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Ask the Rambler
What Is The Longest Road in the United States?
Welcome, once again, to the popular feature which allows the Rambler to make up a question he already knows the answer to, pretend he had to do a lot of eye-straining research, and submit a voucher for "travel expenses." Well, he's done it again, and we're not falling for it. But here's his answer anyway.
The longest road in the United States was once the second longest: U.S. 20 from Boston, Massachusetts, to Newport, Oregon.
When the State and Federal highway officials on the Joint Board on Interstate Highways conceived the U.S. numbered highway system in 1925, they decided that numbers ending in zero would be assigned to the transcontinental or major east-west routes, with the lowest number in the north (U.S. 2 was assigned to the northernmost route to avoid using U.S. 0). The transcontinental or major east-west routes were:
U.S. 2: Houlton, Maine, to Bonners Ferry, Idaho.
The description of U.S. 20 in the Joint Board's report of October 30, 1925, read (all spellings as in the original):
The Secretary of Agriculture forwarded the Joint Board's report to the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO) for adoption. This transmittal reflected the fact that the States owned the roads. AASHO asked the States for their concurrence in the Joint Board's proposed plan and numbering.
A Numbering Switch
On December 30, 1925, Roy A. Klein, Secretary of the Oregon Highway Commission, wrote to William C. Markham, AASHO's Executive Secretary. Klein explained that the northwestern States supported the plan but had a number of concerns, including the routing of U.S. 20 and U.S. 30. On this matter, he said:
Markham replied on January 5, 1926:
The adjustments of Route 20 have already been agreed upon, and those changes together with others suggested by you will be put in form for submitting to the Executive Committee at their meeting in Chicago January 14-15, and you will be advised as promptly as possible of the action taken.
Thus, U.S. 20 was halted at the entrance to Yellowstone National Park, while U.S. 30 was extended to Oregon.
The Lincoln Highway Association Objects
The routing of U.S. 30 was of interest to the Lincoln Highway Association (LHA), backers of the era's most famous transcontinental route (New York City to San Francisco) and one of the first proposed, dating to September 1912. E. W. James, Chief of the Division of Design in the Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) and Secretary of the Joint Board, had approached the LHA to secure support for the plan to replace the country's many named highways. As James, who had conceived the numbering plan, recalled in a letter dated February 21, 1967:
Having assisted the Lincoln Highway Association in the First World War, I next went to Detroit to their headquarters and laid my scheme before them, very frankly telling them that it would mean the end of the Lincoln Highway Association, the Dixie, and all others. They understood it all; said they were for a big plan for roads across the U.S.; would be with my scheme if I would give the Lincoln Highway recognition so far as possible in the No. 30. I agreed to do all I could to put it across, and so had their support toward washing out all the named routes. They were the strongest of all the Associations and with them with us, who could be against us?
Following completion of the Joint Board's work, James contacted the LHA on October 26, 1925, to describe the outcome:
The route known as the Lincoln Highway is generally followed by United States Highway No. 30 from Philadelphia to Salt Lake City. Beyond Salt Lake City the Lincoln Highway is not followed by the Federal Aid System, but a considerable part of it is included in United States Highway No. 50 to Wadsworth, Nevada. From Wadsworth to San Francisco Route 40 covers the Lincoln Highway.
James was referring to the fact that under the Federal Highway Act of 1921, Federal-aid funds were restricted to a designated system that could not exceed 7 percent of the roads in each State, with 60 percent of the network required to be "interstate in character." Utah requested Federal-aid designation for the alignment of the Victory Highway (proposed in 1921 and sharing the Lincoln Highway's termini) into Nevada via Wendover. Because only one route into Nevada could quality for Federal-aid, Utah did not propose the Lincoln Highway routing in Nevada via Ely for Federal-aid designation.
The LHA protested vigorously, even to the point of a hearing on May 14, 1923, before Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace (the BPR was in the U.S. Department of Agriculture). The Secretary ruled on June 6 that under the law, he could act only on proposals by Utah's State highway agency, which favored Federal-aid status for the Victory Highway routing. When the Joint Board was designating U.S. routes, the Federal-aid designation and Utah's support gave the Victory Highway priority. It was assigned to U.S. 40, while the parallel Lincoln Highway was split among numbers as noted by James.
Nevertheless, James had delivered on his promise to the LHA that he would do what he could to assign as much of U.S. 30 to the Lincoln Highway as he could.
A few months later, the LHA was surprised to discover that U.S. 30 had developed a western extension to Oregon, far off the line of the Lincoln Highway. On April 3, 1926, Gael S. Hoag, the LHA's secretary, wrote to James about the change. Hoag had seen a new map of Oregon showing U.S. 30 where U.S. 20 had been and wanted to know why this scheme differed from the Joint Board's map. The letter did not explain Hoag's concern, but the Rambler speculates he may have hoped that "30" would someday be extended west on the Lincoln Highway, rather than diverted to the Northwest. On April 6, James replied:
When AASHO members approved the U.S. numbered highway plan on November 11, 1926, the transcontinental and major east-west routes were:
U.S. 2: Houlton, Maine, to Bonners Ferry, Idaho.
The log described U.S. 20 as follows (all spellings as in the original):
United States Highway No. 20.
To The Northwest
By the late 1930's, Idaho and Oregon were thinking about an extension of U.S. 20 via newly improved roads. When AASHO's Executive Committee considered State routing proposals on June 21, 1937, it considered and deferred Oregon's request. The minutes of the meeting explained:
Conditions had improved when the Executive Committee met on June 3, 1940. This time, the extension was approved:
Idaho-Oregon. U.S. 20 is extended west of the Yellowstone National Park to read as follows: Beginning at the west end of Yellowstone National Park, thence over U.S. 191 and U.S. 91 to Blackfoot, thence over Idaho State Route 27 to Arco, State Route 22 to Mount Home, thence coinciding with U.S. 30 to Boise, thence over State Route 44 to the Oregon State line. Oregon: Beginning at a point on present U.S. 30 north of Caldwell, Idaho, thence via Parma, Nyssa, Cairo Junction, Valle, Juntura, Burns, Bend, Tumalo, Sisters, Lebanon, to Albany.
With this extension, U.S. 20 was 3,277 miles long.
The Longest Road
U.S. 20 was now the second longest road in the country, behind U.S. 6. As the "6" designation suggests, U.S. 6 was not conceived as a transcontinental or major east-west route. The Joint Board had assigned the number to a route from Provincetown, Massachusetts, to Brewster, New York. By the time AASHO's member State highway agencies approved the numbering plan in November 1926, the route had been extended to Erie, Pennsylvania. Gradually, AASHO approved requests to extend U.S. 6 across the country. In 1937, it reached Long Beach, California, 3,652 miles from Provincetown. At this length, U.S. 6 was the longest road in the country. (For more information on the evolution of U.S. 6, see www.fhwa.dot.gov/infrastructure/us6.htm.)
That status lasted until June 18, 1963, when AASHO approved California's request to change the terminus to Bishop. This change shortened U.S. 6 to 3,227 miles as measured at the time. (According to the most recent U.S. numbered highway log, published in 1989 by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, the route is 3,249 miles long).
In 1963, therefore, U.S. 20 became the longest road in the country. U.S. 20 is 3,365 miles long according to the 1989 log. The route begins in Boston at a junction with Massachusetts Route 2 and ends in Newport, Oregon, at a junction with U.S. 101. Because U.S. numbered highways are not designated with National Parks, U.S. 20 is divided into an East Section ending at the eastern entrance to Yellowstone National Park and a West Section beginning at the west entrance to the park.
The western extension of U.S. 20 to Newport, Oregon, created an anomaly in the U.S. highway numbering plan.
The Joint Board's 1925 version of U.S. 20 and U.S. 30 was consistent with the idea that the zero-numbers assigned to transcontinental and major east-west routes would increase from north (U.S. 2) to south (U.S. 90). The numbers on the West Coast were 10, 20, 40, and 60 in north-to-south order. When U.S. 20 was stopped at Yellowstone National Park and U.S. 30 extended to Astoria, Oregon, the numbering remained consistent with the plan (10, 30, 40, 50, and 80). Where U.S. 20 and U.S. 30 were parallel, "20" remained north of "30."
However, when AASHO approved extension of U.S. 20 to Newport, its placement violated the south-to-north pattern of zero-numbered routes because "20" ended up below "30." AASHO had little choice but to accept the anomaly because switching the western ends of U.S. Routes 20 and 30 for the sake of consistency was impractical. From a motorist's standpoint, such anomalies make little difference. Most motorists are not aware of the numbering plan conceived in 1925; they follow road signs and maps, so anomalies are not a source of confusion.
This page last modified on 04/07/11