Historiography: The Call of The American Road

As drivers, we yearn for the open road.

Thousands of miles of paved ribbons are laid out as an Etch-O-Sketch from Maine to Hawaii, Alaska to Florida. A car lover knows that these are mere points on the map worth exploring when the opportunity becomes available.

These roads we know today have been here for decades. At least the original road that would be superseded many times thanks to progress. In some cases, these roads existed before the invention of the automobile – traversed by horse, human beings and other animals. They may have laid down by the indigenous population before the arrival of the colonizers. Roads that still are traveled today, but unrecognizable to the ancestry.

The trails laid down by our ancestors did create a network of roads to be passed by all who have followed the blazers. When you start putting anything with wheels – covered wagons and stagecoaches, for example – then one would consider ways to make them safe for the next wagon train.

By the turn of the 20th Century, the automobile arrived. Among the few who owned them thought they could drive their new vehicles on the same trails as the stagecoach and the covered wagon. The premise seemed right – trains were the best way for intercity travel, but did not go everywhere they needed to go. Well, one would argue for the interurban trains that connected nearby towns to a major metropolitan center. In one sense, most of the train routes did follow the trajectory of the old trails – which helped in connecting and growing communities served by the train.

Still, the automobile provided a challenge to the train. To do so, they have forge their own road. And, they did.

Before World War I, driving was an adventure. In town, you still had horses doing a lot of the transportation work. They were pulling goods to market and people across town., Not to mention streetcars that ran right down the middle of the street. The idea of civic traffic management had not been explored fully to incorporate this newfangled automobile.

Once you got outside the city, you relied on dirt paths to get somewhere. The idea of road maintenance was not at a point where it was needed. Years of wagon tracks and weather turned what was a decent trail into something that was semi-passable.

For the automobile to become successful in this vast land of ours, proper roads would need to be built. To do so, it meant not just building the roads, but maintaining them. And, who would maintain them?

To build roads in America, there had to be an excuse other than serving automobiles. While President Woodrow Wilson did not commit our country to World War I, his administration was concerned about defending our country and transporting troops and armaments to where they need to be. To do so, a solid network of roads were needed to get new weaponry from the plants to the base…and to the front lines.

In 1916, the first road funding act passed through Congress, signed by President Wilson. It began the process of creating a network of roads, through matching funding between the Federal government and the states. It opened up Rural Free Delivery by the Post Office.

However, World War I ate into a lot of the Federal budget. By sending troops to Europe, road funding was shortened. Funds became limited thanks to the incredible expenditures our country's involvement in Europe began to cost us. A few years after the war, another act was passed through Congress for President Warren G. Harding to sign. The 1921 Act rectified and cemented funding for roads, expanding the fund base for matching funds. General John G. Pershing facilitated the creation of a map for the Bureau of Public Roads outlining the burgeoning network – not only to accommodate the private automobile. This network also had to meet the needs of commerce and the defense of the nation.

During this time, auto trails were being established. These roads attempted to connect major cities with rural communities, eventually ending at a national park or another major city. These “trails” were not perfect. Some were not paved, but were created to provide a logical route to each destination. The Lincoln Highway was a great example of this – connecting New York, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Salt Lake City and San Francisco. The route seemed direct, though it had a spur going through Denver for a couple of years. Short of 3,200 miles, it is the one the we still remember the most.

Road building boomed in the 1920s. It enabled the automobile to travel safely from town to town. In 1926, the Federal Highway system was implemented. This gave us a national highway network that was easily identifiable by motorists. Back then, the "highway" was a simple two-lane, paved roadway with shared maintenance by each state it ran through. It was not the rule of thumb, where some sections had the luxury of being divided slabs, with a median splitting the directional lanes.

Some of these Federal Highways still exist. US-61 began at the US-Canada border near Grand Marais, Minnesota. The route still exists, now following MN-61 down to Duluth, meeting Interstate 35 to just north of Forest Lake, where the current US-61 begins. US-101 remains iconic in the minds of West Coasters. It stretched from Port Angeles in Washington state to San Diego. Now, it begins in Olympia and ends in downtown Los Angeles, half of its converted to a limited access freeway. US-20 continued it original route even as Interstate highways now ride alongside it. It still begins in Newport, Oregon and continues through Chicago, onward to Boston.

By the 1930s, automobile travel began to cut into the passenger rail business. As part of the acts instilled by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to get the nation back on its feet form the Great Depression of 1929, the highway system began to truly take shape. In some places, we saw limited access roadways, where you would travel for a distance without stopping at an intersection. Roadways themselves gained additional travel lanes where traffic volume increased to ensure the positive flow of traffic.

World War II would be another pivotal point in the development of roads. The highway network was sufficient for its intended purposes – automobile, commercial and defense traffic. What General Dwight D. Eisenhower's troops discovered when they entered Germany was an more intricate network of limited access roadways – the Autobahn. The Third Reich built the network of limited access roads that were capable of sending heavy arms and other war machines quickly throughout the country. They were well-engineered and built. On some level, they inspired Eisenhower.

The influence of the autobahn would carry the General into the Oval Office. As President, Eisenhower pondered such a network of limited access roadways that would do exactly what the autobahn has done for the Germans. His idea came at the right time as the American economy grew thanks to the spoils of victory, the G.I. Bill and an expansion of housing into the suburbs.

The Last Miles of Wisconsin 2

In 1956, a new Federal Highway Act was signed. The Interstate Highway system was born. The network was established by identifying key routes and building new, multi-lane highways to enable faster travel between points. In some cases, they became bypasses from older Federal Highways – eventually leaving communities based on the older highways to languish. The latter being the drawback on building the Interstates.

However, the Interstate Highway network brought boom to commerce. For example, it gave business flexibility in moving goods to market between using trucks, as well as the railroad. The automobile had more freedom to roam at speeds never thought possible before World War II.

It took a while to complete in several cases, but they truly symbolize what was possible in Post-World War II America.

I am a byproduct of the Interstate Highway system – though it did start out that way. To get from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 1970, you took US-101. Through most of the route, it was multi-lane and limited access. Over time, bypasses were built in places where it was simply a road – south of San Jose, for example, going through its southern suburbs. Moreover, a larger project was being built on the other side of the Coastal Ranges. By 1979, Interstate 5 was completed along the western side of the San Joaquin Valley into Stockton. That route would cut the trip between the two California cities by at least a couple of hours.

Unlike some Federal Highways, Interstate 5 did not take away traffic and commerce from parallel routes. California Highway 99 runs through Fresno, Bakersfield and other communities where agriculture drives the economy. It remains a vital piece of tarmac to bring goods to major markets throughout the west. US-101 is also vital for tourist traffic and coast markets, as well. This makes all three north-south arteries essential to keep California's economy moving smoothly.

Through my travels along Interstate 5, I was able to travel most of its length between downtown San Diego and downtown Seattle. The highway itself is a marvel that sometimes challenges the motorist. The Grapevine challenged many automotive cooling systems. To make your North-South run, you have get over the Tejon Pass. This was not an easy task, as it was simply a constant grade going both directions. You worked your car to get up and over every time.

Further north, I-5 climbs up through another breathtaking pass. It is there where you realize you are passing through Shasta Lake onto the foot of California's highest peak – Mount Shasta. If you never been on any highway that is as breathtaking in terms of elevation and scenery, this is the most beautiful section of I-5 you will ever encounter. That, and passing by the Mount. St. Helens region in southwestern Washington state. I had some amazing drives up and down I-5 in my earlier years.

When I moved east, I soon discovered how the Interstate Highway system truly worked in opening up states and new places to discover. The Washington, DC area is a perfect hub to go almost everywhere in the country. The key to driving on those Interstates was access – to history, to the Atlantic Ocean and to other major points on the map.

Using the Interstate Highway network, I was able to string several great drives from DC/Northern Virginia. Places such as Harrisburg, Philadelphia, Norfolk, Roanoke and Pittsburgh were easily reached effortlessly by car. Interstate 95 became a lifeline over the two-and-a-half hours between home and Center City Philadelphia to see friends and to enjoy the city.

My relocation from the East to Madison was done by Interstate Highways. Interstate 70 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike became a memorable overnight adventure once I saw light west of Pittsburgh onward to mid point of Columbus, Ohio. Then, uncharted territories opened up: Indianapolis and Chicago. Since that relocation in 2000, Chicago has been an annual destination for work.

Chicago would also be a point on the map for Interstate Highway driving – even today. Two arteries get me there – Interstates 90 and 94. It is not the most exciting drive in the world, though I heard there were less interesting parts of various Interstates throughout our country. Madison ends up as a stopping point on the journey. Though one could do the six-plus hour run from Robbinsdale into Chicago in a day, I prefer to take my time, pace myself, spend time with friends in Madison – if possible – and not get too fatigued.

The point is that the Interstate Highway system has made it easier and safer for us to go between places near and far. It's great that we acknowledge this and honor the legacy of 59 years of higher speed automotive travel, but there are many roads we may have forgotten about. The old Federal Highways, which have seen been modified, adjusted and given bypasses through various towns where it ran through as Main Street. State highways that still give you a sense of community and wonder as you go deeper onto the land. Not to mention those good stretches of county roads that excite even the most experienced driver.

These so-called “side roads” are not forgotten. They still exist in connecting the dots in-between and off the Interstate path. For a driver who still has an desire for exploration and discovery, these roads can be fun to run on. Preferably, to drive one with wonderful curves and exciting elevations.

Which really brings us to why we appreciate driving in the first place. When a road rewards you, whether it is for the speed or the adventure, it makes taking the wheel worth it. It returns us back to when the first drivers tried to take their automobiles on old wagon trails and stagecoach routes to fulfill their want of adventure and exploration with this newfangled machine. That spirit is still there.

No matter which road you choose – follow it. Go somewhere. Better still, go somewhere new!

All photos by Randy Stern

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