From the Vaults: American Roads
Among the many topics covered by Simon Winchester in his book The Men Who United the States (2013, Harper-Perennial Books), one that fascinated me a lot was the history of American roads. Winchester notes that at the turn of the nineteenth century, 96 percent of travel in America was done by railroad (another interesting segment of his book). As the country made the transition to becoming an automobile dependent society, passenger rail service declined and a period of historic road building began. Perhaps we have grown so used to the endless ribbons of highway we travel, we have forgotten that much of our current network of roads and highways only came together over the last seventy years.
The short version of this tale is summarized by Winchester’s statement, “The story of most early American roads is much the same: [The earliest trails were made] first by the Native Americans, [and then taken over by] the soldiers, then the mails, then settlers, then commerce, and finally something approaching permanence. By the middle of the eighteenth century, a network of such trails, all of them dirt, few of them maintained, and nearly all of them notoriously difficult to travel along, knitted the entire eastern half of the nation loosely together. They allowed for the slow, halting, and unsure passage of men and horses, Conestoga wagons, and buffalo carts.” The haphazard nature of road building persisted until Lewis and Clark returned from the Pacific Northwest and president Thomas Jefferson brought the resources of the federal government to bear. Jefferson’s dream of at least one highway stretching from coast to coast began to take shape in the east at Cumberland, Maryland and by the time the first 600 miles had been constructed, it had come to be called the United States National Road.
The actual grunt work clearing trees and grubbing stumps started in May 1811 and four more presidents would occupy the White House by the time the last load of gravel was rolled in Vandalia, Illinois twenty-eight years later. The War Department took a keen interest in the construction of an enduring road that would allow troops to be sent across the land with great speed. The generals in charge encouraged the contractors to incorporate new ideas in road construction put forth by Scotsman John McAdam in a book he published in 1816. McAdam tossed the cardinal rule of road building out (which held that roads should be made with big slabs of rock) in favor of compacting a two inch layer of smaller stones on top of a layer of slightly larger stones. McAdam decreed the pressure from the four inch wide wagon wheels passing over the surface would be enough to crush them together with no need for any other binder like cement. If this sounds like McAdam is the patron saint of macadam roads, then you get the picture. With federal assistance now tied to building lasting roads and McAdam’s playbook in hand, the pattern of road construction was cast for decades to come. Improvements in the process would be made as manual labor gave way to mechanized earth movers, but a true ‘national road system’ was still in the distant future.
By the end of World War I, there were nearly three million miles of public roads in use in the United States with only one tenth, or about 369,000 miles, of them paved. As Winchester says, “America’s roads were at the time a national disgrace, but there were plenty of them.” With the rise of the new fangled horseless carriage, groups of enthusiastic car drivers began clamoring for some sort of proper federally funded roads plan. As with the earlier United States National Road, the War Department helped move things along. War game scenarios concerning an attack, say on the west coast, had the generals asking pertinent questions like, “How long would it take to mobilize a big battle force and get them to the other side of the country?” A young Major named Dwight Eisenhower heard table talk about a possible cross country trip to test whether such a mass troop movement could be accomplished by road instead of by rail. He was intrigued and volunteered to accompany the proposed expedition as an observer ‘just for a lark.’
A three mile long column of military vehicles gathered at a granite monument on the South Lawn of the White House. It consisted of seventy-nine vehicles: Thirty-four heavy trucks, oil and water pumpers, a mobile blacksmith shop, a Caterpillar tractor, staff observation cars, searchlight carriers, kitchen trailers, a mobile hospital and other wheeled tag-a-longs like trailers. By the time the convoy reached Lincoln Park in San Francisco, nine vehicles had been wrecked and 237 of the original 258 original soldiers, 24 officers, and 15 observers were left. West of Missouri, the roads were basically nonexistent until they reached California. It had taken them sixty-two days to make the crossing and had they actually met an enemy along the way, more than likely they would not have claimed victory in any battles that may have been fought. The U.S. Army Transcontinental Convoy of 1919 left an indelible impression on Major Eisenhower. They had crossed 3,251 miles of the country at an average speed of 5.6 miles per hour. Ike decided then and there this was a project that had to be tackled sooner rather than later and in his mind, the first seeds of the interstate highway system were planted. It would not be advanced significantly until Eisenhower became the president. Today, the project (formally named Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways) is now complete (more or less).
Like any major infrastructure project, ‘complete’ means ‘in place’ with constant upgrades, improvements, and reconstructions being the rule of the day. Just before this article was started, President Biden gave a speech in Pennsylvania about America’s need to upgrade its infrastructure. Ironically, his talk in Pittsburgh took place not too far from the Fern Hollow highway bridge that collapsed without warning on January 28, 2022. With that kind of exclamation point to add to his proposed plan, the collapse illustrates how desperately the United States needs to invest in our national assets like bridges, highways, dams, electrical grid, and railroads. It is hard to fathom those who are fighting the legislation proposed to deal with our crumbling infrastructure. When a vital piece of legislation is deemed ‘too expensive’, the nickel squeezers in congress are placing an extremely low price tag on the lives of their constituents.
The idea for the Interstate Highway System may have been Ike’s, but we have Thomas MacDonald to thank for making it a reality a quarter of a century after Ike’s epiphany. MacDonald (1881-1957) was born in Leadville, Colorado. Leadville is probably one of the best known frontier towns as it was here that Oscar Wilde noticed a sign in a bar where he was giving a lecture that said, “Please do not shoot the pianist. He is doing his best.” MacDonald’s interest in roads came early after his family relocated to Iowa and he observed his father fighting to deliver lumber or corn to the Minneapolis & St. Louis railway station over roads that could only be described as ‘quagmires’ during certain seasons. He vowed early in life to “learn the craft of building highways” which would in due time give him the skills to lay the groundwork for the Interstate Highway System.
As bicycles improved and the newfangled horseless carriages evolved, large segments of the American population began demanding better roads. It did one little good to have the freedom afforded by a set of wheels if there were no usable roads to travel. In 1894, the American government decided it was time to help farmers like Mr. MacDonald ‘out of the mud’. With a modest $10,000 allocation, Congress created the Office of Road Inquiry, the first proper office and staff dedicated to improving roads and road construction. According to Winchester, they used their office to jump-start the process in a most imaginative way: “They assembled a number of trains; filled each with engineers and road-building equipment; sent them out to small, isolated towns throughout the country; and built small half-mile-long sample roads for demonstration. They were known as object-lesson roads or seed roads, examples of what could and should be done. The results were predictable. Scores of local people would bring their bicycles or cars or farm trucks and would bump along through the ruts and mud pools until they reached the edge of the newly built seed road – and then sailed serenely across something that suddenly felt as smooth as velvet, as easy to ride along as if it had been made of glass.”
Upon his graduation from farm school in Iowa, Mr. MacDonald’s (no one was allowed to call him by his surname, not even his wife. He was also okay with being called ‘Chief’), interest and talents in road building got him handpicked to run a commission to study that state’s roads. As he advanced the cause of good roads in Iowa, he came to the attention of those funding the expanded ORI, now known as the Bureau of Public Roads. The Bureau was still attached to the Department of Agriculture and the two lackluster ‘time servers’ in charge had failed to spend its $75 million budget, managing to build only twenty miles of new roads in the whole country. This was pale progress compared to the five hundred miles of paved road MacDonald had overseen in Iowa.
Thomas Harris MacDonald took the reins in 1919 and held the post for the next thirty-four years. Winchester describes him as an, “Iron-willed curmudgeonly martinet and ‘The Chief’ wielded unprecedented influence with the seven presidents he served while supervising the creation of the nation’s present highway system.” If the 3.5 million miles of roads built under his authority weren’t enough, he also oversaw the building of the Alaska Highway. MacDonald explained his goal of building smooth, well drained roads as follows: “We will be able to drive out of any county seat in the United States at thirty-five miles per hour and drive into any other county seat – and never crack a spring.”
One may not think much about the way highway numbers are assigned, but the system proposed by The Chief was, as Winchester describes it, “Elegantly simple: North-south federal roads would have odd numbers; east-west, even. All signs on these roads would be the same: a plain white shield edged with black and painted with a black route number. The lowest odd number, Route 1, would be on the East Coast, the highest would be Route 101, now the maddeningly congested commuter corridor in California. (note: Having been on the 101 in Los Angeles many times, I can personally vouch for this last statement) So far as the east-west ocean-to-ocean routes were concerned, Route 2 was in the north and Route 90 down near the Mexican border. Roads ending in the number 5 were major routes, as were those ending in zero, routes 30 and 40 becoming of legendary importance (note: Winchester does not explain why).”
The Great Diagonal Way running from Chicago to Los Angeles would become one of the most fabled of the numbered routes. MacDonald’s system would have assigned Route 62 to the highway crossing their state, but the residents of Kentucky wanted the more important sounding ‘Route 60’. Route 60 had already been assigned to the GDW causing a major drama in the Bluegrass State. When one of MacDonald’s engineers in Oklahoma remembered that route #66 was still available, the Great Diagonal Way was reassigned Route 66 and Kentucky claimed their coveted Route 60. I can not say I know much about the highways crossing Kentucky, but I can state without a doubt there was never a popular show with a catchy theme song called Route 60. Perhaps you need to be of a certain age to remember ‘get your kicks on Route 66’, but even today there are a lot of nostalgia seekers who choose to travel Route 66….just for kicks. It is a ghost of its former self (“now a relic, ill repaired, half broken, and much diverted”) but the lore lives on.
Think about the genius of MacDonald’s numbering conventions the next time you point your vehicle south from Ontonagon on US 45. At the head of River Street, there is a large wooden historical marker pointing out the beginning and end of this oft traveled route. Just south of Watersmeet, US 45 crosses US 2 and if one takes a right turn, they can follow this route all the way to the Pacific Ocean in Washington state (and a lovely drive it is, I am told).
Near the end of the Depression, The Chief was summoned to Washington to meet with the fifth president he was to serve. President Roosevelt had always been a staunch supporter of MacDonald’s work but in 1937, the president was worried that the road system would not be able to cope with the ‘exponentially increasing number of vehicles’ plying the American highways. Roosevelt drew six heavy lines across a large map (three running north-south and three running east-west although he later added two more north-south lines). He told MacDonald these eight roads ‘would be wide divided highways with limited access and without any intersections or stop lights, which would enable vehicles to travel for hundreds of miles at the highest speeds’. The ‘where’ and ‘how much’ questions were put in The Chief’s hands and ‘the effects’ would not be known until much later.
World War II and much squabbling about plans and budgets would push the start of construction back twenty years. Ike may have been the first to recognize the need in 1919 (and many attribute the Interstate Highway System to him), but the vastly improved system laid out in 1937 had nothing to do with Ike. Okay, that is not entirely true because Ike would eventually sign the Federal-Aid Highway Act in June of 1956 to launch the modern era of freeway building and construction that did (finally) begin in earnest during his presidency.
MacDonald and Roosevelt disagreed on many parts of the plan: FDR wanted to pay for them with tolls, The Chief wanted a gas tax. MacDonald did not think it was worth it to build these vast roadways across sparsely populated areas, but Roosevelt insisted they would (and did) provide work for local men and stimulate the local economies coming out of the Depression. Neither saw some of the sociological effects these massive building projects would bring. Recent studies have shown the razing of poor urban areas to make way for new freeways had caused social upheavals by splitting ethnic communities in half or relocating them completely. It is good to see some of these ills are now being addressed as newer upgrades in the Interstate Highway System are being planned to not only avoid these practices, but to also reunite some of these severed communities.
My folks told me I was too young to remember when some of the highways we traveled in Upper Michigan were still unpaved. What I do remember, however, is being fascinated every time we went somewhere and got ‘stuck’ in a construction zone. Most folks hate being stopped by a flag-man or automated stop light at a construction zone, but I still enjoy seeing a new segment of highway being created. If the delay irritates you, think about traveling across the country at an average speed of 5.6 MPH like Ike did.
Top Piece Video: If there is a more iconic song about roads, I can’t put a title to it – Thanks Willie!