This story about Route 66 — The Mother Road home of the Madonna of the Trail — begins in St. Louis, Missouri. It was there that the National Memorial Highway, Route 40, which began in Baltimore, joined up with Route 66, coursing south from Chicago.
In 1912, the Daughters of the American Revolution commissioned German-American sculptor August Leimbach to create a dozen monuments to be placed along the National Memorial Highway, which had its founding in 1806. That was the year Thomas Jefferson signed into law an act of Congress establishing a national road connecting the Atlantic Ocean to the Ohio River. Over time, the road stretched to Utah and, after World War I, extended to San Francisco.
Between 1928 and 1929, the sculptures, named the Madonna of the Trail, were dedicated in Bethesda, Maryland; Beallsville, Pennsylvania; Wheeling, West Virginia; Springfield, Ohio; Richmond, Indiana; Vandalia, Illinois; Lexington, Missouri; Council Grove, Kansas; Lamar, Colorado; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Springerville, Arizona; and Upland, California.
Six of these sites were along U.S. 40 east of the Mississippi. The other six were on The Mother Road. You can find the Madonna of the Trail sculpture in Albuquerque’s McClellan Park, a few blocks north of Central Avenue. The park is on the northwest corner of the block comprising the Pete V. Domenici U. S. courthouse, in the corner formed by Maple Avenue and 4th Street.
What is the Madonna of the Trail?
The Madonna of the Trail features a woman in a sunbonnet and sturdy shoes. She is striding across the plains. Her infant child is in her arms and her small son clings to her long skirt as he walks alongside. There’s an inscription on the pedestal. It reads: “Into the primitive west, face upflung toward the sun. Bravely she came, her children beside her. Here she made them a home. Beautiful Pioneer Mother!”
When Leimbach accepted the commission, he decided he wanted to represent the pioneer spirit in women, whose strength and love were instrumental in their conquering the wilderness and establishing permanent homes. We’ve all heard stories of their hardship — living in sod huts, struggling to raise enough food to survive the next winter, battling Native Americans who were protecting their land from colonists, and even unscrupulous, murderous men stealing whatever they wanted. How many endured long after their husbands died from an accident or attack? How many succumbed to illness, childbirth, or were simply worn to death? Were there more numerous happy endings to their lives than tragic ones?
On accepting the challenge, Leimbach wrote, “When I was a schoolboy in the old country, the American history of the pioneer days made a deep impression on me. I thought often of those who had left the old home and all that was dear to them and had come to this country to find a field for their ambition.
“When I came to America, I often saw these people of the pioneer type, strong and brave and always ready to protect themselves against any danger. Asked to make a sketch model for a monument of a woman of pioneer days, I was inspired by my own impression of these people I had met, and the Madonna of the Trail is the result.”
President Truman Dedicates the Albuquerque Madonna
On September 27, 1928, Harry S. Truman, then president of the National Old Trails Association, dedicated Albuquerque’s Madonna. In his address, he said, “They [the women] were just as brave or braver than their men because, in many cases, they went with sad hearts and trembling bodies. They went, however, and endured every hardship that befalls a pioneer.”
The sculpture was refurbished and rededicated on its 44th anniversary in 1972. Along with its pedestal, it is 18 feet tall and weighs more than five tons. It was made of algonite, an aggregate that included warm, pink Missouri granite. The stone was ground into a slurry and poured into a waiting mold.
And so, when you find it, perhaps as the setting sun causes the stone to glow, look upon the Madonna of the Trail and marvel at her strength of character, her stamina, her faith — a fitting tribute to all the women who trekked across a continent from one ocean to another.