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Highway History


Bertram D. Tallamy

On October 12, 1956, the White House announced that President Dwight D. Eisenhower had chosen Bertram D. Tallamy to be the first Federal Highway Administrator under a law, approved by the President on August 3, that created the position to head the Bureau of Public Roads in the Department of Commerce.

The 56-year old Tallamy was a native of Plainfield, New Jersey, and the son and grandson of general contractors. He graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute as a civil engineer and quickly established himself in the construction field. Tallamy became Deputy Superintendent of Public Works for New York in January 1945. In addition to supervising the State's post-war construction program, he guided development of the State arterial route plans for almost half of the State's cities. When he became Chief Engineer of the Public Works Department in July 1947, his first assignment was to review design standards for all expressways.

Governor Thomas E. Dewey chose Tallamy to be Superintendent of Public Works on October 1, 1948, a position he retained until December 31, 1954. In that capacity, he served as president of the American Association of State Highway Officials from October 1951 to October 1952.

Tallamy is given much of the credit for the New York State Thruway. Construction had begun in 1946, with the State intending to build toll-free segments as State funds became available. Because progress was slow, legislation was enacted in 1950 to create the New York State Thruway Authority to issue bonds to finance a faster pace of construction. Tallamy, after helping win voter support for the plan, was appointed chairman of the three-member thruway authority in 1950 for a term running through January 1, 1960.

Tallamy cited Robert Moses, New York's master road builder, as his mentor. Their relationship began in 1926, when the young civil engineer visited Moses without an appointment to request advice on building a road from Buffalo to Niagara Falls. Robert Caro, who interviewed Tallamy, while working on a biography of Moses (The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1974), narrated the story:

When [Tallamy] was finally admitted to the presence, he began to unroll his blueprints on the huge table . . . . Tallamy had spent days coloring different parts of them so that Moses could more easily study them. But Moses shoved them impatiently aside without looking at them. "The first thing you've got to learn," he said, "is that no one is interested in plans. No one is interested in details. The first thing you've got to learn is to keep your presentations simple."

Tallamy would tell Caro that the principles on which the Interstate System was built were the principles he learned from Robert Moses in a series of private lectures that followed this first meeting.

The selection of Tallamy as Administrator was widely applauded and would be unanimously confirmed by the Senate in February 1957, but he was not available to assume the position until then. To avoid losing momentum, the President appointed John A. Volpe, who had resigned recently as Commissioner of Public Works in Massachusetts to return to his contracting business. He served as interim Administrator until Tallamy became available. Tallamy and Volpe met about once a month during the interim to discuss the decisions that were being made about the running of the agency.

On February 5, 1957, Secretary of Commerce Sinclair Weeks administered the oath of office to Bertram D. Tallamy, the first Administrator confirmed by the Senate. He would retain that position through the rest of the Eisenhower Administration. After leaving office, he remained in Washington as a consulting engineer until retiring in 1970. He died on September 14, 1989.

Updated: 06/27/2017
Federal Highway Administration | 1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE | Washington, DC 20590 | 202-366-4000