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Highway History


Interstate Highway System - Art Gallery


Albert Gallatin, Secretary of the Treasury Department, on April 4,1808, presented a report “re­specting roads and canals,” at the request of the United States Senate, which became the mold from which was cast our subsequent national transportation policies. Secretary Gallatin urged, “early and efficient aid of the Federal Government” in order to “shorten distances, facilitate commercial and per­sonal intercourse, and unite, by a still more intimate community of interests, the most remote quar­ters of the United States. No other single operation, within the power of Government, can more effectually tend to strengthen and perpetuate that union which secures external independence, do­mestic peace, and internal liberty.”

The substance of the report reflects three basic concepts. First, the legitimacy of Government aid to finance transportation projects transcending local needs. In support of this premise the Treasury head advised, “Notwithstanding the great increase of capital during the last fifteen years [The period of reconstruction and consolidation following the Treaty of Paris, in 1783, concluding the War of the American Revolution], the objects for which it is required continue to be more numerous, and its application is generally more profitable than in Europe. A small portion therefore is applied to objects, which offer only the prospect of remote and moderate profit.” Therefore, concluded Secretary Gallatin, the through routes of national importance could be financed only by the General Government because this central authority alone possessed,” resources amply sufficient for the completion of every practi­cable improvement. Second, that only those routes should be constructed which would yield reasonable returns upon the original investment. Because, wrote Secretary Gallatin, “it is sufficiently evident that, whenever the annual expense of transportation on a certain route, in its natural state, exceeds the interest on the capital employed in improving the communication, and the annual expense of transpor­tation (exclusively of tolls) by the improved route, the difference is an annual additional income to the nation. Nor does in that case the general result va­ry, although the tolls [counterpart of the present gasoline tax on automobiles] may not have been fixed at a rate sufficient to pay to the undertakers the interest on the capital laid out. They, indeed, when that happens, lose; but the community is nevertheless benefited by the undertaking. The general gain is not confined to the difference between the expense of the transportation of those articles which had been formerly conveyed by that route but many which were brought to market by other channels will then find a new and more advantageous direction; and those which on account of their dis­tance or weight could not be transported in any manner whatsoever, will acquire a value, and become a clear addition to the national wealth.” These econ­omic principles enunciated by Secretary Gallatin nearly a century and a half ago are just as valid today. Third, a nationwide system of transportation was essential in the interests of national defense. For, commented Secretary Gallatin, “The early and efficient aid of the Federal Government is recom­mended by still more important considerations. The inconveniences, complaints, and perhaps dangers, which may result from a vast extent of territory, can not otherwise be radically removed or prevented than by opening speedy and easy communications through all its parts.”

Written a generation before the introduction of steam railroads the recommendations of the report were restricted to public roads and canals. The conclusions, however, regardless of the instruments of transportation employed later, established the pattern, which was expanded and modified as the na­tional frontiers moved westward from the Allegheny Mountains to the Pacific Ocean.

The principal recommendations envisaged:

1- From north to south along the Atlantic coast an inland waterway from Massachusetts to North Carolina and a great turnpike road from Maine to Georgia.

2 - From east to west the improvement of the four great Atlantic rivers and the construction of parallel canals connected with the western rivers by turn­pike roads across the Allegheny Mountains.

3 - ln a north and northwesterly direction the development of inland navigation between the Atlantic seacoast, the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River. Secretary Gallatin estimated that a sum of 20 million dollars, spread over a period of ten years, would be required to complete this program.


The Natchez Trace, extending from Nashville, Tennessee, to Natchez, the capi­tal of Mississippi Territory, was the overland return route, through some 460 miles of forest wilderness and Indian lands, for the crews of the flatboats, which floated down the Mississippi but could not be poled upstream. The period of its greatest use­fulness began in 1798 and ended in 1817 when steamboats dominated the great river. Although the Natchez Trace was opened officially by the United States Government in 1803, it followed a trail, which had been in existence from time immemorial.

Legend has it that buffaloes, in order to evade their forest enemies, tramped this high-ridge path from the salt licks at the site of the present Nashville, Tennessee, southwest to the southern fringe of the upland where it joins the swampland bordering the Mississippi River. The Chickasaw Indians used this buffalo path as a trail from their main villages near Pontotoc, in northeastern Mississippi, to their villages near Nashville, called the Mero (Greek, meros = part or fraction) District later by our Government because of its isolated location in the western wilderness. One of the many Chickasaw trails radiating from Pontotoc led to the villages of the Choctaw Indians and those of the Natchez tribe where the city of Natchez now stands. The highest elevation along the trail—about 1,500 feet above the waters of the Gulf of Mexico—was on top of the Pontotoc ridge dividing the Mississippi River on the west from the Tombigbee River watershed on the east.

In the first year of the nineteenth century, when Spain retroceded the Louisiana territory to France, the United States owned valuable lands near the mouth of the Mississippi River, access to which was blocked by intervening Indian territory. It was to provide a right of way for the flatboat men march­ing homeward over the Natchez Trace, or perhaps the foreknowledge of our probable expansion toward the southwest that caused President Thomas Jefferson to direct his Secretary of War, Henry Dearborn, to negotiate with the Indians a treaty permitting the improvement of a road across their ances­tral lands. Secretary Dearborn delegated Brigadier General James Wilkinson of the United States Army, Benjamin Hawkins of North Carolina, and An­drew Pickens of South Carolina, as the three commissioners vested with power to treat with the Mingos (kings), principal men, and warriors of the Chickasaw, Choctaw and Cherokee nations. By a treaty with the Chickasaws, concluded at Chickasaw Bluffs (Memphis), on October 24, 1801, the Indians, in consideration of miscellaneous goods, invoiced at $702.21, gave permission to the Government of the United States, “to lay out, open, and make, a conven­ient wagon road through their land, between the settlements of Mero District (Nashville), in the State of Tennessee and those of Natchez, in the Mississippi Territory.” A similar treaty was made with the Choctaw Indians at Loftus Heights (Fort Adams), on December 18, 1801, in consideration of “the value of two thousand dollars in goods and merchandise” and “three sets of blacksmith's tools.” At the conclusion of these treaties eight companies of infantry troops, under the immediate command of Colonel Butler, working south from the northern Indian boundary, were ordered to cut a road to meet six companies commanded by Colonel Gaither opening the path north from Natchez.

After walking to Nashville over the Natchez Trace the flatboat men could proceed to the Atlantic seaboard at Philadelphia: (l) over a connection with the Wilderness Road across Kentucky and through the Cumberland Gap; (2) across a trail leading to the Maysville, Kentucky crossing of the Ohio River, thence through Wheeling, Pittsburgh and Lancaster; and (3) the Tennessee Path to Knoxville and up the Shenandoah Valley to Lancaster. The total distance from Natchez over these three alternate routes was 1,410, 1,360, and 1,280 miles, respectively.

In the illustration may be seen Captain Meriwether Lewis, Governor of Mississippi Territory, riding toward the cabin of Robert Griner (or Grinder) where he lost his life. The broken shaft of a granite pillar in the present Meriwether Lewis National Monument grounds symbolizes the career of this young patriot cut off in his prime.


The Michigan Road was the main north-and-south route over which settlers swarmed into the State of Indiana. It was the overland bridge providing the shortest practicable route between the Ohio River and the Great Lakes during the pioneer period when the waterways were the principal arteries of travel. It connected Madison, on the northern bank of the Ohio River, with Michigan City on Lake Michigan. Contrary to the popu­lar impression, the Michigan Road was not the main route over which pioneer settlers reached Michigan. The Michigan Road derived its name from the lake not the State. The immigrants to southern Michigan entered principally by way of the Erie Canal, the Great Lakes and the old Chicago Turnpike which followed the loca­tion of the earlier Sauk Indian trail leading southwest from Detroit.

The Michigan Road was used principally by the settlers who established their homes in Indiana. It was conceived by the inhabitants of the Hoosier State, built by Indiana's sons, and traversed by the immigrants bound for Indiana. Over this road the pioneers of the 1830's, called “movers,” drove their ox-drawn covered wagons through the hills of the southern counties of the State of Indiana to the fertile prairies beyond the Wabash River. The track was passable during the eight months of the year when the weather was fav­orable but throughout the winter season it was a meandering stream of mud practically useless for travel.

In the central portion of the State, the Michigan Road crossed a level plain covered with woods so dense that the rays of the summer sun penetrated rarely to the forest floor carpeted with leaf mould which retained the accumulated moisture with the avidity of a sponge. There were vast areas of swamps, which the forest streams, choked with windfalls, underbrush and debris, never drained. Nevertheless, the dark, forested wilderness, the dismal swamps, the rocky and muddy stretches of the Michigan Road, the hostile Indians and the wild animals failed to deter the early settlers because they were enabled to vision with the eyes of faith far beyond their immediate surroundings to the distant plains where lay the promise of happy homes and financial security for their families. Thus, the story of the Michigan Road verifies the social axiom that the greatest wealth of a nation lies not in the value of its material resources but in the character and ability of its people.

The Michigan Road was second only to the National Road as an overland route leading into Indiana. Emigrants from Pennsylvania, New England, and other eastern States floated in flatboats and barges and upon rafts down the Ohio River to begin their northward journey at the riverside settlement at Madison. Settlers journeying northward from the southern States of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and the Carolinas, crossed the Ohio River from Milton to Madison. More than one-half of the homesteaders in the northwest quarter of Indiana reached their destinations over the Michigan Road. Many pioneer families also en­tered southern Michigan over this thoroughfare.

The 267-mile-long Michigan Road traversed the State of Indiana by the shortest practicable route. It began at Madison on the bank of the traffic-laden Ohio River because this town offered a suitable landing nearest to the State capital at Indianapolis, 92 miles away. Thence the road ran 71 miles, through Michigantown, to the Wabash River crossing at Logansport; thence 68 miles to South Bend on the southerly bank of the St. Joseph River; and thence wester­ly 36 miles to Michigan City on Lake Michigan.

The 100-feet-wide right of way for the road through the Pottawatomie Indian lands, between the Wabash River and Lake Michigan, was obtained by a treaty consummated October 16, 1826. The subsequent survey, begun in 1828, located the left-hand right-angled turn at South Bend in order to avoid the soft Kankakee River swamps.

In 1925, the Michigan Road handle from Michigan City to South Bend was designated United States Route 20 and southerly from South Bend to Rochester as United States Route 31. A century before the French Canadian, Pierre Frieschutz Navarre's fur-trading cabin on the east bank of the St. Joseph River, shown in the illustration, located the site for the future South Bend.


Incorporated in 1827, by an act of the General Assembly, the Northwestern Turn­pike was the State of Virginia's bid for the lucrative trade of the Territory Northwest of the Ohio River. Maryland's access was by way of the National Pike, opened to Wheeling on the Ohio River in 1818. The great Pennsylvania Road had been turnpiked from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh by 1820. New York outdistanced all rivals in 1825, with the practically water-level grade across the mountains through the Erie Canal.

The need for a western road had been recognized by General Daniel Morgan and other Virginia leaders as early as 1748. In the same year George Washington probab­ly entertained a similar vision when, as a 16-year old lad, he crossed the south branch of the Potomac River near Romney, shown on the accompanying map, as a member of a party to survey the lands of Thomas Lord Fairfax. Washington's first attempt to build a thoroughfare to the west was embodied in 1755, in the military road cut for the ill-fated expedition of the British General Edward Braddock.  Washington's second effort was made in the canal, begun in 1785, following his victorious di­rection of the American revolutionary armies. Returning in the preceding year from his western land holdings over McCulloch's path, General Wash­ington crossed the north branch of the Potomac River along the route of the future Northwestern Turnpike. The parent of this turnpike was the “state road” authorized by the General Assembly before 1786, from Winchester, through Romney to Morgantown, then in Virginia. Continued westward by a branch road to Clarksburg, in 1786, this path was extended to the debouchments of the Little Kanawha tributary to the Ohio River, in 1788 to 1790.

The original act of 1827, incorporating the Northwestern Turnpike, authorized subscriptions from the townspeople at Winchester, Romney, Moorefield, Beverly, Kingwood, Pruntytown, Clarksburg and Parkersburg on the Ohio River. The authors of the act made the fatal mistake of choosing a route to serve the most important towns without regard for the difficulties of the topography. Subsequently, the locating engineers found a suitable grade, from Winchester to Preston but encountered insuperable obstacles of terrain between that point and Kingwood. This dilemma was noised about and raised doubts in the minds of prospective stock buyers. Thereafter the project languished until 1831 when, seeking to wrench victory from the jaws of seeming defeat, the General Assembly reenacted the western road authority. The legislation provided for a company, with the Governor of the State as president of the board of directors, empowered to borrow $125,000, secured by the State's resources, to construct a turnpike road with a minimum width of 12 feet “from Winchester to some point on the Ohio River to be situated by the principal engineer.” Authority was granted also to erect bridg­es, to regulate existing ferries and to establish tollgates on the completed road at 20-mile intervals.

Employing every administrative precaution to avoid a repetition of the previous mistake of establishing the road through unsurveyed terrain, the Governor implemented the act by appointing an engineer of proved ability to find the best route. The chief executive made Captain Claudius Crozet, at that time State Engineer of Virginia, the chief engineer of the turnpike company. Captain Crozet had served with distinction under Napoleon Bona­parte as a French artillery officer. Later he had immigrated to this country and demonstrated his engineering talents as a professor at the United States Military Academy at West Point from 1817 to 1823. Resigning for reasons of health, he entered upon a more active outdoor life as State Engineer of Vir­ginia, in 1824, a position, which he continued to fill for nearly nine years. The route across the Allegheny Mountains chosen by Captain Crozet, shown on the accompanying map, bears the earmarks of his engineering genius to this day. The easy grades and excellent alignment developed by the survey parties under his direction more than a century ago, reproduced in the illustration, fixed the present location of United States Route 50 laid out in accordance with the most advanced engineering practices.

The original turnpike reached Parkersburg in 1838. The construction cost at that date totaled $400,000.


The National Pike, or Cumberland Road as it is named by statute, was the first im­portant road to be built with Federal funds in this country. Now known as United States Route 40, the commissioners appointed by President Thomas Jefferson selected the location following the old portage path across the Allegheny Mountains from tidewater on the Potomac River at Cumberland, Maryland, to the nearest practicable head of nav­igation on the Monongahela branch of the Ohio River at Red Stone Old Fort (Brownsville, Pennsylvania), 72 miles away. From the day, in 1818, when travel began as far as Wheeling, then in Virginia, the National Pike shared with the Pennsylvania Road the bulk of the east-west movement until the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad reached the Ohio River in 1853. Rising and falling over the hills in the States of Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, along a series of straight courses of greater length than on any other road in America, this great thoroughfare spanned a distance of 677 miles between its point of beginning at Cumberland, to the projected terminus at the Mississippi River. The National Pike was the westward extension of the 135-mile turnpike from Baltimore through Frederick to Cumberland. In the heyday of its career, between 1820 and 1840, this long road was thronged with lines of heavily laden Conestoga freight wagons passed continually by fast stagecoaches drawn by six galloping horses.

Following the War of the American Revolution, the Wilderness Road from Virginia through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky and the Pennsylvan­ia Road from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh were the two main wagon routes across the Allegheny Mountains. Because the southern States in 1795-1797 were unable to finance a good road through sparsely settled mountain wildernesses, the Federal Government became interested in building a transmountain connection after the Ordinance of 1787 created the Territory Northwest of the Ohio River.

Congress in 1803, one year after Ohio was admitted into the Union, agreed that a “2 percent fund,” derived from the sale of public lands, should be devoted toward the construction of roads TO and THROUGH the new commonwealth. The National Pike was the result of this “compact” between the Fed­eral and State Governments.

On March 29, 1806, Congress passed an Act authorizing the construction of this road, from Cumberland, Maryland, to the State of Ohio. Funds from the National Treasury were to be reimbursed from the State “2 percent fund.” This financial plan turned out to be a pious hope that was never realized. By 1808 the right of way was cleared one-half width as far as Brownsville, Pennsylvania. The first road construction contract was let on May 8, 1811, and the partially completed highway was opened to traffic as far as Wheeling on the Ohio River in 1818.

When Indiana, in 1816, and Illinois, in 1818, were admitted to Statehood, the Federal Government entered into road building "compacts" similar to that with Ohio. Under these agreements for repayment, which never were carried out, Congress in 1820 appropriated funds for continuing the National Pike through the States of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois to the Mississippi River. By l830, the location reached Vandalia, then the capital of Illinois, but never progressed beyond that town. Already the 18-year struggle had begun between St. Louis, Missouri, and Alton, Illinois, to win the prized crossing of the Mississippi River

By the time that the new stone bridge was completed by the United States Army Engineers across Wills Creek at Cumberland, Maryland, in 1836, the shadows of eastern railroad competition had lengthened toward the west. The National Pike at its eastern extremity began to feel the loss of business to the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, in 1840. The stagecoaches stopped running east of the Ohio River, in 1853, when the railroad reached Wheeling. Meanwhile the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal had been completed to Cumberland from Georgetown in 1850.

The last construction expenditure on the National Pike was made in Indiana, in 1841. The net total Federal expenditures on the famous road were $6,759,257.


The Oregon Trail was the first overland wagon road to the Pacific Coast along which settlers trudged, rode, and sang in the greatest tide of travel that ebbed and flowed in pioneer America. Beginning at independence, Missouri, the Oregon Trail climbed steadily for 921 miles to the South Pass over the Continental Divide, and reached its highest elevation (8,200 feet) a short distance beyond Fort Bridger Thence the road ran downhill to Ore­gon City, 2,000 miles from Independence, except for the 5,000-feet-high Blue Mountains beyond Fort Boise and the 4,000-feet-summit of the Barlow Road south of Mount Hood.

The Oregon Trail was conceived in the womb of time during the period from 1500 to 1792 when sea explorations were made by the Spaniards, French, Portuguese, Dutch, Rus­sians and Americans to discover the Northwest Coast of America. In 1792, Captain Robert Gray of Boston, in his good ship Columbia Rediviva, discovered and named the great river.

Land explorers, seeking fur-trading profits, searched for the best route to the Northwest Coast from 1745 to 1833. Not later than 1746, a Yazoo Indian named Moncacht Apé (He who kills trouble and fatigue) crossed the Mississippi River, ascended the Missouri River, crossed the Stony (Rocky) Mountains and followed the Beautiful Columbia River to its debouchments into the South Sea (Pacific Ocean). In 1766-1768, Jonathan Carver gave the name Oregon to the "river of the west." After the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 abutted United States territory upon the Oregon Country, Captain Meriwether Lewis and Lieutenant William Clark were dispatched by President Thomas Jefferson, between 1804 and 1807, to explore the new region. In 1811, John Jacob Astor's Pacific Fur Company erected Fort Astoria—the first permanent American settlement west of the Rocky Mountains. This stockade was sold to the British following the War of 1812 as the Oregon Question strained relations between the two countries. In 1820, Mississippi River steamboatmen thronged the old French city of St. Louis as Congress debated the expediency of United States occupation of the Columbia River region. In 1824, William H. Ashley discovered the South Pass and Dr. John McLoughlin arrived at Fort George (Astoria) to head the interests of the Hudson's Bay Company.

During the ensuing decade, from 1834 to 1843, fur traders yielded control of the Oregon country to missionary colonists and farmer emigrants. In 1834, Reverend Jason Lee led a party over the faintly discernible trail to Fort Vancouver, the new headquarters of Hudson's Bay Company. Dr. Marcus Whitman, a Pres­byterian missionary, drove the first wagon to the Columbia River in 1836. Dr Elijah White led the first large group of emigrants over the Oregon Trail in 1842, when the Webster-Ashburton Treaty between the United States and England and hard times in the East created conditions favorable to the Great Migration of 1843, which marked the real beginning of the Oregon Trail.

Thousands of emigrants, swarming to Oregon over the now well-beaten track and down the Columbia River on rafts, as shown in the accompanying illus­tration, clinched the American claim to the Northwest country from 1844 to 1848 when the cry of “Gold!” deflected the stream of travel near Salt Lake toward the new bonanza in California. In 1846, the devotees of peace hushed the raucous war cry of “Fifty-four-forty or fight’ as the Oregon Question was settled by Eng­land's relinquishment of all Oregon land claims between latitudes 42 and 49 degrees. The California gold seekers as well as those bound for the Oregon gold fields crowded the trail from 1849 to 1852. Meanwhile, in 1850, the Donation Land Act attracted home seekers once more to Oregon. The next important series of events included the Statehood of Oregon in 1856, the consolidation of the overland stage lines in I858, the pony express riders galloping over portions of the Oregon Trail in 1860-61, and the eclipse of the old trail by steam railroad to the Pacific Coast in 1869. Since then, motor vehicles have transformed the growing stream of travel and United States Route 30 has become the new name for much of the Old Oregon Trail.


The first through overland mail service between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Coast was provided by the “Butterfield Overland Mail” stagecoaches in 1858, as shown in the accompanying illustration. As early as 1849, concurrent with the gold rush to California, regular United States mail was transported by steamboats from New York City, carrying also express and passengers to Chagres. Thence the trip was continued across the Isthmus of Panama by canoe and mule-back until the railroad was completed in 1855, to Panama City where another line of steamboats completed the journey to San Francisco. The steamboats operated upon a semimonthly schedule. The trip from New York to the Golden Gate con­sumed 25 to 30 days.

During the nine-year period when steamboats supplied the only coast-to-coast transportation, local stage lines began running in the Rocky Mountain re­gion. In 1850 regular monthly mails were established from Independence, Missouri, to Salt Lake City, Utah, by light wagon or packhorse. In 1851 another mail line extended communications from the Mormon capital to California. Meanwhile, in 1850, following the war with Mexico, a monthly mail line had been installed to the southwest from Independence to Santa Fé. These pioneer mail lines were not dependable because of meager Governmental financial support, the lack of established way stations and relays, and Indian depredations. As a consequence, there continued an incessant demand for better east-west communication and travel facilities. A petition bearing 75,000 signatures was forwarded to the National capital by steamboat in April 1856.

Supporters of the through overland mail service argued that only by this means could be broken the transportation monopolies of the steam-ship companies and the Panama Railroad. Overland railroads to the Pacific Coast were deemed far in the future. Furthermore, should a foreign war break out, the enemy could readily sever the Panama mail route and divide the Union. Congress acknowledged the merits of these conten­tions by enacting the Overland Mail Bill in March 1857. Postmaster General A.V. Brown, whose home was in Memphis, Tennessee, awarded the con­tract in September 1857, to John Butterfield, William G. Fargo and associates for a regular through mail service “performed with good four-horse coaches or spring wagons, suitable for the conveyance of passengers, as well as the safety and security of the mails.” The Postmaster General chose the routes from St. Louis, Missouri, and Memphis converging upon Fort Smith, Arkansas, thence passing through El Paso, Tucson, Yuma and Los Angel­es to San Francisco.

After a year of preparation the contractors launched the first stagecoaches simultaneously from St. Louis and San Francisco on September 15, 1858, making the one-way trip in less than 24 days. Well-stocked relay stations punctuated the road at intervals of 10 to 15 miles, with armed guards in the Indian country. The "Butterfield Overland Mail" was a success from its inception. The sturdy Concord coaches carried nine people on three seats inside and one to ten more on top with the driver. By 1860 the amount of mail carried by the overland stages exceeded that transported over the Isthmus of Panama. During this period sectional interests were incensed over the choice of the southern "ox-bow" route because the location of the stage line was believed to fix the position of a future Pacific railroad. In response to regional pressure the Government opened a semimonthly mail line, in 1857, from San Antonio, Texas, to San Diego, California. In 1858, a mail service was authorized from Kansas City through Santa Fé to Stockton, California. In the same year a semimonthly mail was initiated across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Meanwhile the communications over the cen­tral route, from Independence through Salt Lake City to Sacramento, had been consolidated into a weekly operation.

The halls of Congress echoed with debates concerning the relative merits of the six mail routes to California. The debate was terminated in 1861 by the outbreak of the War Between the States and it became necessary, by July 1st, to shift the overland mail line from the southern "ox-bow" to the "Central Route" where United States troops could preserve communications.


The pneumatic-tired “safety” bicycle had captured the imagination of the American people to such an extent by 1892 that newspapers and periodicals of that day referred to the bicycle “craze.” The mania found expression in riding schools organized to instruct novices in all the large cities; in the “Daisy Bell” popular song featuring “A Bicycle Built for Two”—the tandem; by slang words as “scorching” an exaggeration of the heat produced by the friction of the speeding vehicle with the road surface; and by the novel “rational dress” called “bloomers” which the ladies adopted so as to acquire greater freedom of movement. This costume had been contrived, in 1851, by Mrs. Amelia Jenks Bloomer, an ardent advocate of women's rights and dress reform. Lacking any real need for its adop­tion, her innovation was forgotten until revived by the bicycle. The “safety” left in its wake not only a new wave of styles in women’s and men's dress but also a new start in the improvement of the roads and streets of this country.

In the “Gay Nineties” from 1890 to 1895, when the “safety” was being standardized and perfected, only a small mileage of city streets were surfaced with pavement, macadam or cobblestones. The country roads as a whole were in a miserable condition. The old macadam turnpikes built during the early part of the nineteenth century had been allowed to deteriorate after 1835 to 1850 when superseded progressively from east to west by the gleaming steam railroad tracks. The League of American Wheelmen, organized in 1880 by a consolidation of local "ordinary" bicycle clubs, had been sounding a clarion call for GOOD ROADS and bicycle side paths for more than a decade. Their monumental efforts began to bear fruit as State after State enacted local road-aid laws, led by New Jersey in 1891. At that time the plight of the "city slicker" cyclist caught in a thundershower on a hilly earth road was a source of amusement to many a farmer, as suggested in the accompanying illustration. Road signs were either missing or illegible, and maps presented meager and often inaccurate information. This picture illustrates the axiom of highway development that the improvement of the roadway always lags behind the evolution of the vehicle.

This betterment and standardization, which has characterized the growth of every vehicle type, may be demonstrated best, perhaps, by “safety” bicycle statistics. Statistics relating to the bicycles produced and the number of persons per bicycle are shown on the accompanying chart. The figures representing 1889 to 1939 are from the United States Bureau of the Census. The Bicycle Institute of America, Inc., compiled the figures for 1940 to 1948.

During the period from 1892 to 1894, the bicycle manufacturers enjoyed great prosperity, boosted further by exports to England. The decline in demand began in 1897 for reasons that seem obscure. The competition of the effortless automobile does not explain satisfactorily the abrupt cooling of popular enthusiasm. One cause that has been suggested is the slowing of demand resulting from the change in policy of manufacturing new models every three or four seasons instead of annually as before. Perhaps the older generation found bicycling a more strenuous exercise than they anticipated even though the “safety” weight totaled only 9 to 35 pounds, as compared with 19 to 60 pounds for the “high bicycle.” Whatever the cause, many more bicycles are ridden today than during the halcyon years of the “Nineties” In 1896 there were 4 million bicycles in use as compared with 18 million in 1949. The fact remains, however, that current models are running about 15 percent adults in contrast to 85 percent children's models.

The method of calculating the gear ratio of the “safety” is an inheritance from the “ordinary” which warrants an addendum. For example, a 65-gear means that the “safety” will travel as far by one revolution of the pedals as an “ordinary” bicycle with a front wheel 65 inches in diameter.


What is generally accepted as the first American gasoline-engine automobile in the United States was given a short road test on the streets of Springfield, Massachusetts, by its builder, J. Frank Duryea in September, 1893, as shown in the accompanying illustration. Actually gasoline-engine automobiles were operated on the streets as early as 1889 by Henry Nadig, at Allentown, Pennsylvania, in 1890 by Gottfried Schloemer at Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and in 1891 by Charles H. Black at Indianapolis, Indiana. Construction on what was in reality a mechanized buggy was begun on April 4, 1892, by Charles E. Duryea and his brother, J. Frank Duryea, in the machine shop owned by John W. Russell & Sons, situated at 47 Taylor Street, Springfield. The phaeton buggy had been purchased by Charles E. Duryea with $1,000 supplied by Erwin F. Markham, the financial backer of the project, who was to receive in return one-tenth of the future profits. Charles E. Duryea is credited with the orig­inal idea of a “horseless buggy” driven by a gasoline engine the design of which had been suggested by C.E. Hawley, of Hartford, Connecticut. After hav­ing had made some drawings embodying the principal structural features of the car, Charles enlisted the aid of his brother Frank, then a tool maker at the Ames Manufacturing Company at Chicopee, Massachusetts, to take charge of the construction.

Frank began at once to build the car according to the drawings submitted by his brother Charles, including the motor, transmission and steering gear on the front axle. After repeated trials the original free-piston engine was found to be impractical. In September 1892, Charles E.Duryea left Springfield for Peoria, Illinois, where he established a permanent residence and engaged in the bicycle business. His brother, J. Frank Duryea, was left in sole charge of the redesign and final construction of the automobile.

Following a siege of typhoid fever and further unsuccessful attempts to rebuild and run the original engine, J. Frank Duryea concluded reluctant­ly that the engine was a failure. About March 1, 1893, in agreement with his faithful sponsor, Erwin F. Markham, Frank began work on the drawings for a new engine based upon “sound and well-tried mechanical principles.” This four-cycle, water-cooled motor, completed late in August 1893, was installed in the reconstructed car together with Frank's design of an electric ignition, spray carburetor, governor, muffler, and hand cranking device; also, his frame­work, supporting the engine with transmission, pivoted on the front axle. Then, according to Frank, he and Mr. Markham, “stood the vehicle up on end, resting on its rear wheels, to take it down the elevator, and it was left in the area between the Russell and Stacy buildings until after dark, when Mr. Markham's son-in-law, Mr. Bemis, brought a harnessed horse and we pulled it out to his barn on Spruce Street. It was on Spruce and Florence, connecting streets, that I made most of the tests of the machine which, for the first time was now to be driven on the road. An item in the Springfield Evening Union, dated September 16, 1893, clearly indicates that when the car was nearly ready to leave the shop I gave a description of it to a Union reporter. A second item dated September 22,1893, states definitely that 'first tests' have been made and shows clearly that the friction transmission had performed badly.”

  J. Frank Duryea began at once to redesign the transmission. After trying various arrangements of leather and rubber belts without success, he abandoned these materials as unsatisfactory and built an entirely new "gear and clutch transmission giving two speeds and reverse.” This transmission having been in­stalled, the “horseless buggy” was given another street trial which was described as a success in the January 19,1894, issue of the Springfield Union. This car is now on display in the National Museum in Washington D.C. as exhibit No. 307,199.

Although it ran fairly well, the appearance of this car was so unsightly that it lacked commercial appeal. J. Frank Duryea, therefore, set to work and designed and built a vehicle more pleasing to the eye, which "had its first test on the top floor of the E.S. Stacy building late in 1894.

“At this time Charles Duryea arrived from Peoria, Illinois the first time he had been back since he left in September, 1892, and was given a ride around on the top floor, his first ride in a Duryea car.”


One of the offspring of the “Good Roads Movement” was the Office of Road Inquiry, United States Department of Agriculture, authorized by a statute enacted by the Fifty-second Congress, approved by President Benjamin Harrison on March 3, 1893. The statute read in part, “To enable the Secretary of Agriculture to make inquiries in regard to the systems of road management throughout the United States, to make investigations in regard to the best methods of road-making, and to enable him to assist the agricultural college and experiment stations in disseminating information on this subject, ten thousand dollars.”

Secretary of Agriculture J. Sterling Morton instituted the Office of Road Inquiry on October 3, 1893, and appointed General Roy Stone, of New York, formerly secretary for the National League of Good Roads, as Special Agent and Engineer for Road Inquiry in charge of the new organization, as shown in the accompanying illustration. In 1894, the Office issued its Bulletin No. l—State Laws Relating to the Management of Roads. Enacted in 1888-1893.

The Office, in 1895, began the preparation of a Good Roads National Map showing all the macadamized and graveled roads in the country. Because the cost of hauling farm products averaged 22 to 31 cents per ton-mile of road, traction tests were made at the National Road Parliament held at Atlanta, Georgia, upon roads of different gradients and surface types. An increasing variety of studies were under­taken as better roads jumped land values from 30 to 800 percent. From August 1898, to January l899, former Ohio State Highway Commissioner Martin Dodge, from Cleveland, filled the position of director vacated by General Roy Stone when on leave of absence while serving as a brigadier general on the staff of General Nelson A. Miles during the Spanish-American War. General Stone resumed his duties as Director of the Office on January 31, 1899, but resigned on October 23. Thereafter Martin Dodge was reappointed.

A testing laboratory, headed by Logan Waller Page, was installed by the Office in 1900, in the basement of the Bureau of Chemistry building. The Office cooperated with the National Good Roads Association and the Illinois Central Railroad, in 1901; in the first “Good Roads Train” which ran from New Or­leans to Chicago as road experts gave lectures and built object-lesson roads along the route.

Pursuant to an Act of Congress, approved by President William McKinley on March 3, 1905, the Office of Public Roads Inquiries and the Division of Tests of the Bureau of Chemistry were consolidated on July 1, into the Office of Public Roads, with Logan Waller Page as Director. In the following year the Office began advising the Post Office Department concerning rural post road improvement and cooperation was initiated with the Forest Service for the construction of wagon roads and trails in the National Forest Reserves.

Post roads were designated in 18 States by 1913 and their building begun in Alabama and Iowa with the $500,000 fund included in the Post Office Appro­priation Act approved by President William Howard Taft on August 24,1912. By an Act of Congress, approved March 4, 1915, by President Woodrow Wilson, the divisions of drainage and irrigation from the Office of Experiment Stations and the farm architectural work of the Office of Farm Management Inves­tigations were merged with the Office of Public Roads to form the Office of Public Roads and Rural Engineering.

The Federal Aid Road Act passed by Congress was approved by President Woodrow Wilson on July 11,1916. The Office of Public Roads and Rural Engineering on July 1, 1918, became the Bureau of Public Roads and following the death of Logan Waller Page on December 9, the former chief engineer of the Iowa State Highway Commission Thomas H. MacDonald was appointed acting chief in May 1919.

The Bureau of Public Roads on July 1, 1939, was transferred from the Department of Agriculture to the newly created Federal Works Agency and named the Public Roads Administration. On August 20, l949, after being a unit of the new General Services Administration since July 1, the Public Roads Administration was transferred to the Department of Commerce and designated once more the Bureau of Public Roads.


Two events, in the year 1903, were straws in the wind pointing to the trend of the automobile industry. One was the spectacular transcontinental trip made by Dr. H. Nelson Jackson, a prominent surgeon, from Burlington, Vermont, in a 20-horse-power Winton touring car, which he purchased from a private owner in San Francisco by paying a premium above the $2,500 list price. Without fanfare, at his own expense, and motivat­ed only by the ambition to be the first to complete the cross-country journey in a mo­tor car, Dr. Jackson left the Golden Gate City on May 23, 1903, accompanied by his chauffeur Sewell K. Croker. The doctor avoided newspaper publicity because of a lingering doubt that the trip was possible. He arranged with a local agent to forward parts needed along the road. The car was loaded with supplies and equipment including a block and tackle. The route led from Sacramento across the Sierra Nevada Moun­tains, entered Oregon south of Lakeview, thence easterly across the Great Desert, the Continental Divide, the plains of Nebraska, the black mud of Iowa, through Illinois, Indiana and Ohio to New York City, traversing in all eleven States. A mishap in Wyoming is illustrated, herewith. From Nebraska east to the Hudson River  “it rained every day and all day.” The rope pulley changed de­feat into victory. Mired eighteen times in one day in buffalo wallows they extricated themselves by using the rear axle as a windlass to power the rope tackle. Because of the detours made to avoid impassable trails and flooded areas, the 3,000 miles separating the Pacific and Atlantic coasts stretched to nearly 6,000 miles when the rugged doctor reached the New York metropolis, on July 26,1903, after averaging more than 90 miles a day. On the road for 63 days his actual running time was 44 days. The tired traveler returned to his home in Vermont with the statement that, “I will have the satisfaction of being the first to cross the continent in an automobile.”

A second event, which at the time appeared insignificant, was the incorporation, on June 16, 1903, of the Ford Motor Company with a capital stock of $28,000. Nevertheless, this pioneer industrialist was destined to build an automobile to fit the pocketbook of the people. Manufacturing 1,695 cars in 1904, 1,599 in 1905 and 8,729 in 1906, Henry Ford in 1907, surprised the country with his announcement of standardized mass production. He proceeded to turn out 14,887 cars, during the same year, from his assembly lines. The small, low-priced "tin lizzie" became so popular that average automobile prices dropped from $3,000 in 1900, to $1,000 in 1911, and as low as $605 by l9l6. The retail prices of the Ford 4-cylinder models in 1917, varied from $345 to $645.

Meanwhile, horse-drawn buggy builders topped peak annual production of one million vehicles, in 1904, when the combined automobile makers crossed the 50,000 production mark. The total number of horses in the United States, however, did not begin to dwindle until after 1916 when the influence of the motor truck began to be felt. By 1905 the automobile had ceased to be an experiment when the American Automobile Association sponsored the first Charles J. Glidden reliability contest. Thirty-four cars left New York City, on July 11, and chugged through Hartford and Boston to Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, returning via Concord, and Worcester, Massachusetts to New York City, a total distance of 870 miles. Percy Pierce, driving a Pierce Ar­row, won first place. The automobile had now won its place under the sun.

The decline in horse-drawn vehicle manufacture, noticeable since the turn of the century, soon was to take an abrupt tumble. Acknowledging the superiority of the internal-combustion engine the White Company, in 1909, shifted from steamers to the production of gasoline-engine cars. In the same year Carl G. Fisher built the 2 1/2 mile oval Indianapolis Speedway, at an original cost of more than $700,000. The invalidation of the Selden patent and the production of the electric starter, in 1911, started the automobile upon its race toward world wide utility.


The first transcontinental motor-truck trip made, in 1911, demonstrated the use­fulness of the motor vehicle as a freight carrier. The motor truck now was ready to put on long pants and do a man's job. The journey was performed in a four-cyl­inder, 37 horse-power, gasoline-engine powered truck, called the” Pioneer Freighter" built by the Sauer Motor Car Company of New York. The vehicle was equipped with a chain drive from the counter shaft to the rear axle. The transmission allowed four rates of speed. The front wheels were shod with single 36-inch diameter and the rear wheels with dual 42-inch diameter solid rubber tires. The 24-gallon gasoline tank permitted a touring range of 168 miles over good roads where seven miles could be covered with a gallon of fuel. The weight of the unloaded body and chassis was about three tons. The load, consisting of lumber for bridging creeks and soft roads plus camp equipment and supplies, weighed another three and one half tons. The loaded weight, therefore, totaled 14,000 pounds. The truck was piloted by A.L. Westgard, representing the Touring Club of America and com­missioned a Special Agent of the Office of Public Roads, United States Department of Agriculture.

The westward leg of the tour began on March 4, 1911, when the truck rolled from Denver, Colorado, thence running southwest, shown in the illustration, through Santa Fé, New Mexico and Phoenix, Arizona to Los Angeles, California, entered on May 9, after traveling 1,450 miles in 66 days of which 53 days were consumed in travel. The running time of 444 hours and 20 minutes averaged a speed of 3.26 miles an hour—about as fast as a man could walk. A block and tackle was used to haul the truck through desert “soft spots” and to “submarine”— or ford—the streams. From Los Angeles the machine was driven to San Francisco and shipped by railroad back to Pueblo, Colorado, south of the Denver starting point.

The eastward reversed leg of the journey began on June 12, 1911, when the truck left Pueblo under its own power, arriving in Kansas City, Missouri, on June 18, after traveling 700 miles in 70 hours actual running time, an average of 10 miles an hour, including 8-hours delay when the heavily-laden truck crashed through a high wooden-trestle bridge west of Hutchinson, Kansas. The journey ended at New York City. This endurance run as well as the first Motor Truck Show convened at Madison Square Garden, New York City, in 1911, served notice that the freight motor carrier had grown in stature to economic importance. In the ensuing year, 1912, 500 motor trucks were displayed in competition with horse drawn vehi­cles in a commercial wagon parade in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

After World War I broke out in Europe on August 4, 1914, motor truck and tractor manufacture expanded to speed transportation of war materiel to homeports for shipment overseas and to increase farm productivity. The total horse and mule population of the United States reached a peak of 26,723,000, in 1918, the year of the Armistice. Thereafter, animal breeding joined the retreat of wagon and carriage production with an annual shrinkage at the rate of about two per cent. Thus, in 1946, there were only 11,455,000 horses and mules in this country, a loss of 57.2 per cent throughout the preceding 28 years.

The atrocious condition of the cross-country trails revealed by the Sauer pathfinder motor truck and by the transcontinental automobile tourists, who preceded it, revealed the need for a surfaced east-west highway. With characteristic energy, Carl G. Fisher brought the matter of a “Coast to Coast Rock Highway” before the leaders of the automobile industry during September 1912. Mr. Fisher's plan anticipated raising a fund of $10,000,000 to open a passable road by May 1, 1915—the opening date of the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, California. Because this highway would free the motorist from the shackles of mud, the name of the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln, was appropriated for launch­ing the Lincoln Highway Association, in 1913, to promote a model transcontinental highway.


The Lincoln Highway was conceived with the aim of building a great transcon­tinental object-lesson road at a time when there were no improved long-distance highways in the United States. In 1913 no State, nor probably any county, could boast of a completed highway system.

As the motor vehicles rolled from the assembly lines and out into towns and through the countryside in growing numbers, Carl G. Fisher, who had been associat­ed with the automobile industry from its infancy, envisioned the possibilities of a Coast-to-Coast Rock Highway. On September 6, 1912, Mr. Fisher presented the pro­ject to a group of automobile manufacturers and received their enthusiastic approv­al. Within a short time 4 million dollars were pledged toward the construction of the road. Then followed the customary discussions preceding the first formal meet­ing of the organizers held on July 1, 1913, at the national headquarters in Room 2115, Dime Savings Bank Building, Detroit, Michigan. There the Lincoln Highway Associ­ation was chosen as the name of the organization because of the widespread patri­otic appeal of the Civil War President.

Henry B. Joy, the president of the Packard Motor Car Company, was elected as the first president of the fledgling Lincoln Highway Association. Mr. Joy and his Board of Directors decided that it was the paramount duty of the association to build on the shortest, best and most direct route across the midsection of the country from New York to San Francisco, illustrated on the map (right). The South Pass crossing of the Rocky Moun­tains was agreed upon as the most practicable route over the Continental Divide. The original projected length of 3,389 miles later was shortened to 3,143 miles by improvements in alignment.

The sixteen members of the Board of Directors of the Lincoln Highway Association named from their own number an Executive Committee, of five persons. Subject to their administrative direction, the Executive Committee appointed State, County, District, or Local Consuls to promote the im­provement of the several sections of the route. In 1923 there were 285 consuls at work along the highway.

To arouse countrywide interest in the Lincoln Highway, an automobile caravan of 70 persons left Brazil, Indiana, on July 1, 1913. The tour reached Los Angeles without serious mishap 34 days later. From its inception the backers of the Lincoln Highway Association had in mind the promulgation of a broad educational program emphasizing the need for better roads. With this objective in view, a program of "seedling miles" was inaugurated with the assurance that each unit of good road would bear fruit in many more miles of a similar pattern. Early in October 1914, construction began on the first "seedling mile" consisting of cement pavement near Malta, Illinois, between 6.2 and 7.2 miles west of the DeKalb Post Office.

The passage of the Federal-aid Road Act on July 11, 1916, relieved the Lincoln Highway Association of the burden of advocating for better roads. With the general public conscious of this need, the activities of the Association shifted to spelling out proper road design and methods of construction. To accomplish this purpose the blueprints for an Ideal Section of the Lincoln Highway were adopted after consultation with leading highway engineers. The pavement was to be of cement concrete, 40 feet wide, capable of carrying four lanes of traffic and flanked on each side by pedestrian side paths, all included within a right of way 110 feet wide. The roadway was designed to carry automobiles at an average speed of 35 miles an hour and motor trucks at 10 miles. Work began on July 7, 1922, on the 1-1/3-mile Ideal Section situated in Lake County, Indiana, beginning at Dyer on the Illinois-Indiana bounda­ry, 33 miles south of Chicago. The concrete paving, shown in the accompanying illustration, was completed in December and the landscaping and the instal­lation of the lighting system in the following year. The total cost of the improvement was $166,655.16.

With the establishment of the numbered system of United States highways in 1925, the Lincoln Highway lost significance in common with other named roads. For the greater portion of its length, the Lincoln Highway coincided with the present United States Route 30 east of the Mississippi River and westward nearly to Salt Lake City, Utah.


The first unit completed under the authorization of the Federal Aid Road Act, approved by President Woodrow Wilson on July 11, 1916, was California Federal-Aid Road Project No. 3, situated in Contra Costa County and known locally as the “Alameda County Boundary to Richmond Road.” The project, shown in the accompanying illustration, was 2.55 miles in length and extended from Albany (Alameda County Boundary) to Richmond in Contra Costa County.

The work consisted of grading the roadbed, draining and installing culverts flanked with concrete headwalls, and laying a Portland cement concrete base, in the proportions of 1:3:6, with a width of 20 feet and a thickness of 5 inches, surfaced with a bituminous concrete top (Topeka mix) 1 1/2 inches in thickness. Construction began officially on September 1, 1916, and the certificate of completion was issued by the District Engineer of the Bureau of Public Roads of the United States Depart­ment of Agriculture, on January 30, 1918. The total cost of the project, including the money allotted by the State, was $53,938.85, of which the Government contributed Federal-aid funds amounting to $24,244.56.

The Federal Aid Road Act, based upon the clause in the Constitution of the United States which empowered Congress to establish post roads, stated that a “ ‘rural post road’ shall be construed to mean any public road over which the United States mails now are or may hereafter be transported, excluding every street and road in a place having a population, as shown by the latest available Federal census, of two thousand five hundred or more, except that portion of any such street or road along which the houses average more than two hundred feet apart.”

The act was intended by its sponsors to accomplish on a National scale what the State-aid road laws, initiated by the State of New Jersey in 1891, had authorized at the county level. That is, the act was worded to promote the improvement of a nationwide system of free roads under the direction of experienced highway engineers. To insure this purpose the act provided, “that the Secretary of Agriculture is authorized to cooperate with the States, through their respective State highway departments, in the construction of rural post roads…provided that all roads constructed under the provi­sions of this act shall be free from tolls of all kinds.”

Having established as a prerequisite for the receipt of Federal-aid funds that each State should have a highway department, staffed with a corps of trained highway engineers, the act proceeded to equip the Secretary of Agriculture with a similar engineering organization by providing “not to exceed three per centum, of the appropriation for any fiscal year made by or under this act as the Secretary of Agriculture may estimate to be necessary for ad­ministering the provisions of this act shall be deducted for that purpose, available until expended,” and further authorizing expenditures for personnel, space, office fixtures, equipment and apparatus needed to administer the act. This function the Secretary of Agriculture delegated to the Bureau of Public Roads.

To spread the mileage of roads improved over the greatest possible area of the United States the act established a maximum Federal-aid contribution of, “$10,000 per mile, exclusive of the cost of bridges of more than twenty feet clear span.” To insure the most equitable distribution of the appropriations among the States, the act provided for the division of the funds, after the deduction of the administrative funds as follows; one-third in ratio of the area of the State to the total area of the United States; one-third likewise in respect to the population of the State; and similarly one-third with respect to the mileage of rural delivery and star routes in each State.

To insure the initial desire for and continued interest of the State in each Federal-aid project the act provided that the Federal-aid share paid by the United States, “shall not exceed fifty per centum of the total estimated cost thereof” and that, “To maintain the roads constructed un­der the provisions of this act shall be the duty of the State” or their civil subdivisions.


The Emergency Relief Appropriation Act, approved by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on April 8, 1935, organized the first major attack upon the baffling prob­lem of railroad grade crossings in cities. A great many rural, as well as a few metro­politan crossings had been eliminated in previous years with the aid of funds admin­istered by the Bureau of Public Roads, United States Department of Agriculture. Just recently the $400,000,000 highway grant of the National Industrial Recovery Act, approved June 16, 1933, and the $200,000,000 highway grant of the Hayden-Cartwnght Act, approved June 18, 1934, had laid great stress upon the need of ridding the road­ways of the grade-crossing menace. Through the medium of this legislation Congress sought not only to provide work for the unemployed, but also to turn the rising tide of motor-vehicle accidents, which had become a matter of growing concern to high­way officials and road users. With the avowed purpose of promoting highway safety, these acts specified that the funds authorized should be devoted to “highway and bridge construction, including the elimination of hazards to highway traffic, such as the separation of grades at crossings, the reconstruction of existing railroad grade crossing structures, the relocation of highways to eliminate railroad crossings, and the cost of any other construction that will provide safer traffic facilities or definitely eliminate existing hazards to pedestrian or vehicular traffic.” Under the authority of these acts, as of June 30, 1935, on extensions of the Federal-aid highway system into and through municipali­ties there were completed 158 railroad-highway grade-separation structures, as well as 75 more placed under construction and others approved for construction.

Efforts to relieve unemployment by means of Federal highway appropriations had begun as early as 1930, following the financial crash of 1929. By 1933, the business depression had sunk to such a low level that Congress sought to apply emergency recovery measures aimed at critical areas of the national economy. The National Industrial Recovery Act and subsequent legislation authorized the expenditure of funds not only upon the approved Federal-aid sys­tem but also upon its extension into and through cities, where were concentrated large blocks of our population, and also upon feeder roads leading into the outlying rural areas where work was scarce. It was a happy coincidence that these extensions of the two extremes of the Federal-aid system occurred at a time when its initial improvement virtually had been completed. For more than a decade following the establishment of the Federal-aid highway system in 1921, the efforts of the State highway departments and the Federal authorities had been devoted to making the entire network equally serviceable for travel. In 1932,with the segments of this initial construction almost joined into a continuous network, the traffic obstacles shifted to the metropolitan con­gested areas. There also the accident risk that was at a maximum because of the concentration of motor vehicles and pedestrians. It was logical, therefore, that viaducts across wide bands of parallel railroad tracks, represented in the accompanying illustration, should provide a promising project for the roadbuilder. By a single major operation the construction of an overpass of this type would do away with a prolific source of accidents as well as abolish the time-con­suming delays to traffic caused by shifting freight trains.

The grade crossing hazard, which had mounted steadily with the increase in motor vehicle registrations, was abruptly accentuated in about 1934 when the riding and driving qualities of automobiles were improved measurably. Comfortable driving speeds of 30 to 40 miles an hour suddenly were raised to 50 to 60 miles an hour without noticeable fatigue. Naturally these higher speeds multiplied the force of the impact when a collision occurred. The result was an increase in the number of fatalities and serious injuries and in the losses caused by property damage. Highway officials were aware that railway-crossing elimination was only one of the many corrective measures needed to reduce the accident rate. The crux of the problem lay in the behavior of automobile drivers.


With the initial surfacing virtually completed on the Federal-aid highway system, consisting of the principal State and interstate highways, there arose a widespread and justifiable demand for the extension of these main roads into and through centers of population by means of trans-city arteries and belt-line distribution thorough fares, or ring roads, as shown in the accompanying illustration. Now that there were 29,442,705 motor vehicles registered, as compared with 1,258,060 twenty-five years before, the annual number of motor-vehicle fatalities had zoomed from 4,227 in 1913, to 32,400 in 1938, not to speak of the millions of persons injured and the vast financial losses re­sulting from property damage. Of the three primary elements of the accident problem, namely: the roadway, the vehicle and the driver, the attention of road-building authori­ties naturally was concentrated upon their major responsibility—the provision of saf­er highways where there were the greatest concentrations of traffic.

The Congressional sounding board had aroused intense public interest in a proposed system of multiple-lane superhighways built according to the highest standards of grade and alignment, with opposing streams of traffic separated by central parkways and grade-separation structures at all highway and railroad crossings, and access for side roads permitted only at carefully selected locations. The Federal-aid Highway Act of 1938 directed the Bureau of Public Roads, United States Department of Agriculture, to investigate the feasibility of building these superhighways, which were supposed to bypass all cities and thus solve the problem of traffic congestion in the centers of population. There were to be three of these great highways extending east and west from coast to coast and not more than three running in a north and south direction to the Canadian boundary. The cost of the roads was to be liquidat­ed from tolls collected from road users.

The findings of the Bureau of Public Roads with respect to these superhighways were presented by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in 1939, to the first session of the Seventy-sixth Congress in House Document No. 272, entitled Toll Roads and Free Roads. The report concluded that the construction of six superhighways crisscrossing the country was practicable from the physical standpoint but unsound for financial reasons. The approximate total length of these six superhighways was estimated at 14,336 miles and the aggregate cost of building to desirable standards added up to $2,899,800,000—an average of $202,270 per mile. Spreading the cost of construction, maintenance and operation over the 15-year period, from l945-60, the average expenditure was computed as $12,840 per mile per year financed by 30-year bonds bearing an interest rate of 2.6 per cent and an additional 2.24 percent set aside each year as a sinking fund to retire the bonds at maturity. The total utilization of the six superhighways for the period of 1945-60 was estimated at 4,544,000,000 vehicle miles equivalent to an average daily traffic on each mile of the six superhighways of 699 passenger vehicles and 175 motor trucks. It was considered reasonable to collect not more than 3.5 cents toll per vehicle-mile for motor trucks and 1.0 cent for passenger cars. Upon this assumption the average an­nual toll collection over the period of 1945-1960 was estimated to total $72,140,000, or less than half of the $184,054,000 average total annual cost of the six superhighways. It was concluded, therefore, that a direct toll system would not be productive of the funds required to recover the entire cost of these high­way facilities. Having outlined the fallacy of the toll system, which had been proved again and again by the failures of toll roads in the past, the report pre­sented a preferable alternative consisting of a master highway plan for the entire Nation embodying five major items as follows:

The construction of a system of interregional highways with necessary connections through and around cities.

The modernization of the Federal-aid highway system.

The elimination of hazards at railroad grade crossings.

The improvements of secondary and feeder roads consistent with programs of land use.

The creation of a Federal Land Authority to acquire, hold and sell lands for highway right of ways.


“An acetylene torch in the hands of Governor Frank F. Merriam burned asunder a heavy chain barrier, an electric button pressed by President Roosevelt in the White House in Washington flashed the green 'Go' signal and three columns of whirring automobiles sped from each shore of San Francisco Bay over six lanes of the world's greatest aerial highway—the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge—a half hour after noon on November 12, 1936.” Thus began an article describing the opening in the California Highways and Public Works Magazine.

For nearly a century San Francisco's leaders had dreamed of a great bridge speeding communications with the East Bay Empire served by the prosperous cities of Oakland, Berkeley and Alameda, wrote C. H. Purcell, the chief engineer in charge of the construction of this masterpiece of engineering genius. Back in 1850, William Walker, a militant San Francisco newspaper editor, proposed a causeway from the Golden Gate city to Contra Costa County patterned after the well-known 2,000-foot Clay Street wharf with foundations as deep as forty feet. Thereafter interest in the proj­ect lagged until revived in 1856 by William Tecumseh Sherman, a young San Francisco banker, later a celebrated Civil War general. No more appeal­ing proposals were made until 1869, when the Central and Union Pacific Railroads were joined into a single transcontinental unit. At that time Leland Stanford, later United States Senator from California, urged upon his railway the desirability of a railroad bay crossing.

More than half a century elapsed before serious attention was directed again at the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge Project. In I92l, the San Fran­cisco Car Dealers Association financed an engineering study to determine the feasibility of a combined tube and concrete causeway crossing. Within sev­en years 35 proposals to build such a connection had been submitted by corporate and individual bidders. San Francisco's Mayor James Rolfe, Jr., in 1928, headed a delegation urging Congress to pass a bill authorizing a bay bridge. The legislation was defeated by Army and Navy objections relating to national defense and interference with navigation. Arriving at the conclusion that Californians must bear the burden if the bridge were to be built at all, a Toll Bridge Authority was established by the California State Legislature in 1929. Congressional approval of a $73,000,000 loan from the Fed­eral Reconstruction Finance Corporation was obtained in June 1932, with the endorsement of President Herbert Hoover. Ground breaking began for the bridge on July 9, 1933, and forty months later the completed structure was opened to automobile and truck traffic.

Before the gigantic crossing was built thirty-five million ferryboat commuters annually passed over the bay in trips, which averaged one hour and sometimes lasted many hours when delayed by fog. The interurban trains which with motor trucks traversed the lower deck of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge saved commuters at least 30 minutes each day as compared with the ferryboat time, and automobiles rolling over the upper deck clipped an hour or more from the daily journey. The bridge toll charge for an automobile, including four passengers, began at 60 cents—considerably less than the 80-cent ferryboat fare. Immediately after its opening the bridge ranked third in traffic use for atoll crossing, being exceeded only by the Holland Tunnel under the Hudson River at New York City and the Philadelphia-Camden Bridge over the Delaware River.

During the first year of operation 25,000 vehicles daily traversed the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, shown in the accompanying illustration. After the competing ferries halved their fares in 1937, the bridge traffic slumped temporarily to 23,600 vehicles per day. When the Golden Gate Exposi­tion opened in 1939, the bridge automobile tolls were reduced from 50 to 40 cents. With this stimulus the bridge traffic rose to 30,000 daily vehicles. During l940, when tolls were cut further to 25 cents, the ferries went out of business. Since World War II ended in August 1945, the daily bridge traffic has averaged 71,000 vehicles or more with as many as 79,016 on Easter Sunday, 1946. By March 1950, the toll receipts are expected to liquidate all the bonded indebtedness and free the bridge to traffic.


The National Interregional Highway Committee was appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on April 14, 1941, “to investigate the need for a limited system of national highways to improve the facilities now available for interregional transportation, and to advise the Federal Works Administrator as to the desirable character of such improvement, and the possi­bility of utilizing some of the manpower and industrial capacity expected to be available at the end of the war.” The Committee, with the aid of a staff provided by the Public Roads Administration, made careful and extended studies of the subject and submitted to the President a report which was transmitted to the Seventy-eighth Congress, Second Session, as House Document No. 379. The report recommended “the designation and improvement to high standards of a national system of rural and urban highways totaling approximately 34,000 miles and interconnecting the principal geographic regions of the country.”

The President continued, “The improvement of a limited mileage of the most heavily traveled highways obviously represents a major segment of the road replacement and modernization program which will confront the Nation in post-war years, in rural and urban communities alike. The committee found that the national network outlined in its report comprised only 1 percent of the total road mileage of the United States but carried 20 percent of the total travel.

“Continued development of the vast network of rural secondary roads and city thoroughfares, which serve as feeder lines and provide land-access service, likewise has an important place in the overall program, together with the repair or reconstruction of a large mileage of Federal and State primary highways not embraced within the interregional network.”

  In the report accompanying the President's message, the committee concluded that preferential right of way should be accorded traffic moving over the interregional routes selected to be the main collectors of the national travel. The speeding of express traffic with due regard to safety and economy required the reduction to a minimum of the access roads and crossings by limiting the entrance upon the main routes to carefully chosen points. This recommendation did not mean the arbitrary denial of exit from abutting property. On the contrary, where travel was light or moderately heavy it might be possible to provide a connection with all adjacent property. The primary objective was to preserve the character of the express route and at the same time prevent the danger of collision.

The Committee recognized that many unimportant rural cross roads could be closed and their traffic diverted to more convenient crossings. Again where the travel upon the interregional highway was light, it might not be necessary to build at once a grade-separation structure. Wherever, however, a grade crossing was permitted, as shown in the accompanying illustration, the intersection was to be so designed and signed that the presence of vehicles upon the main highway would be apparent to entering vehicles. Furthermore, all traffic was to be halted at grade crossings. The Committee proceeded, "The design of the intersection should additionally provide all physical safeguards, such as definite traffic channels and refuge islands, decelerating and accelerating space, etc., as may be necessary to afford a maximum of safety for both of the intersecting traffic streams and a maximum of facility for the traffic on the interregional highway."

The recommendations of President Roosevelt's interregional highway study as well as of his 1939 report entitled, "Toll Roads and Free Roads were incorporated in the Federal Aid Highway Act, approved December 20, 1944. This legislation authorized a Federal appropriation of $500,000,000 for each of the first three post-war years. Of this total amount $225,000,000 was to be spent upon the Federal-aid system in rural regions and $125,000,000 in urban areas. For the construction of secondary and feeder roads $150,000,000 was designated. The act provided for the selection of a National System of Interstate Highways not exceeding 40,000 miles in extent. In February 1945 the Public Roads Administration requested each State Highway Department to proceed at once with recommendations of routes for inclusion in the system without any limitations upon their freedom of action.


The report pertaining to Interregional Highways, transmitted to the Congress on January 12, 1944, contained this significant statement, “The city streets over which the urban mileage included in the recommended interregional system has been measured, are those now marked as the transcity connec­tions of the existing main rural highways that conform closely to the rural sections of the recommend­ed routes. These streets generally pass through or very close to the existing central business areas of the cities.”

The Committee which signed the report observed that, “the studies made of 3 cities of 300,000 or more population show that upward of 90 percent of the traffic moving toward these cities on main approach highways consisted of vehicles bound to ultimate or intermediate destinations within the ci­ties themselves. For the 4 cities of 50,000 to 300,000 populations, the similar proportion of city-bound traffic was found to be above 80 percent. For smaller cities, the corresponding proportion tends to de­cline, reaching 50 percent for the cities of less than 2,500 population that were studied.”

Since the transcity connections joining the rural portions of the Interregional Highway System must penetrate through or near the heart of the city, the problem resolved itself info how best to reduce the number of street intersections, which were prolific sources of delays as well as accidents. There arose also the problem of preventing the gradual choking of the main thoroughfare by the progres­sive encroachment of ribbon developments. Studies made by the Public Roads Administration showed that a one-way two-lane highway with no intersections could discharge without undue congestion 3,000 vehicles per hour at an average speed of 35 miles per hour. With three traffic lights per mile, each set on a half-minute interval, the hourly discharge was cut in half to 1,500 vehicles.

The Committee recommended, therefore, in the largest cities that the interregional routes, in order to avoid intersections at grade, be raised above or depressed below the natural ground level. Turning from elevated routes because of their tendency to divide the city and depreciate abutting proper­ty, the Committee discussed the pros and cons of depressed expressways. They held that this type of improvement was pleasing to the eye and in keeping with the urban environment. The depressed route however required extensive reconstruction of underground facilities including water mains, sewers and electric conduits. There was the added difficulty of drainage necessitating the installation of mechanical pumps where the terrain was level. A further problem arose in the acquisition of additional right-of-way because depression could not be attained properly within the ordinary width of an existing street.

Three alternatives for the design of depressed expressways were proposed. The first plan consisted in the condemnation of a block-wide strip of property across the city, using the existing surface streets at the ends of adjacent blocks as lateral service ways. The second and less satisfactory solution, because it was more cramped in conception, consisted in removing a tier of properties on one side of an existing street and retaining the street itself as one of the essential serv­ice ways. The other service way was to be built upon the opposite side of the depressed highway. The third and least desirable method envisioned the removal of properties on both sides of an existing street and building two new service ways, one on each side of the depressed expressway, at the rear of the abutting properties.

Neither the elevation nor the continuous depression of expressways was recommended in the outer and residential sections of large cities nor generally in small cities. Under such circumstances the design, shown in the accompanying illustration, was preferred. This park like development may be built with­in a block-wide right-of-way employing long, rolling grades to pass under bridges constructed at the cross-street levels, with access connections and pedes­trian overpasses at appropriate intervals. In this design the existing surface streets are to be utilized as lateral service ways. Except in the largest metropolitan areas, the Committee did not believe it would be necessary to extend the express routes through the central business section.

Updated: 06/27/2017