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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.

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Filed under American History, Books