On the trail of Charles Sampson

Getting around Idaho in the teens and early 20’s of the last century was a dodgy business. No good roads existed. Anywhere. And the trails that crisscrossed the state were as often as not game trails with little or no markings.

Travelers trudging across rugged terrain, were often desperate for some type of signage–or a knowledgeable native–to point them in the right direction. Finding one’s way around Idaho’s bustling little cities was no better. Streets were rarely marked, and one was often reduced to begging direction at every new intersection.

In 1911, Boise businessman Charles B. Samson found himself in such a predicament. While making a delivery, he came to a perplexing intersection and had to ask several times for directions. Annoyed at the time it took to find his location, Sampson suggested to city leaders it would be a good idea to mark streets and intersections.

City leaders did nothing, so Sampson decided to he would take care of the task himself. He put a sign up at the troublesome intersection, and decided it was a great idea so he started putting signs up wherever he felt they were needed. Typically, the signs read: “Follow the Sampson Trail,” in bright orange outlined with black, and with an arrow pointing underneath.

Soon, Sampson had a fair bit of Boise and the surrounding area marked, and decided–as it were–to take his show on the road…er trail.

Sampson’s first extensive trail was marked in 1914. Travelers on that trail had no trouble finding their way from Boise to Emmett. He marked everything from fence posts to bridges. By 1915, Sampson extended his trails to Mountain Home, Atlanta, McCall and Weiser. With the help of six buddies, Sampson marked trails in eastern Idaho and northern Idaho by 2018.

He received hundreds of letters of appreciation from the public. For nearly two decades he marked and maintained trails. He incorporated about four thousand miles of trail in Idaho, and some in Oregon, Wyoming, and Utah. Most of the trails were marked while Sampson was on business trips or vacation, and all at his own expense.

Oregon was the first to object to Sampson’s trails. Oregon thought the markings defaced the scenery and forced Sampson to cease marking. Sometime around 1925, the state of Idaho questioned Sampson’s trails on the same grounds. But since Sampson’s signs provided such great service to the public, people weren’t about to give up his trails and public pressure kept Idaho from taking legal action.

In 1933 the state legislature finally recognized Sampson’s contribution by passing a law giving him the right of marking and maintaining the Sampson trail. In 1977, the Idaho  Transportation Department  recognized Sampson’s contribution to marking trails stating: “The frequency, clarity, and helpfulness of the thousands of miles of present-day highway markers within the communities, cities, and throughout the five-thousand mile state highway system may be, whether he bypassed the early day laws or not, attributed to the example set by Sampson and his markings in the early 1900’s”.

Today, very few of the Sampson Trail markings remain, but 18 state and federal highways, including SH71, SH75, US93, US20, US30, I84, and I86, were first marked by Charles Sampson.

There are few folks today who remember traveling the Sampson trail, regardless, his trails were a remarkable achievement, an excellent community service project, and, undeniably, a benefit to the entire Idaho community.

Note: Charles Sampson was a brilliant advertiser. He owned a music store in Boise. He painted the front of his store bright orange and orange footprints adorned the sidewalk leading to the front of his store. He had done such an extensive mapping of a trail before marking it, that people were assured his trails were the best route to any destination. But, at the end of the day, all trails led to Boise, and following the Sampson Trail  would eventually lead you to his business. Smart fellow!



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