I have now read four different books about the building of roads and I’m hooked. To many of you, this may sound about as exciting as watching grass grow. But for someone who loves cars, loves to drive, and loves to learn about building things, this is a marriage made in heaven.
I previously posted about books on building things and certainly learning about the history of roads in the US was a natural extension of that from cars. For anyone living in the 21st century, decent roads is something we don’t even much think about until you realize that the roads we have today had their beginning in the 1920s, less than a century ago.
I became interested in reading my most recent road book, Father of Route 66: The Story of Cy Avery by Susan Croce Kelly, when over the summer, I visited my son-in-law’s home town which at one time, had Route 66 running right through its downtown square.
The tale of building “good roads” as the movement became known as had many interested protagonists: local farmers who needed better roads to get their crops to market, railroads who would get to carry those crops brought to market by good roads, and the automobile industry (dealers and manufacturers) who would see an increase in sales with better roads. In fact this latter group probably had the most to gain as selling cars without good roads was about as folly as selling trains without tracks to run them on.
There is a reason why early cars were fitted with wagon-like wheels—beyond just the fact that the first cars were “horseless carriages”—to minimize the chance for getting stuck in mud on the dirt roads that predominately existed when cars began to be sold.
But it was ultimately the politicians and road administrations that got those roads built. And it was a constant battle between county, state, and federal interests that made it such an interesting story worth writing a number of books about.
Prior to the Good Roads movement, roads were primarily local or regional. In some areas, groups of individuals banded together across county and state boundaries to form “trail associations” that focused on building a road that connected their communities. These roads were usually designated by a name such as the Mohawk Trail, the Santa Fe Trail, the National Old Trails Road, and the Lincoln Highway. These early thoroughfares were simply marked by painting signs or insignia on telephone poles, barns, or rocks along the route.
When the Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) began to explore ways to improve roads in the US and establish a national highway system, they recognized that using named trails and their routes would be problematic since many of them overlapped each other, particularly in the less populated west, and there was no standard of road quality among them.
But abandoning the trails didn’t come without its problems. Part of the debate centered on whether highways should be long haul routes or shorter routes interconnecting cities, which collectively would then weave a national highway system. Anyone who has gotten off the high-speed interstate to take a more leisurely drive along a US highway—the “Back roads”—knows the latter position won the day.
With that debate settled, the next controversy was which cities to interconnect with each US highway. This is where the local politicians got into high gear to petition for their local community. Everyone recognized that having a US highway come through his or her community would be the “road” to economic success (pun intended). And this is where the story gets very interesting as local, state and federal politicians and highway administrators battled with each other over what was best locally, within the state, and at the federal level.
But choosing the routes, as pretentious as it was, was no less difficult than how to name the roads. Here actually the state of Wisconsin led the way with using numbers to designate highways. What added to this difficulty was the decision that two digit road numbers ending in “0” or “5” would be major roads and other numbers would be secondary roads. With that, the battle over the numbers began for it was not just having a US highway run through your town, but having one of the “-0” or “-5” roads.
This is where Route 66 is unique.
Most US highways are predominately laid out on East-West coordinates (even numbered roads) or North-South routes (odd numbered roads). In contrast, Route 66 starts in Chicago and winds southwesterly through Illinois, Missouri, and Oklahoma before turning due west towards Los Angeles. Interestingly this route was originally designated Route 60 but thanks to politicians in Kentucky who had none of the major routes running through their state, they successfully wrestled the “60” designation away from the primary father of this unique route, Cy Avery, leaving him with the less desirable “62” designation for his road. A multiple month feud ensued that almost jeopardized the entire highway system before it was finally agreed to designate it Route 66. But it is Cy who seems to have gotten the last laugh in the battle between Oklahoma and Kentucky over the number 60 for who remembers Route 60 and who remembers Route 66?
Save for the potholes we must all contend with after winter ends, we really enjoy the freedom of driving on good cross country and trans-continental roads today. But I can still picture the dirt road that ran in front of my Aunt’s house in a small town in Texas. In fact, the first time my dad drove us there and we left the smooth pavement for the rugged dirt road, I couldn’t understand why the road wasn’t paved. But this was the way many roads were originally.
I must say that I have thoroughly enjoyed my share of driving on good fun roads—Tail of the Dragon and the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP)—being the main ones. But having read these four books, I have a whole new appreciation for all of those dedicated and hard working individuals who fought for what they thought was right and best for both local communities and the nation as a whole. And since I have already driven the entire 469 miles of the BRP, I can envision once I retire taking the time to drive all of the 2,450 miles of Route 66. For as the expression goes, I’m sure I’ll “get my kicks on Route 66.”