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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 65· No. 4 > A Legacy in Art in a New Exhibition

Jan/Feb 2002
Vol. 65· No. 4

A Legacy in Art in a New Exhibition

by George Austin Hay

A ribbon-cutting ceremony and celebration marked the opening of the "FHWA Rakeman Transportation Painting Collection" at the Texas Transportation Institute on Nov. 28, 2001.

The extraordinary collection is believed to be the most complete illustrated historical record of American highway development extant. These paintings vividly relate the story of U.S. civilization in the push westward from coast to coast.

The Texas Transportation Institute (TTI), the largest university-affiliated transportation research agency in the United States, is located on the campus of Texas A&M University around the corner from the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library.

"We are pleased to feature the Rakeman collection in our Gilchrist Building," said Dr. Herbert Richardson, director of TTI, in his keynote address. "This collection of American transportation art illustrates the history of how our transportation systems have improved over time, through research. As a research institute, the Texas Transportation Institute is proud to be a part of the past, present, and future of transportation."

Since the dedication at TTI, the canvases have been viewed by the general public in this impressive centralized display setting, ideally suited for such a treasure trove of art. Previously, the collection was in Fremont, Ohio, at the Rutherford B. Hayes Memorial Library and Museum - the first presidential library in the country.

The artist, Carl Rakeman (pronounced ROCK-amon) was an employee of the Bureau of Public Roads, precursor to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). During a 30-year period ¾ from 1921 to 1952 ¾ he painted 109 paintings that cover American travel from frontier Indian trails to pre-colonial times to modern highways. The collection is an extraordinary pictorial record of the development of travel in this nation, and it is historically accurate with notable ingenuity and variety of style. It shows how transportation has been paramount to the development of this country. After all, where would we be if Paul Revere hadn't had a road on which to ride?

Rakeman was educated at the Corcoran School of Art, and during his early training, he studied in Dusseldorf and Munich, Germany, and in Paris, France.

In his work, he demonstrates the influence of impressionism, catching subtleties of light and color. With keen observation and attention to detail, he produced unusual renderings of a staggering array of subject matter.

Furthermore, Rakeman was instrumental in the preparation of 35 dioramas (three-dimensional scenes with realistic backgrounds). With other exhibits and paintings, these appeared at the Philadelphia Sesquicentennial of 1926, Chicago's Century of Progress in 1933, the 1939 Golden Gate Exposition in San Francisco, and the New York World's Fair of 1940.

After a lengthy and productive career, Rakeman retired from the Bureau of Public Roads in 1952, and he died in 1965 at the age of 87 in Fremont, Ohio.

Through the years, these oils have been borrowed, circulated, scattered, separated, and shown in numerous locales. In 1976, the 109 original paintings were gathered together, restored, and newly framed for a Bicentennial Exhibition in the Old Pension Building - now the National Building Museum - in Washington, D.C.

In the same year, all renderings were reproduced in paperback and hardcover versions of a book, titled Historic American Roads, written by Albert C. Rose and illustrated by Carl Rakeman. The book was sold by Crown Publishers Inc. of New York. Albert Rose, historian for the Bureau of Public Roads, researched and wrote comprehensive text describing the full story behind each painting.

Also in the same bicentennial year, a motion picture was produced, widely distributed, and aired frequently on network television. The film "Highways of History," features flowing camera movement across each colorful painting, accompanied by pertinent narrative and melodic background music. The film, available on videocassette, illustrates how public roads have been integral to our way of life as they provided the keys to exploration and mobility for the development of America. The depicted works form a unique pictorial record of the growth of travel. The film presents a lively excursion through the past ¾ each painting recounting an event, or conveying an achievement that was an important part of our national heritage.

The following describes a few of Rakeman's extraordinary paintings ¾ pictorial evidence and diverse images ¾ a striking way to show what was done then, in order to arrive where we are now.

Painting of Paved Streets in Maine

Paved Streets in Maine - 1625

In the early 1600s, the young country was just beginning to expand. Early settlements rose on the banks of the ocean, enabling incoming ships to land in safe territory. River travel was mostly in birch bark canoes, while rough-hewn wagon routes connected villages near the coast. In Bristol Township, Maine, a gathering place for fishermen and merchants from Bristol, England, a few streets were constructed with cobblestones from nearby beaches.


Painting of Washington Crossing the Allegheny

Washington Crossing the Allegheny - 1753

Long before the Revolutionary War, a youthful 21-year-old Major George Washington was given the task of overcoming a sea of troubles on a dangerous mission. Here, he is shown crossing the Allegheny River on a quickly made raft in the dead of winter near Pittsburgh, Pa., to warn the French commander in Erie County, Pa., against invading the Ohio River Valley.

Following his return, he reported, "The credit, savings, and convenience of this country all require Great Roads, leading from one place to another, and should be straightened and established by law. To me, these things seem indispensably necessary."


Painting of Boston Post Road

The Boston Post Road - 1763

Here we catch a glimpse of Benjamin Franklin, colonial postmaster general of his majesty's provinces, in his one-horse chaise, receiving an important communiqué from a post rider. With his daughter riding along on horseback, from Rhode Island to Philadelphia, the noted scientist, philosopher, and irrepressible statesman personally inspected all colonial post offices on the route. He devised safer ferry crossings, championed better connecting roads, and measured for milestone markers in his ever-diligent and farsighted efforts to unite the colonies. At this time, it took four weeks for a letter from Boston to reach Williamsburg, Va.


Painting of Philadelphia Turnpike

The Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike - 1795

The turnpike between Philadelphia and Lancaster, Pa., was completed in 1795. With a surface of crushed limestone, the pike became a significant initial step toward solving the problems of spring-thaw mud and ruts that often made roads impassable. With 13 tollgates, the pike was the standout highway of the 13 original states. The Spread Eagle Tavern, shown in the painting, 14 miles (23 kilometers) from Philadelphia provided food and lodging for the those traveling by stagecoach or Conestoga wagon.


Painting of Doctor and Circuit Rider

Doctor and Circuit Rider - 1820

People throughout the ages have had to deal with sickness, distress, and life-or-death ordeals. The overly taxed country physician and the traveling preacher on their missions to heal body and soul were often detoured by snow-covered trails and swift river crossings. Remember, in this era, there were no telephones, electric lights, railroads, or common sanitary conveniences such as we take for granted today. The life expectancy of both doctor and patient averaged 38 years.


Painting of the Erie Canal

The Erie Canal - 1825

The Erie Canal, a 363-mile- (584-kilometer-) long engineering feat of its day, afforded a level water route across the Appalachian Mountains to the Northwest Territory and the Great Lakes. It allowed New York City to surpass Philadelphia as the nation's leading seaport and largest city. With its 38 locks, the canal experienced one major drawback: it was ice-locked from four to five months of the year.


Painting of Horse and Train

The Iron Horse Wins - 1830

A new rival appeared to give the highway and waterway "a run for their money." Another way to fulfill the transportation needs of the expanding nation was the railway. A little iron horse raced a real horse, turning attention to a different kind of road ¾ the railroad. Peter Cooper's Tom Thumb locomotive, hauling a Baltimore & Ohio railroad car filled with directors and officers, broke a belt and officially lost the race with a horse-drawn car. However, the engine was in the lead for a good portion of the race, rounding curves at 15 miles (24 kilometers) per hour, and it covered the 13 miles (21 kilometers) between Ellicott's Mills and Baltimore in 57 minutes. This proved the superiority of the locomotive and thus started the first rail venture in the nation.


Painting of a Deserted Village

The Deserted Village - 1836

The use of steam power in industrial mills substantially replaced water wheels in rural areas and helped lead to abandonment of country hamlets. The industrial revolution, bringing about changes in agriculture and transport, left in its wake "ghost towns" of dilapidated buildings, inoperative furnaces, and neglected gristmills.


Painting of the First Iron Bridge

Our First Iron Bridge - 1839

The first cast-iron bridge in the United States - over Dunlap's Creek in Brownsville, Pa. - was built largely by reason of proximity. Iron foundries situated nearby rendered this feasible. Completed in 1839, the bridge was opened to stagecoaches and Conestoga wagons on the 4th of July.


Main Street Bridge

The structure on Main Street formed part of the National Pike route and has particular relevance today. Amazingly, this venerable span still exists, carrying heavy loads of traffic from charter buses to 18-wheelers - weights never dreamed of by the original structural engineers. Even more than 160 years after this bridge was constructed, engineers who conduct inspections at regular intervals continue to be astonished at the enduring strength of this incredible bridge.


Painting of Dudgeon's Steam Carriage

Dudgeon's Steam Carriage - 1866

Richard Dudgeon's new steam carriage in the late 1860s was not wholly appreciated by the New York City populace. Newspapers reviewed it this way: "The running of the wagon is accompanied by a great deal of vibration and noise, for there are four exhausts, as in a locomotive, and the solid wooden discs that serve for wheels pound the road heavily."

But Dudgeon remained optimistic in his promotion: "It will go 20 miles an hour on a good road, carrying 10 people at 14 miles an hour, with 70 pounds of steam."

His steam carriage is still with us, residing in the Smithsonian Institution's consummate repository of treasured collections.

U.S. Postal Service Transportation Stamp

The U.S. Postal Service, in its comprehensive Transportation Definitive Series between 1981 and 1995, issued 53 coil stamps commemorating every conceivable type of transport from dog sled to electric automobile. In the early 1990s, post offices throughout the nation honored the inventor's work, making available to the public this 4-cent philatelic item.


Painting of Meeting of Rails

The Meeting of the Rails - 1869

The spotlight focused on the railroad when trains from opposite coasts prepared to touch cow-catchers at Promontory Point, Utah, near the Great Salt Lake, 22 miles (35 kilometers) west of Ogden. This symbolic meeting of the Atlantic and Pacific signified to the world the greatest single land-transportation event in American history. The last spike driven, on May 10, joined the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads into the nation's first transcontinental railway.

This event culminated years of effort to hasten overland travel after the California Gold Rush of 1848. President Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act in 1861, designating two companies to build a combined railway and telegraph line. With efforts increasing to close the gap between coasts, the winning of the west was becoming a reality.

Painting of the First Automobile

The First American Automobile - 1893

A portion of the populace in Springfield, Mass., became wonderstruck at the sight of a self-propelled oddity that appeared in town. What was obviously a converted buggy had a major traditional element dramatically missing - the horse. Built by Frank and Charles Duryea, this model featured a steering tiller and genuine acetylene headlamps, and it was the country's first successful gasoline-powered, horseless carriage. Given several street trials, the new "gas-buggy" was described as successful in the Springfield Union newspaper. But famed Kansas journalist William Allen White held another viewpoint. He continued to extol the reliable virtues of the horse, "He makes no claim to speed, but his carburetor always works!"

Painting of rural free delivery

Rural Free Delivery - 1896

During the administration of President Grover Cleveland, beginning experimental routes for a free rural delivery of U.S. mail were established in three West Virginia towns. An act of Congress authorized the enterprise in 1893, but it was held up for three years by opponents citing "great expense." A major requirement for the new mail service was the guarantee of either a macadam or gravel road surface. No more getting stuck in the mud! The benefits of rural free delivery were numerous: an increase in the value of farm land; improved road conditions; better prices for farm products; and ease in subscribing to and receiving newspapers and magazines, "relieving monotony of farm life through ready access to wholesome literature."

Painting of the Lincoln Highway

The Lincoln Highway - 1913

The need for a paved east-west highway prompted founders of the Lincoln Highway Association, named in honor of President Lincoln, to convene in 1913. The president of the Packard Motor Car Co. was elected to head the fledgling organization. An initial $4 million was raised to pioneer the idea of building a coast-to-coast highway because at this time, there were no improved long-distance roads in the United States. After a model section was completed south of Chicago, the public became more aware of the need for better thoroughfares. President Woodrow Wilson emphasized the importance of the emerging network when he characterized it as "tending to thread various parts of the country together." The Lincoln Highway name has since been changed to U.S. Route 30.

Painting of snow removal  equipment

Snow Removal - 1922

Before motor-driven equipment was used to clear snow from major U.S. highways, most of the work had been accomplished by hand with shovels or by primitive wooden plows drawn by horses. An increase in motor vehicle registration following World War I led to growing demands for systematic snow-removal operations. This painting shows a motorized snow shovel clearing a pass through the Cascade Mountains in Washington state.


Painting of a Tank on a Road

National Defense Roads - 1941

Congress passed the Federal Highway Act in 1940, authorizing the commissioner of public roads to "give priority of approval to, and expedite the construction of, projects that are recommended by the appropriate federal defense agency as important to the national defense." The Defense Highway Act approved on Nov. 19, 1941, included funds for the construction of aircraft landing fields at strategic locations.


Painting of Rural Interstate Highway

Rural Interstate Highway - 1945

The Federal-Aid Highway Act, incorporating provisions from President Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1939 report Toll Roads and Free Roads, was approved in 1944, and it provided for a national system of interstate highways. The Public Roads Administration in 1945 asked state highway departments to recommend routes to be included in the system. These expressways were designed to improve safety and speed travel, enabling traffic to flow rapidly without interruption.

In 1940, America's first superhighway was born. The Pennsylvania Turnpike became the country's first major, modern toll road. It evolved as our first long-distance, high-speed, four-lane highway with specially designated controlled entrances and exits and barrier medians and without stoplights, cross-streets, steep hills, sharp curves, or railroad grade crossings. Particular care was taken to arrange for natural beauty in an effort to maintain an attractive environment for the traveler.

Builders of the Pennsylvania Turnpike discovered an awesome advantage. Much of the right-of-way already was laid out in the 1880s with six tunnels blasted through mountains, deep cuts, and earth fills, leveling the route originally constructed for a railroad. Famed Pittsburgh industrialist Andrew Carnegie and the rail baron William H. Vanderbilt, owner of the New York Central system, came to loggerheads, and when financier J. Pierpont Morgan stepped into the fray in 1885, the entire project was halted, and the project became known as "Vanderbilt's folly."

During the Great Depression in the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) conducted a search for work projects to mitigate the high unemployment rate and discovered the abandoned railway roadbed. The opportunity to adapt the roadbed into a toll road was readily apparent.

When the turnpike opened in 1940, the motorcar enthusiast in the painting tested his Packard Twelve by driving 100 miles (161 kilometers) per hour. And it was legal because no speed limit had yet been posted!


George Austin Hay is a multimedia specialist on the Publishing and Visual Communications Team of FHWA's Office of Information and Management Services. He was the director of the 1976 motion picture "Highways of History," and he has served with distinction in the federal government for 47 years.

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