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Highway History

Good Roads Work for the New Century
General Roy Stone

former Special Agent and Engineer for Road Inquiry
Office of Road Inquiry
U.S. Department of Agriculture.
("as told to Richard Weingroff")

INTRODUCTION: In October 1993, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) celebrated its 100th anniversary in the plaza of the U.S. Department of Transportation Building. Some consideration was given to a special appearance by General Roy Stone (in the form of a re-enactor). A speech was prepared for the General consisting of material from his many good roads speeches before, during, and after his years with the U.S. Office of Road Inquiry. In the end, the General did not appear for the celebration, but his speech is presented here to provide a sense of his thinking:

This occasion, which is so momentous and so auspicious for our whole country, has a peculiar personal interest for me, for it carries me back through ten years of my life--years devoted almost entirely to the one object for which we are assembled here today--and brings to my mind the hopes and fears with which I called the first national convention for good roads ever held in the United States, staking my reputation upon its success. In fact, so forlorn a venture did it seem [in 1892] that, although a goodly number signed my call, I dared not ask for a dollar toward the expense of calling or holding the convention, and had, therefore, the high privilege of financing it alone.

We formed an organization at Chicago at the time of the dedication of the buildings for the World's Fair, which we called the National League for Good Roads and we raised and spent about $10,000 in [its first year's] campaign for good roads. In January [1893] we held a convention at Washington, and it was discovered that the Government took a very deep interest in what we were doing. Our convention was attended by Members of Congress, the Secretary of Agriculture, and a representative of the War Department, and it created so much interest in Washington that we ourselves were astonished.

The Members of Congress said that we would not succeed in carrying this work on indefinitely by subscriptions and we had better get an appropriation. We were perfectly contented to have an appropriation, and from that time on the Government appropriated about $10,000 a year and put it at the disposal of the Secretary of Agriculture. The Secretary of Agriculture, finding that this had been brought about by the work of the National League for Good Roads, decided to put the administration of this appropriation into the hands, as far as possible, of that league, and I was accordingly appointed to take charge of it, and that made me, very much to my astonishment, a Government official in the interest of good roads.

We carried on, from that time, a steady investigation of what was going on in the United States in the matter of road building. This country is so big that a great deal goes on that we don't all know about. What we [did] in Washington is simply to set up a watch, to keep an eye on the whole country, and report what is going on. It simply furnishes a rallying point for the friends of the reform and a signal tower from which its progress can be watched and reported day by day. We are ready through that office to furnish facts and arguments showing why good roads are necessary, how they can be built, and how they are being built in many parts of this great country.

We have not had very much money, but we have had a great deal of voluntary assistance. I think I may say without vanity that its plan of operation and its effective methods of enlisting outside aid in all its measures have drawn more private means to supplement a small appropriation than has often, if ever, been done in any department of the Government. No one would believe that all its varied and widespread activities could be maintained on the trifling sum of $10,000 a year.

We found ahead of us in the field--active, untiring and efficient--that splendid body of young men, the League of American Wheelmen. We have worked with them and they with us ever since. The railroads of the country, with wise foresight, have given it liberal assistance, local associations have supported it everywhere and the good roads forces will have the support of every commercial, financial, and manufacturing organization in the country. The Chamber of Commerce of New York tersely says: "The products of the United States are handicapped in all the markets of the world by a needless cost in their primary transportation, which goes far to nullify the advantages they enjoy in all other respects."

By quiet and steady effort, and with the cooperation of good citizens in every State, such cordial relations have been established between the United States inquiry and the State governments that its work has never been criticized by the most earnest advocates of States' rights; on the contrary, it has been welcomed and aided by State authorities everywhere. What, then, could the Government do, with such profit to itself, as to enter into a partnership with the states, counties and townships for the building of a complete system of roads?

Since 1892 an entirely new force has appeared in the good roads field and one whose influence cannot now be measured or bounded. Already the automobile industry is one of the most active and powerful in the land, and its representatives fully realize that its ultimate success is bound up with that of road improvement.

I find, in my experience, that one of the most difficult things which the promoters of good roads have to do, and especially those who live in the cities, is to prove to the farmers that their interest in good roads in the country is real and a personal one. The farmer has paid the tax of bad roads, and has suffered from it so long that he finds it difficult to believe that he is to receive aid from people whom he has formerly believed had very little real interest in them.

Good roads are the highways to wealth. [And] when the wheelmen's league and all the farmers' associations pull together harmoniously in this direction, working only for justice and the public welfare, there is no limit to the power they may exercise and the good they may accomplish. Prosperity for the whole country will date from the happy hour in which that beneficent combination is established.

What has been accomplished? Ten years of active campaigning has exhausted the argument for good roads, and, while it has silenced the opposition, we must confess that it has not brought that millennium where the country is ready to go down deep into its pocket to build its highways once and for all. "Convinced against its will, 'tis of the same opinion still." Our campaign for good roads has aroused the public interest and silenced opposition, but it has revealed at the same time one of the most curious limitations of popular government, namely, that people who govern themselves will not tax themselves to build the roads they know they need.

Nothing in the whole course of the current campaign for road improvement is so remarkable as the growth of public opinion in favor of national co-operation in road building. In that [1892] convention we dared not whisper "national aid to road building" save in secret; now we can shout it on all the highways and byways. At that time a majority of the people of the United States had never seen a good road; today, through National object lesson [roads built under auspices of the Office of Road Inquiry] and good roads trains, it is a familiar sight to nearly every one. Then, even State aid was denounced as a dangerous experiment. At that time you would have paralyzed a Congressman by even hinting at a Government appropriation for public roads; now he only asks "how much," and puts his ear to the ground again.

We have scarcely thought of the possibility of having good roads all over the United States in our lives and that grand consummation cannot be reached by any narrow and hide-bound methods of thought and action. Only a broad, liberal and comprehensive policy will reach it, and that policy must be on new lines, for the old ones lead us nowhere; and the people must think out and lay down these lines, and must put courage into their representatives to follow them, or we shall never reach the goal of "good roads everywhere."

I am glad to say that the actual possession of good roads, wherever I have known it, has had a great effect in developing that kinder feeling and broader citizenship. I hope that the people of the United States, in the more-favored regions, will feel disposed, as they get the benefit of good roads themselves, to help confer those benefits upon the regions that have not the advantages. I believe that every step taken, every judicious step taken towards bringing about the aid of the Federal Government towards general road improvement will help to develop that feeling all through the United States, that we have got to consider something beyond our own neighborhoods--beyond our own counties and beyond our own States. We have got to look over the whole field of the United States and see what the general government can do to help the people who need this kind of help everywhere.

If I may claim any credit for work done for good roads in past years--it is the problem of our time and I have struggled with it all my life--if I have not lost my head in the effort so that I am no judge of the result, the problem is nearer solution than the most sanguine friends of good roads have dared hope. We veterans will scarce see a beginning. But good roads are coming whether by easy ways or hard. Federal aid is in the air; our young statesmen are eager to promote it, and our oldest no longer have the cold shivers when it is mentioned. It has reached the very top. Within this month [April 1903] a President of the United States [Theodore Roosevelt] has said what no President has dared to breathe in almost a hundred years--that the Federal Government can and should "cooperate" in the building of common roads. For these brave words every advocate of road improvement in the land, and they are millions upon millions, will join me in saying, "God bless the fearless man who uttered them"

If all the forces which heretofore worked in unison for good roads, together with the new and powerful automobile allies who are now joining our ranks, should combine, the early days of the [20th] century will mark the inception of the greatest peaceful work the great Republic has ever undertaken or the world has ever witnessed. But whatever form National aid shall take, the day that sees the Government of the United States fully committed to the improvement of the common roads of the country will mark an era in the progress of the Nation and the prosperity and happiness of the whole people.

Unused Material

Now as to methods of construction. Get your locations right first. It will be necessary for your engineer to lay out better locations for many of your roads. You will do better with an earth road eight or nine feet wide and a single track macadam road alongside of it, or have a single track macadam in the middle and an earth road on each side of it. I would plough up the whole surface of the road, and on the side where you want the earth road, remove all the stones 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 three or four inches of broken stone and then three or four inches of finer stone, making it finer and finer, and place screenings on the top. The roads would 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.

In the absence of care every defect grows by geometrical progression; the worse it gets the faster it grows. Forty million dollars we spend every year on road repairs and make the roads no better. We roll the great stone up the mountain, and then we let it go to the bottom to be rolled up again next year.

The investigations made by our State Department abroad and the wide discussion of the subject at home have, however, at least made clear that this is the only civilized country in the world without good roads, and that the want of such roads is not only a grievous tax upon the whole people, but the greatest hindrance to their progress, intellectual, social, moral, and political.

What can the National Government do as a worthy object lesson in this behalf? 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 the 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. Moreover, a revolution is taking place in 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.

Where should such a road be built, and how? When I had the honor to address the Tennessee road convention on this subject in 1895, I sketched an outline of a possible route. The Eastern division of the National highway should join all the States on the Atlantic by a coastwise line, and its Western division should do the same on the Pacific, while the continental division should connect the Eastern and Western divisions by a line from Washington through the central cities of the country to San Francisco.

This road should be worthy of its builders and of the age. It should have [paths] for wagons, carriages, automobiles, and bicycles, bridle 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 art, as well as in road building. It would become the main artery of American country life.

Not only can you preach Good Roads, but you can teach a little road-building in all [common country] schools. No knowledge would be more valuable. It is a practical concern of everyday life, and will interest parents as well as children, women as well as men; attention will be called to every defect in the location, construction and care of the roads directly about you. You will need no text books, for no high-class technical knowledge is necessary to teach the rudiments of road construction and repair. We can furnish you from Washington with our printed circulars, giving all the information you will need to impart: and if any of [the] pupils desire to go beyond the stage of primary instruction in this matter it will not be long before the higher schools and especially the agricultural colleges, will be teaching road building in all its higher departments.

What has been accomplished? Ten years of active campaigning has exhausted the argument for good roads, and, while it has silenced the opposition, we must confess that it has not brought that millennium where the country is ready to go down deep into its pocket to build its highways once and for all. "Convinced against its will, 'tis of the same opinion still." Our campaign for good roads has aroused the public interest and silenced opposition, but it has revealed at the same time one of the most curious limitations of popular government, namely, that people who govern themselves will not tax themselves to build the roads they know they need.

We have scarcely thought of the possibility of having good roads all over the United States in our lives and that grand consummation cannot be reached by any narrow and hide-bound methods of thought and action. Only a broad, liberal and comprehensive policy will reach it, and that policy must be on new lines, for the old ones lead us nowhere; and the people must think out and lay down these lines, and must put courage into their representatives to follow them, or we shall never reach the goal of "good roads everywhere."

Updated: 10/16/2013
Federal Highway Administration | 1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE | Washington, DC 20590 | 202-366-4000