the decade, bypasses of many U.S. highways started to get built around larger towns. Older routes were given Business or Alternate designations. This activity increased in the 1950s and 1960s. 

  Around 1951, two more U.S. highways arrived in North Carolina: U.S. 13 and 441. In 1957, U.S. 401 appeared as well. These U.S. highways superseded the older state highways they were signed over. 

A few other U.S. routes got minor reroutings: U.S. 64 was extended all the way to the Outer Banks, superseding part of U.S. 158; U.S. 23 near the Tennessee line was re-routed from U.S. 19W onto what had been N.C. 36; a bunch of stuff was changed in the Triangle area. 

1959: The Interstate renumbering. Late in the decade, construction started on the Interstate System. Existing state highways that used numbers of planned Interstates were renumbered around 1959 as follows: 

N.C. 26 became N.C. 226 
N.C. 40 became N.C. 133 
(There were two different N.C. 40s in the 1950s; the earlier one became part of N.C. 27) 
N.C. 77 became N.C. 177 
N.C. 85 became N.C. 145 
N.C. 95 became N.C. 97 

1960s- 1980s
  The emphasis turned to building the Interstates, so little was done to the state highway network. Once the freeways started appearing, the back roads became irrelevant by comparison -- who cares how they're numbered? Still, a few notable changes took place. The most noteworthy one involved N.C. 12, which moved from the mainland to the Outer Banks around 1962. 

Over the years, some new state highways were created. They were mostly assigned numbers in sequential order in the 130s and 140s; most lower numbers were already in use but many numbers in this range were still available. New assigned numbers outside this range, such as 163 and 179, were still in the 100s. The days of having an excuse to use 695 and 897 were long gone (but this would change). 

Around 1980, N.C. 277 and N.C. 195 were renumbered to accommodate similarly-numbered Interstates (I-195 was in Virginia and N.C. 195 became Virginia 195). 277 became 279, and 195 became 186. Interstate 240 in Asheville also was opened around the same time, but there never was an N.C. 240 to worry about. 

The Durham Freeway, which dates from the early 1970s but went unnumbered for years, was numbered as N.C. 147 around 1986. 

  More tweaks: The extension of U.S. 74 into Tennessee; the Tarboro Renumbering of 1994, which eliminated N.C. 44 and extended other routes; the renumbering and "denumbering" of part of U.S. 321 to N.C. 155 and back; the extension of N.C. 143 along the new Cherohala Skyway in 1996. 

Interstates 440, 485 and 540 were first signed and 640 was proposed; none of these numbers conflicted with those of any state highways. 

Interstates 73 and 74 first appeared in the state in 1997. This has resulted in the evolving issue of what to do with the existing N.C. 73 and U.S. 74. The guess here is that N.C. 73 will be renumbered, perhaps to still-unused 173, but U.S. 74 will stay. Renumbering U.S. 74 at this point would be a major undertaking. The 73/74 construction spawned a "ghost" highway with a weird-looking, but logical, number: N.C. 752. 752 was what I-74 in the Mount Airy area was called until early 1999. The choice of 752 probably came from an amalgam of the two highways (77 and 52) 74 was planned to connect. 

Another recent proceeding is the mid-1998 assignment of N.C. 225 along the U.S. 25/I-26 connector and Old U.S. 25 south of Hendersonville. The choice of number is again clever ("To 25" = 225); perhaps it indicates that other unnumbered freeway "connectors" in the state will be designated soon.

  74 is the only number that's been used for all three classes of routes (Interstate, U.S. and state). Other numbering facts: The lowest number that has never been used for any kind of highway in the state is probably 139. There's never been an N.C. 1 either, but of course there is U.S. 1. Below 139, the only numbers that aren't used for anything today are 31, 36 and 44. Several different highway numbers have had three mutually exclusive routings over time, but defunct N.C. 13 is probably the only state highway with four, and when U.S. 13 is counted, 13 is the only number that's been used on five different roads. 

For math geeks. Among current routes, the highest perfect squares are U.S. 441 and N.C. 400. The highest intersection of perfect-square routes is that of U.S. 64 and 441, in Franklin. 64 and 400 intersect too, in Manteo. The highest perfect-cube route is N.C. 343 (but there once was an N.C. 512). The highest power of 2 is N.C. 128, and the highest number in the Fibonacci sequence is N.C. 610 (some lower numbers are missing). A stretch of U.S. 301 is co-signed with N.C. 903; the GCF of 301 (301*3 = 903) is believed to be the second-highest among multiplexed routes in the country. The highest intersection of consecutive numbers is that of N.C. 904 and 905, which are the two highest numbers that have ever been used. 

In the near future, numbers must be decided upon for beltways around Greensboro and Winston-Salem. Apparently the state has settled on I-840 for the Greensboro beltway, but this leaves no even-numbered x40s to use around W-S: 240 and 440 have been taken and 640 is reserved. However these roads will be numbered, it illustrates aptly what has happened with highway numbering in North Carolina: a statewide system has long been abandoned in favor of solving numbering issues one by one as they pop up. 


Last Update: 15 January 2001

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