The Big Roads

I’m nearly finished with Earl Swift’s book, The Big Roads: The Untold Story Of The Engineers, Visionaries And Trailblazers Who Created The American Superhighways. Yeah, I’m a geek.

Actually, it’s a terrific book, a very entertaining read, and just filled with gems of information. For example, I didn’t realize the push for roads began with bicycles in the late 1800s. I also, like most people, always believed Dwight Eisenhower was the father of our interstate highway system. In fact, as Swift says, no one had less to do with the interstates than Eisenhower: they were already planned, mapped, organized and in pretty much every regard set in stone long before Eienhower became president. All he did was basically sign on the dotted line.

One funny nugget concerns William L. Harding, Iowa’s Republican Governor from 1917 to 1921. He ran for office on an anti-road-building platform. Hard to imagine anyone would be against roads, but he was — so much so, he was referred to as the “mud roads” candidate. This, despite the fact that in 1917 Iowa had one of the nation’s highest automobile ownership rates. But he didn’t want to come up with the state’s share of money for road building, as required by a 1916 federal law; back then, the federal government would pay 50% of the cost, and states had to pay the other 50%. Harding would rather do without roads (who needs ’em!) than pay for them. Sound familiar?

Today Harding is remembered for an entirely different reason, Swift informs readers:

Harding is still remembered nearly a century later for all the wrong reasons — most infamously, his wartime edict outlawing the public use of any language but English, which the governor persistently referred to as “American.” The so-called Babel Proclamation was interpreted to include any conversation involving two or more people, even on the phone, and if he’d been able to take it further, Harding might have. He insisted, for the record, that God didn’t hear prayers uttered in foreign tongues. […]

Sounds like some of Tennessee’s infamous knuckle-draggers.

Another funny gem, this referring to the 1944 federal highway bill that incorporated recommendations for a national highway system:

Over several months in 1944, lawmakers incorporated the committee’s recommendations into the annual highway bill. They did so with little drama, making only one significant change. Republicans chucked the system’s “interregional” name for “interstate,” after inferring that the original had been coined by planners whom they regarded as leftist pains in the neck, and after the chief assured them that “interregional” had “absolutely no significance.”

Heh. Again: sound familiar? Pettiness, it seems, is as much a part of the fabric of Republicanism as anything else. Who knew Republicans were so hell-bent on hippie-punching, decades before we even had hippies?

One thing that strikes me about this book is how, despite wars and economic downturns and everything else, once upon a time Americans got stuff done. Think about what America was like in 1944: in the midst of a two-front war, having just pulled out of 10 years of the Great Depression, yet here our political leaders were already thinking ahead, making plans for a great national highway system.

Once upon a time we could do things like that in this country. We could think big ideas and dream big dreams, despite the challenges we faced at the time. We still looked ahead.

I wonder if we’ll ever get there again. We’re sure as hell not there now.


Filed under American History, Books

11 responses to “The Big Roads

  1. So, actually the idea for the interstate highway system had to be in the planning stages during that ole socialist FDR’s term. How cool. This does sound like an interesting and fun read and your comparisons between the Greedy Old Poops then and now just adds more flavor.

    • Well before it actually but yeah, FDR was very involved, too.

      I didn’t mention this but one thing we always hear the Libertarians say is that the federal government should only be involved in building and maintaining roads, national defense, and securing the borders. But actually, that was by no means the way we did things historically, especially prior to the 20th century.

  2. “These great roads are wonderful for moving goods but not for inspection of a countryside. You are bound to the wheel and your eyes to the car ahead and to the rear-view mirror for the car behind and the side mirror for the car or truck about to pass, and at the same time you must read all the signs for fear you may miss some instructions or orders. No roadside stands selling squash juice, no antique stores, no farm products or factory outlets. When we get these thruways across the whole country, as we will and must, it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a single thing.”
    John Steinbeck. “Travels with Charley: In Search of America” 1962

    (You had to know it was only a matter of time.)

    • Yeah and that is definitely an issue mentioned in the book, also the prevailing view of the 1930s and 1940s that big highways should be built through “slums” to “clean them up” and bring prosperity to depressed areas. Sorta the beginnings of “urban renewal” — forget the millions of people who lived in these communities, and of course the fact that they weren’t so much “slums” as just filled with brown people.

  3. Frank Simpson

    For another take on the American Pscyhe today, I recommend “Ten Letters–The Stories Americans tell their President” by Eli Saslow. It has been a long time since I hated for a book to end. This was one of those times…

  4. Pingback: Separate and Unequal | Southern Beale

  5. ThresherK

    Great book. I read it last month; provides a nice intersection (/rimshot) with both “The Power Broker” and American Road/.

    My favorite anecdote, as a lifetime New Englander, was the explanation of why there is no I-50 or I-60. I just figured they ran out of sound places to put bridges across the Mississippi.

    And I bet I live closer to the site of the infamous 1957 city planning convention (where Lewis Mumford raised all holy hell) than anyone you’ve met. It’s right here in my town.

  6. Kaleberg

    Field’s A Great Leap Forward, a book about total factor productivity (TFP), points out that TFP was high through the great highway construction era starting with the bicycle roads in the late 19th century and ending in the 1970s when the interstate highways were completed. TFP is productivity that isn’t associated with adding labor or adding capital. It flows from organizing things more efficiently, and having a year round paved road system that went to every house, factory, school an so on, door to door, made a huge difference after the railroad and dirt road pattern of the 19th century.

    If you think about it, the interstate highways did to the railroads what the internet is doing to the big media distributors. They hate the fact that you can go point to point.

    P.S. The slums of the 30s and 40s were generally filled with white people, like a lot of slums today. For example, they cleared out an Armenian neighborhood to build the Holland Tunnel, and Jane Jacobs had a big crusade to protect, among other things, an Italian neighborhood from one of Robert Moses’s projects.

    • If you think about it, the interstate highways did to the railroads what the internet is doing to the big media distributors.

      Sorta, yeah. Not a clean analogy because we still haul tons of freight over the rails, and there are still some benefits to rail hauling that you don’t get with highways (speed, and when fuel prices reach a certain point it’s cheaper).

      But that reminds me, one thing the book didn’t get into what an opposition from a railroad lobby to the construction of interstate highways. They realized the freight capabilities back in the 30s. You’d think the railroad barons would have spent lots of money lobbying against it, the way modern capitalist barons resist any major change.

  7. W

    I’ve not seen Eisenhower given all the credit, but it does get mentioned a lot that he was a proponent due to a cross-country military convoy he was part of immediately post WW1. Al Gore, Sr gets a lot of credit most places for sponsoring the bill.

    Regarding Harding’s road policy…. I’m a TDOT engineer. The technical literature is starting to mention some municipalities actually unpaving smaller roads because they are cheaper to maintain.