Highway System

views updated

Highway System

In the mid-1950s, at a time when Detroit automobile manufacturers sold 7.92 million cars in one year and 70 percent of American families owned automobiles, the American road system was still noted for its inadequacies. No four-lane highways existed, except for the eastern toll roads, and expressways were to be found only in the nation's cities. President Dwight Eisenhower, who once made the trip from coast to coast along the nation's roads, was well aware of the problems and became the originator of the interstate highway system. Building a national highway system was more expensive and elaborate than most New Deal programs. In addition, the highway system shifted economic power to the Sunbelt, bypassing the main streets and roadside towns that had been travel waystations, and homogenizing American roadside culture. By making longer commutes possible, the highways changed how many of us worked.

Americans have had a long fascination with transcontinental travel and with linking both coasts by roads. The first continental crossing by automobile was made in 1903 by physician H. Nelson Jackson, who drove from San Francisco to New York in 65 days. As early as 1911, legislation was introduced in Congress calling for seven national highways, one of which was to be transcontinental.

Traveled Americans at this time were often more familiar with Europe than with their own country. New York socialite Emily Post's 1915 cross-country automobile trip illustrates how little faith Americans had in the transcontinental road system. When Post asked a well-traveled friend the best road to take across the country, she replied, "the Union Pacific (Railroad)." Her friend greeted Post's intentions with incredulity:

Once you get beyond the Mississippi the roads are trails of mud and sand…. Tell me, where do you think you are going to stop? These are not towns; they are only names on a map, or at best two shacks and a saloon! This place North Platte why, you couldn't stay in a place like that!

Post's friend might seem to be the quintessential ethnocentric Manhattanite, but her concern was not misplaced. Most of the improved roads early in the century were centered around cities. Often, "improvement" merely meant that the road was graded; there was no asphalt or concrete, and brick and gravel roads were scarce. If the rain did not make roads impassable for motorists, a trip during dry weather was bumpy and dusty.

After the formation of the Lincoln Highway Association in 1913, the first coast-to-coast highway was completed by 1915, running from San Francisco to New York, at a cost of $10 million. Sensing the commercial importance of a continuous route, towns and cities in between the coasts competed to have the highway run through their towns. Known as "America's Main Street," the Lincoln Highway "was the last, great nineteenth-century trail," Lyell Henry, Iowa City historian and Mount Mercy College professor, told writer Dave Rasdal. "In the early days, automobile routes were called trails. The Lincoln does overlap a considerable amount of the Oregon Trail." Now, a sixty to ninety day transcontinental automobile trip had been cut to twenty to thirty days. Despite the improvements, the two-lane routes, with their low speed limits and stop-start traffic, hampered the trucking industry.

By the 1930s, road travel was further eased by the completion of long-span bridges like the San Francisco Bay Bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Mark Twain Bridge which spanned the Mississippi at Hannibal, Missouri. Popular tourist attractions, like the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, accelerated tourism in the late 1920s.

Before the 43,000 mile interstate system was created, the toll roads had been the first major development in the highway system. The Pennsylvania Turnpike, the nation's first toll road, was "the first long-distance, high-speed, limited-access, four-lane divided road—the direct conceptual predecessor of the interstate system," writes Dan Cupper in American Heritage. The Lincoln Highway (U.S. Route 30) and the William Penn Highway (Route 22), may have provided continuous routes, but such narrow two-lane roads were a nightmare to drive, especially in rough terrain like the Allegheny Mountains of western Pennsylvania. During winter, the narrow roads' sharp curves and steep grades made travel so treacherous that trucking companies rerouted their shipping hundreds of miles to avoid trouble spots.

When the Pennsylvania Turnpike opened in 1940, only 11,070 out of 3 million miles of roadway were wider than two lanes. But turnpike engineer Charles M. Noble wrote in Civil Engineering in 1940 that the days when roadways were challenges to be surmounted by motorists were coming to an end:

Every effort has been directed towards securing uniform and consistent operating conditions for the motorist….[T]he design was attacked from the viewpoint of motorcar operation and the human frailty of the driver, rather than from the difficulty of the terrain and methods of construction.

On opening day, a sunny October 6, 1940, motorists waited up to four hours to enter the turnpike and join the new accessible automotive experience.

After decades of false starts by Congress on the issue of highway development, Eisenhower began the first moves towards a national highway system in 1954. Like many other Americans who fought in Europe during World War II, Eisenhower was impressed by Hitler's autobahns, Germany's modern and broad four-lane highway system. In addition, Eisenhower sought a national transport system that could facilitate military movement or evacuation from the cold war threat of nuclear attack. This need was underscored by the Formosa Straits crisis of 1955, in which tensions rose between the U.S. and China over the perceived threat to Taiwan by the mainland communists. More than any real danger of military conflict with China, the incident raised concerns about America's ability to evacuate cities like Washington, D.C.

Eisenhower knew the hardships of road travel from personal experience. In 1919, as a lieutenant-colonel, Eisenhower joined an army truck convoy on a cross-country trip to test Army vehicles. Traveling mostly along the Lincoln Highway, from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco, the convoy contained almost 300 men and took 56 days. Eisenhower's biographer, Stephen Ambrose, describes Eisenhower's experience as "a lark. He camped out for the entire summer … went hunting and fishing, played practical jokes and poker, and thoroughly enjoyed himself." However, the trip also impressed upon the future president just how "miserable the American road network was—the convoy hardly averaged five miles per hour."

Eisenhower's goal to improve the nation's roads faced many of the same obstructions as road builders of the prior two decades. One of the constant factors had been federal/state disputes over who pays for construction. As Phil Patton, the author of Open Road: A Celebration of the American Highway, argues, "the whole phylogeny of federal-state relations is recapitulated in the ontogeny of every interstate." Once the project was underway, Eisenhower soon discovered that it would not be easy to realize his vision. The high price of urban land acquisition drove costs higher, and construction stalled as funding methods were debated. Eisenhower, writes Ambrose, "envisioned a road network that would link all U.S. cities with populations of 50,000 or more with defense installations." He also felt that the main part of the system would be composed of farm-to-city routes, with highways that traveled around the cities, rather than through them. In order to sway Congressional votes for the 1956 Interstate Highway Bill, the administration negotiated a large share of expenditures for big cities which largely opposed the bill. Foreseeing how "very wasteful (it is) to have an average of just over one man per $3,000 car driving into the central area and taking all the space required to park the car," Eisenhower once considered a tax on city-bound automobiles, but soon abandoned the idea. Another aspect of the president's vision failed to materialize: he did not want to see billboards along the new highways.

Regardless of the obstacles and imperfections, the effects of the new highway system were enormous. Economic power shifted away from the small towns that the old routes passed through as new sectors of the economy grew around the beltways. City freeways changed the patterns of urban life as entire neighborhoods were sacrificed, and highways facilitated the spread of the suburbs that created a middle-class exodus from the city limits. The era of building the system ended around 1969 as a backlash emerged against tearing down entire city neighborhoods for highways. Money was diverted towards mass transit, and Congress slowed funds for maintaining the highway system.

The man who shared Eisenhower's vision, Francis Turner, the secretary to the committee that was charged with implementing the highway system, found himself caught in the backlash just as he became the head of the Federal Highway Administration. Turner had shared Eisenhower's vision of the farm-to-city routes. "Having conquered mountain ranges, rivers, and swamps," writes Patton, "they were being stopped by human forces. Soon no mayor could support a downtown interstate." Turner derided mass transit, commonly referred to as "rapid transit"; Turner called it "rabbit transit." "If you like waiting for elevators," Patton quotes Turner as saying, "you'll love rabbit transit."

If the Eisenhower administration was unconcerned with the project's social effects, others, argues American Heritage contributor Lawrence Block, decried the changes in roadside culture, citing the highway system as a homogenizing factor:

When you drove across the country in 1954, bouncing along on bad roads, risking ptomaine in dubious diners, holing up nights in roadside cabins and tourist courts, you were rewarded with a constant change of scene that amounted to more than a change of landscape. There were no chain restaurants, no franchised muffler-repair shops, and even brands of beer and gasoline were apt to change when you crossed a couple of state lines.

Once the national highway system was built, writes Drake Hokanson in The Lincoln Highway, it became possible to "cross the entire state of Wyoming and never smell sagebrush," instead to enjoy a "great franchised monoculture that extends from sea to sea."

These lamentations for the changes along the road might be labelled as mere nostalgia, if it were not for the overwhelming role that the road and road travel has played within American culture. As early as the nineteenth century, Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America recognized the restlessness in our national character:

If at the end of the year of unremitting labor [the American] finds he has a few day's vacation, his eager curiosity whirls him over the vast extent of the United States, and he will travel fifteen hundred miles in a few days to shake off his happiness.

"O public road," serenaded Walt Whitman in 1856, "You express me better than I can express myself." John Steinbeck portrayed the road as symbolic of the Okie's search for prosperity during the depression-era migration to California in The Grapes of Wrath (1939). The modern myth of the road is contained in the works of Jack Kerouac, especially On the Road (1957), as a place to find the real America as well as a forum for self-discovery.

The sense of adventure afforded by the new roadways was popularized in the media by productions like the television show Route 66 (1960-1964). Named after the highway that ran through the American southwest, Route 66 featured two young drifters who traveled the road in their Corvette. True to the myth of hitting the road to discover America, the TV heroes traveled through small towns and cities, encountering outcasts and dreamers in an existential drama. Kerouac's beatnik vision was converted for mainstream palatability, putting a stamp of approval upon "the search for America."

Of course, not all Americans lamented the passing of the highway system of old. On the new highways, long-haul truckers and travellers now found it possible to drive from one coast the other in less than a week. Many regarded the new roadways as technological marvels. Cloverleaf intersections, in which two highways interchange through a series of entrance and exit ramps that resembled the shape of a four-leaf clover, were one such marvel. In the era of the Sputnik launch, even highways were associated with the Space Age by being called "roads to the future." Early postcards of highways depicting tunnels and cloverleaves, with the legend "America's Super Highway," portray the sort of regard for highways that would seem inconceivable in later years.

The changes to American life and the benefits provided by the interstates are now so largely taken for granted that they exist below the level of consciousness. Because the highways have become so much a part of the landscape, these changes were seldom felt, although they can be easily measured. In 1994, for instance, the average motorist traveled about 3,000 miles a year on the interstate system. The number of accidents per year remained more or less constant prior to, and after, the construction of the interstates; however, the number of vehicles tripled between the 1950s and 1990s.

The mythic qualities of the road are connected to regaining the sense of discovery embodied by the pioneers. Several car models were named after explorers: DeSoto, Cadillac, Hudson. The frontier sense of car travel did not seek to compare itself to the hardships felt by the pioneers, but to the sense of adventure one gained in discovering one's own land. These qualities were manifested by strange people, places, and food, the threat of speed traps, wrong turns, or the backwoods sheriff who could turn a minor road violation into a night in jail. In this analogy, the highways acted as the settlement, and fears of the unknown were mitigated by roadside tourist attractions, familiar brand-name advertising, and restaurant and hotel chains. In a decade that many Americans look back upon as dull and sterile, the "frontier" was being tamed for a second time.

—Daryl Umberger

Further Reading:

Ambrose, Stephen E. Eisenhower: Soldier, General of the Army, President-Elect, 1890-1952. Vol. 1. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1983.

——. Eisenhower: The President. Vol. 2. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1984.

Block, Lawrence. "How Have We Changed?" American Heritage. December 1994, 62.

Cupper, Dan. "The Road to the Future." American Heritage. May/June 1990, 102-11.

Hokanson, Drake. The Lincoln Highway: Main Street Across America. Iowa City, Iowa University Press, 1988.

Kammen, Michael G. Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1991.

Lockridge, Deborah, and Jack Roberts. "How We Got Our Highway System." Overdrive. July 1996, 54-7.

Patton, Phil. "Agents of Change." American Heritage. December 1994, 88-109.

——. Open Road: A Celebration of the American Highway. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1986.

Radal, Dave. "Trail Lore Connects Decades: Lincoln Highway's Reputation Outlasts the Original Pavement." http://www.gazetteonline.com/special/lincoln/linc001.htm. June 1999.

Rose, Mark H. Interstate: Express Highway Politics, 1941-1956. Lawrence, Kansas, Regents Press of Kansas, 1979.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. 1835; New York, Colonial Press, 1996.