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Portrait of a General: General Roy Stone

Part 6 of 8

The Cost of Building Good Roads

Another approach was to emphasize that good roads would not be as costly as the farmers and other skeptics expected. Stone's credit partnership plan was one way of spreading the cost and keeping it minimal. Stone also recommended suiting the road to the need, a concept that would be the foundation of road building in all succeeding decades. In 1894, he told the Southern Immigration and Industrial Congress that wide roads were not needed in farming areas. He thought a single track of stone, next to an earth track, was preferable, adding:

One serious hindrance to the extended building of hard roads has been the expense of some of those built and the general overestimate of the cost necessary. An expense of $5,000 per mile is beyond the possible means of most country districts, but our inquiries have developed many cases where good stone roads are being built for one-fourth of that sum. The stone roads of Canandaigua, N.Y., cost only $900 per mile. They are not wide roads, but are heavily stoned, and they are so good that when I was there, in the midst of a January thaw, the farmers living on them were hauling 2 tons of hay on a 2-horse wagon, while the neighboring dirt roads were practically impassable.(167)

He elaborated on this concept in an article on "Best Roads for Farms and Farming Districts" for the 1894 Yearbook of the United States Department of Agriculture. With so few good roads in agricultural districts, he began, "experience avails but little toward determining what will best serve the needs and suit the means of the average farmer." The road best suited to the farmers' needs must not be too costly, but it must be "of the very best kind, for the farmer should be able to do his heavy hauling over it when his fields are too wet to work and his teams are free." With these criteria, Stone wrote:

The road that would seem to fill the farmer's needs, all things considered, is a solid, well-bedded stone road, so narrow as to be only a single track, but having an earth track alongside. A fine, dry, smooth dirt track is the perfection of roads; it is easy on the horses' feet and legs, easy on vehicles, and free from noise and jar.

The dirt road would serve much of the year, but when weather reduced the dirt, the stone road would provide the needed traction.

The usual questions about this approach, he continued, were whether the earth and stone sections could be kept even and how a road of this type could handle the meeting and passing of loaded teams. He cited the experience of Canandaigua, New York, where the two roads remained even, "and those who use them say no difficulty is found in the passing of teams, since practically no two teams ever turn out at exactly the same spot." He summed up:

The purposes of a wide, hard road are better served by a narrow one, and all the objections to it removed, while the cost is cut down one-half, and the charges for repair nearly three-fourths.

Another option, he suggested, was one used by Judge Caton of Chicago on his Illinois farm. This option would be useful on farms and lesser public roads:

The roadbed is made by plowing two furrows, 16 inches wide and about 12 inches deep, under what are to be the wheel tracks, turning the earth inward, and two more for ditches, also turned inward, which results in a slight raising of the bed; the inner furrows are then filled with field stones or coarse gravel and a light coating of fine gravel spread over the whole . . . . This plan gives a very solid bed of material under the wheels and a sufficiency elsewhere . . . .(168)

Throughout his tenure, Stone provided practical advice on how to build such roads, including a recommendation that contractors be held accountable for their work. A typical summary, from a speech on August 8, 1894, to the Board of Chosen Freeholders of Morris County, New Jersey, explained Stone's method of building two-track stone and earth roads:

I would plow up the whole surface of the road, and on the side where you want the earth road, remove all the stone and put most of the dirt on that side. Where you want the stone road, remove the dirt and roll it thoroughly and make it hard, laying tile drains if there are wet places. Then drop in 3 or 4 inches of broken stone and then 3 or 4 inches of finer stone, making it finer and finer, and place screenings on the top. The roads should be left in the contractors' hands for nine or ten months after building, so that they can stand the test of a winter and spring; and then he can fix up any bad places in the roads before turning them over to the county.(169)

The two-track economical road would be a theme he returned to many times. While testifying in support of the Higbie State-Aid Road Bill before the Committees of Senate and Assembly in Albany, New York, on February 25, 1897, Stone elaborated on the same point:

I wish to disabuse your minds of any false impression regarding the necessary cost of road improvement in this State. You need not be thinking of $5,000, or $3,000, or even $2,000 per mile for country roads. Some of the very best roads in the United States are now being built for $1,000 per mile, and except in the neighborhood of very large towns or cities that price will be quite sufficient to calculate upon for the State of New York, and if proper State aid is given and wisely applied through your State highway commission the share of this cost to be paid by local property will not be a burden.(170)

Another way of reducing costs was to use convict labor, which Stone favored. In the charter of October 3, 1893, Secretary Morton had expressly limited Stone's advocacy of convict labor. Nevertheless, Stone addressed the topic, even issuing an ORI Bulletin he had compiled on Notes on the Employment of Convicts in Connection with Road Building (No. 16, 1895). In sending the Bulletin to Secretary Morton for approval, Stone's message of April 1, 1895, explained that, "There is great inquiry for this information . . . ."

Stone often offered another method of paying for road improvements, namely the use of postal savings banks, a concept that foreshadowed Social Security in an era when many farmers did not trust banks but had access to post offices. After returning to civilian life, he described the plan in a speech, entitled "Good Roads and How to Get Them," to the National Good Roads Convention in St. Louis, April 27-29, 1903:

Every civilized nation but ours, and some of the half-civilized, give to their rural districts, even the most remote, the benefit of taking care of private savings through postal agencies. We refuse this to ours, ostensibly, because we have no permanent debt in which to invest the deposit; really, perhaps, because the banking interests mistakenly oppose it. Why not open the door of the National Treasury, take in the rural savings, invest the money in road improvement bonds, and get it into circulation and general business? There is money enough hidden away where the banks never get a smell of it to build more roads than we could pay for by taxes in a whole generation. Why not establish these agencies, develop thrift and economy, and add security to rural existence? . . . Can we imagine any truer poetic justice than letting the farmer build his own good roads with his own idle money and still have that money safely at interest for his own benefit?(171)

Rural Free Delivery

Stone had been an early advocate of Rural Free Delivery (RFD), which played a key role in converting skeptical farmers into good roads boosters.

Prior to RFD, farmers could get their mail only by traveling to the post office in the nearest town. If the roads were too rough for the trip to town, the mail would have to wait. Because this was a problem in many countries, the Universal Postal Union in Vienna, Austria, in 1891 adopted a resolution in support of universal delivery of mail. Postmaster General John Wanamaker thought the idea was impractical in the United States at that time, but asked Congress for an appropriation he could use for an experiment in the concept. With support from the National Grange, other farm groups, and the LAW and other bicycle interests, Congress appropriated $10,000 in 1893 for an experimental rural mail service.

President Cleveland's Postmaster General, Wilson Bissell, opposed RFD and refused to use the appropriation, even though Congress appropriated $20,000 for the experiment in 1894 and $30,000 in 1895. Historian Mason explained that "Bissell remained adamant and refused to conduct the experiment."

His 1895 successor, William Wilson, shared Wanamaker's skepticism, but believed he had a duty to proceed with the experiment in accordance with the legislation. The first experimental routes opened on October 1, 1896, in West Virginia from Charles Town (Wilson's hometown), Halltown, and Uvilla. Within a year, another 44 routes had been established in 29 States.(172)

With the experiment having proven the practicality of RFD, a process was establish for designating new routes. Mason explained the process:

The first step in securing rural free delivery was for citizens living along a proposed route to direct a petition to their congressman requesting the establishment of a new route. The congressman would then forward the petition to the fourth assistant postmaster, who was in charge of the program, and a survey of the proposed route would be made. If the post office agent found that at least one hundred persons would be served and that the roads involved were in good condition, a route would be laid out. It was the duty of this agent, furthermore, to impress upon the citizens requesting the mail delivery that the roads and bridges on the route would have to be kept in good condition during every month of the year and that if any part of the route became impassable, the service was likely to be discontinued. In many cases, the agent received written agreements from county and township road boards that the roads would be properly maintained.

As Mason makes clear, the ORI was involved in the RFD program from the start:

The Office of Road Inquiry was deeply interested in the rural free delivery program, and from the inauguration of the service in 1896 the agency worked closely with the Post Office Department on this phase of its work. Road experts of the federal road office, for example, gave technical assistance to postal officials in establishing criteria for the discontinuation of rural service because of bad roads. In 1897 officials of the road agency presented a plan to the Post Office Department which was designed to combine the rural mail delivery service with the daily care of roads. The plan called for mail carriers to act as road inspectors, and their duties were to include removing boulders from the road, draining water from low spots, and notifying local road officials when extensive road repair was needed. For this work, mail carriers were to received a small stipend from the county, in addition to their regular salary.(173)

This proposed plan reflected General Stone's continuing effort to explore all options for funding road improvement within a restricted budget as well as his concept of establishing partnerships with as many groups as possible. However, the Post Office Department declined to accept the plan in 1897. (A formal plan of cooperation between the two agencies was approved in 1906 "to promote the efficiency of the rural delivery service and at the same time render effective aid in the improvement of roads."(174))

Helping the States Get Started

General Stone and the ORI also provided information about and support for State road legislation. Eldridge's biographical sketch summarized Stone's role:

He helped to frame and to secure the passage of the New Jersey State Aid Law [and] to frame the Higbie Armstrong State Aid Law for New York, and was largely instrumental in securing the passage of that and other progressive road laws in the various States.

Stone's role can be illustrated by his experience in California. His annual report for FY 1895 summarized the work:

The suggestion made, with the Secretary's sanction, to the governors of various States that the subject be committed to a legislative and expert board, which might cooperate with this office in securing the information necessary to effective legislation, was well received and acted upon by many of the governors . . . . By request of [outgoing Governor Markham of California] and the State Road Improvement Association, I attended the meetings of this commission and also of the State Road Convention, and after consultation with the present executive, Governor Budd, a complete system of State aid and supervision was devised and very speedily adopted by the legislature.

On April 11, 1895, the newly formed California Bureau of Highways sent the following letter to Stone:

It is with exceeding great pleasure we inform you that we this day organized the first State Bureau of Highways in the Golden State of California, and our first official act is to send you greetings and thanks, for we feel assured it was through your visit and the interest you created while here that the enclosed bills were passed by our Legislature. We sincerely trust you will favor us with your presence in the near future, in an official capacity, that we may be able to profit by your experience and knowledge in this field of work, and socially, that we may welcome you to our State.(175)

Tama Jim Changes the Rules

On March 4, 1897, William McKinley became President of the United States. His Secretary of Agriculture, James Wilson, took office on March 6 and would remain in office until March 5, 1913, serving under Presidents McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and William H. Taft. Known as "Tama Jim" from his origins in Tama, Iowa, he had been a Professor of Agriculture and director of the experiment station at Iowa Agriculture College. He also served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he introduced the first bill to establish a Cabinet-level Department of Agriculture (February 24, 1874). It did not pass.

In many ways, Secretary Wilson was the opposite of Secretary Morton. The Department's official history summarized his tenure as being characterized by "expansion, the widening of the scope of its activities, and the strengthening of the relationship between the Department and the land-grant colleges."(176) He also strengthened the scientific element of his Department, a characteristic that would help the ORI as it expanded its activities.

Secretary Wilson, according to the history, had his quirks:

Believing that motion pictures were "of the devil," he opposed the use of them in the Department, but before he left office he had been converted and motion pictures had been made a part of the work of several bureaus. Another innovation that he frowned on was the automobile. But by 1912 he had approved the purchase of one for use at the Beltsville farm, though with the understanding that it was not to be a precedent for others.(177)

General Stone's successors would take full advantage of motion pictures as an educational tool and of the automobile.

Wilson wanted Stone to emphasize the practical, over the academic, side of the ORI's work. He formalized this request in a letter dated May 29, 1899, which superseded Morton's "strict construction" of the 1893 law:

In order that the provisions of the statutes relating to "Public-road inquiries" may be properly and efficiently executed, you are hereby authorized and directed to supervise, manage, and conduct investigations, inquiries, and experiments relating to the following subjects, viz:

  1. To make inquiries in regard to the various systems of road management throughout the United States.
  2. To make investigations, by experiment and otherwise, regarding the best methods of road making and the best kinds of road-making materials to be found in the several States.
  3. To prepare didactic reports and statements upon the subjects of road making and road management suitable for publication and distribution as bulletins of this Department.
  4. To assist the agricultural colleges and agricultural experiment stations in disseminating, by object-lesson methods or otherwise, information on the aforementioned subjects.

The necessary expenses attending the execution of these instructions will be provided for upon requisitions and specific letters of authorization.(178)

General Stone had been acting on these concepts before Secretary Wilson put them in writing.

Object-Lesson Roads

The object-lesson road program was typical of this new approach-scientific and yet practical. The idea, which Stone borrowed after seeing it used in Massachusetts, was to build short stretches of good roads, partly to educate local engineers and partly to create support for good roads on the theory that "seeing is believing."

The ORI had built an early version of an object-lesson road on the grounds of the International Exposition in Atlanta, Georgia, in the fall of 1895 as part of the Department of Agriculture's exhibit. The exhibit included three parallel roadways, 200 feet long--a dirt road, a sand road, and a macadam road. The roads were used for traction experiments to show which was the best for pulling a load (macadam was eight times better) and to illustrate the advantages of wide tires on wagons over narrow tires.(179) The exhibit's success encouraged Stone to launch the object-lesson program.

The new program required changes in the ORI, as Stone explained in his FY 1897 annual report:

I have reduced the force in the office and made such arrangements as I could for the outside work of object-lesson road building . . . . I have been compelled to carry on road building by means of contributions from the various parties interested, viz., the agricultural colleges and experiment stations, the citizens concerned, and the manufacturers of road implements and machinery; the Road Inquiry contributing only a small installment of the expenses, through the payment of freight on machinery and part payment of wages of experts sent in charge of the machines, but keeping full control of the construction in order that the roads may be creditable to the Government when done.(180)

Stone hired a practical road building expert, General E. G. Harrison of Asbury Park, New Jersey, for the object-lesson road program. Harrison built the ORI's first object-lesson road in June 1897 at the entrance to the New Jersey Agriculture College and Experiment Station in New Brunswick. The Federal cost was $321. Harrison, who led the agency's only object-lesson team until his death in February 1901, followed a pattern with each project. The Federal Highway Administration's Bicentennial history, America's Highways: 1776-1976 described the pattern:

The team was shipped from place to place by rail on a prearranged schedule, building eight or nine roads per year, each ½ to 1½ miles long. After a sufficient amount of road had been built at each location, a "good roads day" would be arranged, and the farmers of that and the adjacent counties would be invited to attend. Special Agent Harrison would lead the crowd--often as many as 500 persons--along the new construction, lecturing on the fundamentals of drainage, stone surfacing and road maintenance. Harrison would arrange for the lecture to be printed in the local newspaper.(181)

Object-lesson road construction became one of the ORI's most popular programs, with demand far exceeding the agency's resources. In explaining why, Stone cited the poor condition of roads most of the year:

The lecturer on good roads, therefore, is listened to like one who tells fairy stories or travelers' tales of distant lands; but put down a piece of well-made macadam road as an illustration and let the people try it in all weathers and no lecturer is needed. The road speaks for itself, all doubts disappear, and the only question raised is how fast can it be extended and how soon can the improvement be general.(182)

The Great Road of America

Stone's most visionary idea was an object-lesson road unlike any other--a forerunner in some ways to the Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways. In an 1895 address to the Tennessee Road Convention, he proposed The Great Road of America. His speech stirred discussion, some of it misrepresenting what he said. To clarify the idea, the L.A.W. Bulletin and Good Roads printed his comments on the subject in the issue of November 19, 1897:

A great national highway might be constructed, called perhaps "The Great Road of America," which should first join together the States along the Atlantic seaboard; then strike across the country on a central line, say from Washington to San Francisco, joining there another line which connects the States of the Pacific Coast; this road to be built, not by the general government alone, but by the States, under such arrangements as they may make within their own borders, and by the government through the territories and its own lands and reservations . . . .

He discussed the location of the Great Road:

The mere location of such a road would have great historic value and importance. The line along the Atlantic coast would be the old Post Road in the time of the Revolution. The route across the Alleghanies might be the line that the early settlers of this region followed when Daniel Boone and his comrades came over the mountains to settle these beautiful plains. The line across the Rocky Mountains might be the line of Lewis and Clark and Fremont, and when we struck the Pacific coast we would strike the oldest road in all our history, the Camina [sic] Real, the great Spanish Royal Highway which joined together the Catholic Missions of the Pacific coast. The whole scheme would carry with it something that would inspire the entire Nation.

He took no credit for the idea:

It is not any new scheme; it is not any new idea. It was the idea of Jefferson and Madison and Gallatin and many other great men who helped to start the National Road which led through Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana, and reached as far as the Mississippi River.

The road would be self-financing, built not by taxes, but practically out of its own benefits:

I have seen so much of the benefits of good roads, and of the advance in the value of property along their lines, that I see the possibility of building even a great national thoroughfare, costing ten or twenty thousand dollars a mile, and building it ultimately out of its own benefits, by a temporary use of the government or State credit to tide over until those benefits can be realized.

There is no question but that such a road would benefit property to the extent of five miles on either side of it. Suppose that property were to be assessed with a long term of payment, in instalments [sic] running up to ten or fifteen or twenty years, and suppose the property actually adjoining the road were to be assessed two dollars an acre, for instance, and the next half mile back a little less, and the next a little less, and so on, but always giving the party owning the property the privilege of selling out his land at a valuation if he did not choose to pay the assessment, and of buying it back again by paying the interest, if he found he had made a mistake. The government could well afford to make that liberal proposition, and it would result in nearly all the present property owners getting the actual benefit of the increase of the value of their property, and paying the assessment entirely out of such increase of value.

The plan was not perfect, as he understood:

I have merely outlined this, not as a perfect scheme, but as something that has suggested itself to me out of my experience in road building which, I think, with proper study and care, might be applied on a grand scale. Such a scheme would arouse great interest among the whole people of the United States; it would be something worthy of the Nation; something worthy of the beginning of the twentieth century.(183)

General Stone returned to this "worthy" object-lesson in later years, as in the following comments from 1902 after he left office:

It is often easier to do great things than small ones of the same kind, and what the Government undertakes in this regard should be something big enough to excite the imagination and stir the pride and patriotism of the country--something that will put us in respect of roads as far ahead of other nations as we have been behind them heretofore. Let it be a national highway. A continental boulevard--the greatest and best road in the world. The time is ripe for it. The old century went out with the triumphs of war and expansion. Let the new one bring in a triumph of peace and internal development. The country has wealth and credit abundant for the work. Moreover, a revolution is taking place in road locomotion through the automobile, which demands such accommodation in America that we may take our proper lead in its progress--the lead due to American enterprise, ingenuity and mechanical skill . . . .

The road should be worthy of its builders and of the age. Broad steel tracks for carriages, automobiles and bicycles, bridge and foot paths, plenty of shade and fountains, plenty of room on the borders for ornamental trees and plants, not set in stiff rows, but artistically grouped or scattered, the whole forming a continuous and practical lesson in forestry, floriculture and landscape as well as in roadbuilding . . . .(184)

Stone's comments, in addition to proposing an early version of a national highway network, outlined a design that, when others early in the 20th century proposed similar ideas, became known as a "superhighway," the original definition being a roadway that encompassed all types of traffic in separate lanes.

Experimental Road Work

Under Secretary Wilson, the ORI also began experimental road work, which differed from the object-lesson roads in that the ORI paid the full expense. Because hard-surfaced or macadam roads were too expensive for most rural areas, the ORI began experimenting with alternatives.(185) Steel-track roadways were the first alternative considered. The annual report for FY 1898, written by Eldridge in Stone's absence, stated that Secretary Wilson had recommended the idea. Eldridge explained how the concept worked:

This road is composed of inverted channel bars placed in such a position that they become a tramway or trackway. A broken-stone surface has been prepared for the horses to walk upon, and to enable the teamsters to take their wagons on and off the road at will.

Martin Dodge, Ohio's State Highway Commissioner and Stone's successor, was an early advocate of the concept. Dodge supervised construction of the initial 500-foot installation on Brocksville Road south of Cleveland. Stone, too, supported the concept enthusiastically. After leaving office, he would explain his reasons for supporting the idea in a 1903 speech:

Twenty centuries have seen no advance in the art of road building; we build no better than the ancient Romans or Peruvians. We have invented railroads and perfected them, but it has scarcely occurred to us that the same means of "smoothing the way" is open to use on common roads, and that there is no more reason for running a wagon over stones and dirt than a locomotive. Within the last few years European engineers have awakened to that fact, and successful experiments have been made in steel tracks for wagons in Germany and even in Spain. In this country, with our little appropriation for the government road inquiry, we have tried to experiment in steel, but always with some cheap make-shift of construction that gave no result.(186)

One of these experiments had occurred in 1898 while Stone was on leave. Acting ORI Director Martin Dodge, appointed to the temporary post by his Ohio patron, the former Governor and now President McKinley, demonstrated steel track wagon roads on October 10, 1898, at the Trans-Mississippi Exposition in Omaha. On a specially built track, one horse hauled an 11-ton load that would require 20 horses on a normal road. The "load" consisted of exposition goers, including Dodge.(187)

This was, however, one of the ORI's last experiments with steel track roads. The ORI's annual report for FY 1899, again prepared by Eldridge, explained why:

These experimental sections of steel road [in Omaha; Ames, Iowa; and St. Anthony Park, Minnesota] clearly demonstrated their usefulness for the Western States and for the other level States which are but sparingly supplied with good stone or gravel. The time was so limited and the means at our disposal so inadequate that we had to prepare a design for these steel roads, using rails of the regular shapes found in the market. Imperfections were naturally found which can be easily remedied if steel again becomes so cheap that the manufacturers can take the matter up and make rails of special shapes, or if sufficient means are appropriated by Congress to perfect the system.

One of the ORI's most expansive research activities was examination of potential road building materials from all parts of the country as a way of helping State and local officials improve the quality of their work. The ORI began collecting specimen road materials in FY 1894. Stone pointed out in his annual report that such a collection could be made "with slight expense" and was already too large for display in his present office. After Stone left the ORI, the program was expanded into a testing program under which anyone in the country could submit samples to be tested for resistance to wear, cementing value, hardness, toughness, and absorptiveness.(188)

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