I have been somewhat of a history buff when it comes to motorcycling, travel and highways. I love to ride historic highways and trails, to see the history. So, it makes plenty of sense to me that I would love to read about the history of highways. I find it fascinating.
When I found a book recently published, I had to have it. America’s First Highways, by Stephen H. Provost, is a great read for understanding how our country arrived at our highway system.
I understood how many of our roads were originally Native American Trails, and one can see that from early 1700 and 1800 maps, but I discovered a few things about how our highways were developed.
In the late 1800s, as towns and cities began to grow, it was the bicycle industry that called for better roads, although mainly in urban settings. By 1900, there were “321 bicycle companies churning out an astonishing 1.2 million a year.”
City streets began to improve, but the roads between cities were still primarily dirt, and as automobile manufacturing began and started to grow, the need for better roads between towns grew with it. That gave rise to the automobile and highway associations, and efforts to improve the rural roads. Building better roads gave rise to the real idea of “If you build it, they will come.” Tourism and commerce demanded better roads with the rise of automobile manufacturing.
Early on, the Federal government had no part in the development of highways. It was all local and regional. But there was a need for major roads from border to border and coast to coast. Hence, the idea of national highways like the Lincoln Highway, Yellowstone Trail, Dixie Highway, Old Spanish Trail, and the Lee Highway, just to name a few, grew in popularity but not without easy consensus. Which towns would these highways go through? What would be the final route?
Finally, in 1917, the Federal government created the Bureau of Public Roads, but its efforts were minimal. It was not until 1926 when the Feds designed a numbered highway system to replace all the named highways. For interstate highways, there were to be 10 east-west routes ending in zero (10, 20, 30, 40, etc.) and 11 north-south highways ending in the number 1 (1, 11, etc. to 101). The numbering system brought an end to the named highways, but many of those names still exist, and a few are marked, like the Lincoln Highway and the National Road.
I have touched on a few key points of this book, but there is so much more detail. If you are interested, read the book.
That’s what is exciting about finding a book like this. The richness of these early highways, and the development of towns and the road are all waiting to be discovered.
See you on the highway.