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The Open Roads of America: 100 Years in the Making

Article March 27, 2007
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Your typical commute in 1906 would have been far different than it is today. For starters, you would not be traveling by automobile unless you were extremely wealthy. Instead, you would have to arrive at your destination by means of railroad, ship, horse and buggy or bicycle. And rather than facing the grueling anguish of gridlock every morning, one commonly dealt with the obstacle of having to retrieve his or her bicycle or wagon from muddy roads and paths.

Paved roads were few and far between in the early 1900s, and the U.S. had barely begun to scratch the surface of what would become the navigable transportation and highway systems we are familiar with today.

From iron to mud

During the second half of the 19th century, railroads dominated the transportation industry. “There was very little choice besides railroads, and roads were considered secondary,” said author Dan McNichol.

However, a new form of transportation swept the country during the 1880s, one that would eventually lead to paved roads and automobiles: the bicycle.

The ordinary bicycle first arrived on the scene in the 1860s, with its dangerously tall front wheel and small back wheel. In the 1880s, people began to ride safety bicycles with two wheels the same size and pneumatic tires.

“The bicycle played a critical role in getting Americans out of their homes and onto the open road,” said McNichol. Bikes became a practical form of mobility; however, outside of urban areas, roads were unpaved and often dangerous for riding. With people getting out of their cities on bicycles, they began to see a need for paved roads for the first time.

The Good Roads Movement began in the 1890s in response to poor road conditions. Bike enthusiasts worked at federal, state and local levels for road improvement legislation. According to McNichol, bike riders became the first road lobbyists for government money.

The Agricultural Appropriations Bill of 1894 allotted $10,000 for a year-long study of national road conditions and road-making techniques. This study led to the creation of the Office of Road Inquiry in 1894, the first federal road agency in the U.S., and the Federal Highway Administration’s first predecessor.

The Office of Public Roads was formed in 1905, offering professional service in road construction. Agencies created out of the Good Roads Movement worked to share the best practices to improve the conditions of roads.

Automobiles began to arrive on the scene in the early 1900s, although they were only obtainable to the wealthy. It wasn’t until Henry Ford introduced his Model T in 1908 that automobiles became an affordable tool of the middle class, and bicycles were quickly becoming a memory of the past.

The first attempt of a cross-country road trip by automobile occurred in 1903, when a group of men in a San Francisco bar bet 31-year-old Dr. H. Nelson Jackson to drive his car from California to New York City in less than 90 days. After a $50 wager was set, Dr. Jackson was on the road.

With no road maps, no marked highways and in some instances, no roads at all, Dr. Jackson followed telegraph wires and Union Pacific railroad tracks and arrived in Manhattan 63 days later.

When disaster struck

The federal government performed the first national road census in 1904, exposing the pathetic state of the country’s highway system. It was revealed that only 141 miles of America’s rural roads were paved, only 18 of which were covered with a bituminous black top.

Although over 2 million miles of rural roads in America consisted of dirt and mud, many urban areas were developing sophisticated transportation systems. In 1906, San Francisco was home to electric streetcars, the Southern Pacific Railroad, well-constructed streets and a growing number of automobiles.

However, on April 19 of that same year, the city by the bay was nearly destroyed by one of the greatest earthquakes in American history. While the quake was a tragedy for the city, the response to the disaster was significant.

With the city up in flames, automobiles—particularly trucks—played a crucial role in saving the city and its victims. With horses dying of heat and exhaustion in the streets, people began to change the way they viewed trucks. Over 200 privately owned trucks and automobiles were used to transport the injured out of the city.

“That disaster was the beginning of people’s respect for [trucks],” said McNichol. “In the end, the truck was credited with saving the city from complete destruction.”

Transportation crossroad

Between 1900 and 1910, there was a 5,500% increase in motor vehicle registrations in the U.S., and paved roads were becoming a desperate necessity. The Post Office Appropriations Bill for 1913 allotted $500,000 to conduct an experimental project to improve roads on which mail was delivered. This was the first federal-aid program, and the first project completed was the Waterloo Post Road from Florence to Waterloo, Ala.

In 1914, a partnership between all of the U.S. states was formed, and the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO) was created. From this, each state began to create its own department of transportation, as they began to improve the conditions of American roads and increase pressure on the federal government to provide funding for road construction.

The onset of World War I in the late 1910s brought about a change in transportation, especially for trucks. Before the events of WWI, trucks were slow moving, made of steel, destroyed streets and were considered to be ugly in appearance. However, in 1914, American truck manufacturers began getting orders from allied nations in Europe. In the battle of Verdun, the French used over 8,000 trucks to carry ammunition and supplies to the battlefront and bring the injured back.

In the U.S., trucks needed to get from Detroit to Philadelphia in order to be sent overseas. Routes were created to link cities such as Detroit, Philadelphia and New York. The trucks also were able to carry supplies from the overloaded rail system. During WWI, the practicality and importance of trucks became obvious, as well as the significance of multiple modes of transportation. For the first time, the modern highway was viewed as an alternative to railroads and shipping channels.

Upon completion of WWI, the U.S. Army dispatched 79 vehicles, 260 enlisted men and 35 officers—including 25-year-old Lt. Col. Dwight D. Eisenhower—on a cross-country convoy to demonstrate the practicality of trucks and the need for better highways. The convoy departed from Washington, D.C., and traveled to San Francisco on the Lincoln Hwy.

The trip offered a cross-country examination of road conditions and revealed the need for improvements. “They had to cross old, pathetic wood bridges,” said McNichol. Eighty-eight bridges were destroyed by the weight of the crossing trucks on the trip.

Twenty-six years after traveling with the cross-country convoy, President Eisenhower passed legislation in 1956 to implement the greatest public-works project in U.S. history: the Interstate Highway System.

With this, every major city in America would be connected via immaculate highway constructions, and mobility within the U.S. would become limitless—a giant leap from the dirt roads and muddy paths that existed at the beginning of the century.