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Weekly 150: The Interstate

Or How I Learned to Love the Highway

By Jason Martin
jmartin@mckenziebanner.com
Posted 10/25/22

I know this title sounds like something from a Kubrick movie but it serves a purpose. Have you ever noticed how things come full circle? Since the start of these articles a few years back, I get phone calls or do additional research that brings the series full circle as so many parts intertwine with each other. 

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Weekly 150: The Interstate

Or How I Learned to Love the Highway

Posted
I know this title sounds like something from a Kubrick movie but it serves a purpose. Have you ever noticed how things come full circle? Since the start of these articles a few years back, I get phone calls or do additional research that brings the series full circle as so many parts intertwine with each other. 
 
Just last week when I was going on about the railroads, I mentioned Highway 70. To be honest, I usually avoid Highway 70 like the plague because of its curviness and tendency to be riddled with deer. That is the section that runs from Huntingdon to Jackson. 
 
Yet, I found myself running behind by about 10 to 15 minutes trying to get the kids to doctor appointments in Jackson. Much to my surprise, the GPS on my phone recommended running to Huntingdon and crossing over to Jackson through Highway 70. So I said what the heck and off to Highway 70 we go. We made it there and back safely two times this week. Which got me thinking about how times have changed along the route and its original design.
 
In 1926, Highway 70 was commissioned to run from Beaufort, North Carolina and connect to U.S. Route 66 in Holbrook, Arizona. The same year U.S. Route 66 began construction. Both systems were part of the original highways in the United States Numbered Highway System.
 
Route 66 became one of the most famous roads in the country as it originally ran from Chicago, Illinois, through Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona ending in Santa Monica in Los Angeles County, California, covering a total of 2,448 miles. Growing up I was more familiar with Route 66 because that’s the highway my parents traveled in their youth. 
 
From 1926 to the mid-1950s, the U.S. Highway System was the way to travel. During the 1910s, the first national highway, the Lincoln Highway, named in honor of Abraham Lincoln, was developed stretching across the northern United States. In the southern states, the roadway was named Lee Highway, in honor of General Robert E. Lee. Much of today’s U.S. 70 was formerly the Lee Highway.
 
While these new routes were something to admire in regards to their ability to provide straight shots to a destination, there were issues. One problem or blessing to others consisted in the fact the routes like Highway 70 and Route 66 took travelers through the heart of various townships along its path. Little towns along the way were able to grow in part to the highway breathing new life into the communities.
 
Service stations and diners popped along the road side to feed hungry travelers and fix whatever ailments were going on with a customer’s automobile. As the highways grew, more and more automobiles were turned out in Detroit. This created the second problem, the roads were usually maintained by state and/or local governments.
 
The federal government first funded roadways through the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916 and again with the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1921, there was not necessarily a maintenance plan. The roads were state-funded and maintained with little in the way of national standards for road design. Even today we see issues with highways running through portions of town that are not well maintained and neglected by the state. So imagine, it’s 1935, the country is in a deep depression, the state has very little available cash, and paving technology is rudimentary at best. The highway through town probably has more potholes than actual paved surface.
 
By 1956, the highway system would become secondary to super highways or interstates. The idea of the interstate came long before the 1950s. In the summer of 1919, Lieutenant Colonel Dwight Eisenhower was assigned to observe the First Transcontinental Motor Convoy. The operation was a road test for military vehicles identifying the challenges in moving troops from coast to coast on the existing infrastructure. The excursion covered 3,200 miles from Washington D.C. to San Francisco. This included 79 vehicles of all sizes and 297 personnel.
 
Eisenhower’s report included road conditions and the patchwork of existing roads. He reported a mix of paved and unpaved roads, old bridges, and narrow passages. Narrow roads caused oncoming traffic to run off the road and encounter added difficulty when reentering the roadway. Some bridges were too low for trucks to pass under. He added the roads in the Midwest region of the United States were impracticable, but the roads in the east were sufficient for truck use.
 
Eisenhower singled out a western section of the Lincoln Highway, a transcontinental road with routes through Utah and Nevada, as being so poor that it warranted a thorough investigation before government money should be expended. Lastly, he observed that the different grades of road determined much of the convoy’s success.
 
The military convoy and Eisenhower’s report helped bring about federal funding, but it also left a lasting impression on the future general and president. 
 
In 1922, General John J. Pershing submitted a detailed network of 20,000 miles for interconnected primary highways. By the late 1930s, planning had expanded to a system of new superhighways. In 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave Thomas MacDonald, chief of the Bureau of Public Roads, a hand-drawn map of the United States marked with eight superhighway corridors for study. In 1939, Bureau of Public Roads Division of Information chief Herbert S. Fairbank wrote a report called Toll Roads and Free Roads, “the first formal description of what became the Interstate Highway System” and, in 1944, the similarly themed Interregional Highways.
 
In 1954, Eisenhower appointed General Lucius D. Clay to head a committee charged with proposing an interstate highway system plan. Eisenhower also gained an appreciation of Germany’s autobahn and believed it necessary for national defense. On August 13, 1956, work began on US-40 (later becoming US-70) running from New Jersey to Utah.
 
While the interstate in effect killed numerous portions of the highway system. History buffs and those addicted to nostalgia still travel and adore the old and nearly forgotten roadways. At times I forget how the main drag in downtown Huntingdon is a state highway and the countless out-of-towners and salesmen from days gone by ran that route to get to where they were going. A portion of Dale Kelley’s life story revolves around the highway and how a traveling salesman ran him over.
 
If you have ever watched Disney’s “Cars”, you get a taste of the story of Route 66. Sit and watch “The Grapes of Wrath” and imagine you are a poor Okie traveling Route 66 looking for a better life in California. Or you could be like me and looking for a way to avoid the big city or crazy traffic and travel the Broadway of America to Jackson or Nashville.

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