Route 40, the U.S. highway that spans the country with its easternmost portion stretching 64 miles across three South Jersey counties from the Delaware River to Atlantic City, is known locally as Harding Highway. However, it wasn’t the only name ever bestowed on this roadway.
In its early incarnations, beginning in 1923 in the wake of the state’s proliferation of highways after the New Jersey Highway Act of 1917, South Jersey’s portion of Route 40 went by the name of Route 18S.
According to online sources, after the establishment of the U.S. Highway system in 1926, the roadway was connected to a ferry in Penns Grove and its trajectory east of that town included much of today’s Route 40. The following year, Route 18S was renamed Route 48.
By 1938, the westernmost portion of South Jersey’s Route 40 was moved to Pennsville and its eastern stretch leading into Atlantic City was rechristened Route 55, a designation that seems to have disappeared sometime during the next decade.
In 1952, the state announced that New Jersey roads would be renumbered the following year. On December 16, 1952, the New York Times reported that New Jersey was readying 2,500 new road signs for January 1 to accommodate the renumbering.
“The change in state road numbering—the first since the system was devised in 1927—is being made because additions to both the state and United States road systems over the years have resulted in a ‘highly confusing’ pattern, according to highway engineers,” the newspaper noted.
The changes, it was reported, was an attempt to simplify the numbering system and is largely what we are familiar with today. According to the new system, “No state highway now bearing a U.S. number will carry a separate state designation. Any number now assigned to a U.S. route will not be used for a state route. Overlapping of route numbering along a single highway will be reduced to a minimum…With the exception of U.S. 9-W (a Federal route designation), no letters will appear on route markings.”
While the New York Times article provided an accompanying map, which clearly displays Route 40’s southeast trajectory from Pennsville to Atlantic City, revised roadmaps of the state available at gas stations weren’t expected to be ready until a month after the new numbering was implemented, leaving motorists to figure out the new designations on their own.
A December 28 article in the New York Times listed every change in the numbering system, including the new Route 40 designation for the former Route 48. Interestingly, Route 54 did not receive a name change while Route 56 became U.S. 30. There is no Route 55 listed among the former numbers. It would be retired for several decades before becoming the designation of a new highway that would connect Cumberland County with the shore and Philadelphia.
Technically, as the East Coast Roads website points out, Harding Highway, named after President Warren G. Harding, consists of the portion of Route 40 from Pennsville to Mays Landing, where the highway merges with Route 322. But over time, Harding Highway has come to serve as a substitute name for the entire South Jersey stretch of Route 40. And its not the only misconception.
It has been touted somehow that Route 40 is the highway connecting Atlantic City with San Francisco, something that is impossible since its westernmost point ends in Silver Summit, Utah.
And there are several other portions of Route 40 that share the title of “Harding Highway,” including President Harding’s home state of Ohio, according to the Route40.net website. Apparently, New Jersey’s choice to name a roadway Harding Highway can be traced to 1923, the year of the president’s death. We’ll examine that decision next time. n