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Above: A foggy dawn on America's first interstate highway, the National (Cumberland) Road in MD. Cast iron posts are from the 1800s.
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This site attracts a very high proportion of non-US viewers, so here's a summary of major roads and transportation corridors in chronological order.
The story of American mobility is basically a giant arrow pointing west from original Anglo settlements along the Atlantic Ocean. At first only crude paths or trails existed. The nearby Appalachians were the first mountain barrier. Then came vast rolling-to-flat fertile lands and long largely-navigable rivers (Ohio, Mississippi, Missouri) before the towering Rocky Mountains, the Great Basin, the Sierra and Cascade mountain ranges and finally the fertile Pacific coast.
Frontier Trails (Oregon and California) had many branches at the beginning and end which are not shown. Corridors overlapped along the Platte River in NE and were miles wide. The Lincoln Highway and Santa Fe Trail had widely-used alternate loops. The Lincoln Highway and Rt 66 had several changes over the years which are not shown.
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NATIONAL (Cumberland) ROAD
The National Road has been accurately described as "The Road That Built The Nation." It was the earliest improved passage to the interior and jump-started American expansion and development.
Begun on the western edge of Cumberland MD (above) in 1811, this was the first Federal road-building project. The key Appalachian section ran straight ahead 131 miles (210 km) to Wheeling VA (now WV) on the Ohio River and was completed by 1818. Many pioneers then took an easy steamboat or raft trip down the river to settle the Midwest.
The National Road had first-rate engineering and construction for its time, including grading, bridges, ditches and a packed stone-covered surface. But only human and animal labor were available, so it conformed to the land. Fortunately the Appalachian Mountains are old, worn and relatively gentle.
The National Road even had signs. An engraved stone or cast iron marker along each mile showed the distance to Cumberland (hence the popular name) and nearby towns in both directions. Crude early roads already ran eastward to Baltimore, Washington DC, Philadelphia and New York.
The National Road eventually stretched half-way across IL to Vandalia, 632 miles (1,015 km) from Cumberland. The road was free to all users during the Federal era.
Inns and taverns went up alongside the narrow right-of-way, creating hamlets and towns which attracted more settlers. Beyond Wheeling was the lure for many--some of the world's best farmland! The National Road opened up this entire region, stimulating agriculture, development and investment--and thus tax revenue.
The Federal Government's forward-looking investment launched settlement and development in new states that are now America's heartland: IN (admitted 1816), IL (1818), and MO (1821). The road tied these frontier areas to existing states, unleashing two-way trade and expansion.
The National Road was completed and open to the Ohio River at Wheeling when construction on the Erie Canal was just beginning. Trains didn't exist in 1818, and didn't reach Wheeling until 1853, 35 years after the National Road. (Both are described in entries below.)
The National Road also inspired other transportation projects in the "Turnpike Era." Private groups built bridges or roads and charged a toll. Still, most roads remained crude throughout the 1800s, with just enough maintenance to keep them passable in dry weather.
The US Post Office ran a Pony Express on the National Road in the mid-1830s. Riders carried important mail in a leather saddlebag over the horse's back. Animals went at top speed and were swapped at relay stations about every six miles (10 km). (The famous western Pony Express has its own entry below.)
The National Road was much less important across the Midwest because of river access, easy terrain and competition from rapidly spreading railroads. While the MD-PA-WV road section was essential, the OH-IN-IL section was merely useful. And railroads, gradually building west, took most of the traffic by mid-century. The rail network extended from the East Coast to Chicago by 1852.
Road construction across the Midwest ended in 1839 and control passed to the states with portions incomplete--just a crude path in places with trees removed. Maintenance became a burden so tolls were imposed and toll houses built. The road then entered a long decline since nearly all passengers, freight and mail in the late 1800s went by train.
On this stretch of the National Road in PA (above), a pillar-shaped mile marker appears just above the truck's hood. I-70 is the main drag across this territory today. US 40 still follows much of the old alignment but avoids many segments including this one. The National Road's original stone path, now covered by asphalt or concrete, remains the narrow main street through countless hamlets bypassed by progress.
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Best known for the modern Parkway (above) this was originally a dirt trail used by Native Americans and animals. It runs 444 miles (710 km) from Natchez MS on the Mississippi River, northeast to near Nashville TN.
Peak usage was northbound from 1790-1820 when it was on the frontier. Ohio Valley settlers walked back home after floating rafts of farm products down to Natchez or New Orleans LA.
Black slaves from the east were forced to walk it, generally tied by ropes or chains, heading for sale to new masters in the Deep South. US soldiers used the Trace to reach New Orleans during the War of 1812. It was a postal and frontier trading route as well.
Foot traffic compacted the soil, creating huge puddles or streams. Many sections became badly eroded and sunken. Users made a new path nearby when serious obstacles developed on the old one. But other than cutting down trees occasionally to get around trouble spots, nothing was ever engineered or built.
The Natchez Trace was largely abandoned after 1830 when new technology, steamboats, made the return trip much faster and cheaper.
Seventy-percent of the Trace winds through MS, a lovely and fertile state the way it was "left to us" by Native Americans. Actually, the Indians were expelled or exterminated. What followed under Anglo control was 200+ years of slavery, violence, ignorance, racism, poverty and finally out-migration. Although slavery is gone, its ugly legacy continues. You see evidence on most any trip through the state--except this one--where the tranquil beauty of the land comes through.
The Natchez Trace Parkway, begun in 1937, parallels and repeatedly crosses the Trace (an archaic term for "trail" or "path"). This free two-lane blacktop National Park Service road is one of the country's most-enjoyable drives. Short portions of the original Trace are marked and can be walked.
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Canals had a half-century of importance in the early 1800s before railroads largely replaced them. The Erie Canal opened up a fertile wilderness, triggering positive secondary effects that are still being felt.
NY State built the canal alone after Federal funding was rejected. Construction took from 1817-25. It runs 363 miles (580 km) across the upstate region from Albany westward to Buffalo. It also links New York City and the Hudson River with the Great Lakes. It created an agricultural and industrial boom by greatly expanding marketing areas and lowering transportation costs more than 90%.
The original Erie Canal, based on European designs, was a shallow ditch four feet (1.2 m) deep and 40 feet (12 m) wide. Local farmers were paid to build short sections. After surveyors marked the route, farmers used their animals to remove trees, and scrape dirt to form the canal sides.
Mules, or occasionally horses, were the original motive force on the canal. They walked on the towpath along one side with a rope pulling boats carrying cargo and/or passengers. Typical speed was 4 MPH (6.5 km/h).
By changing mules and resting them on-board, a long day of travel might be 60 to 80 miles (96-130 km), much greater than primitive roads of the era. The canal ride was also much smoother! This was by far the best way to travel before railroads. Boat excursions became popular, combining what had been two very different concepts for Americans--travel and pleasure--and launching the tourism industry.
To handle elevation changes, locks raised or lowered boats by letting water in or out of small compartments, much like stair steps. The image above is at Lockport NY, climbing the rock ledge that creates Niagara Falls 20 miles (32 km) away. This was by far the most complex section to build.
Freezing temperatures forced the Erie Canal to close and be partially drained every winter to avert ice damage. Operating season during the peak years was generally only 7-8 months, from late April to late November.
The Erie Canal boosted settlement and development of upstate NY and the Midwest, and cemented New York City's role in trade. Social and political views flowed Internet-style by word-of-mouth and exchange of canal-town newspapers. This also helped spread religious fervor including the new belief of Mormonism begun in the canal town of Palmyra.
Upstate NY was America's first region to experience and benefit from massive technological change due to transportation. Also the first to suffer, when it was bypassed by progress: the growing network of steam-powered railroads. A century later with the automobile would come booming upstart cities like Detroit and Flint MI which rose, peaked, then suffered severe downturns. As technology changes, the torch gets passed to new areas while old ones decline.
Together, the Erie Canal and National (Cumberland) Road, completed to the Ohio River in 1818, led to eventual American control of the Midwest, Rockies, Great Basin and West Coast. Without the waves of migration and settlement they triggered, today's map of North America might be very different.
Other canals helped development and commerce, and some were profitable, but the Erie was the only major US canal to be a resounding success for two centuries. Modernized and altered several times, it remains in use mainly for summer recreational traffic. Mules are long gone, replaced by diesel or gasoline power. Kayakers and canoers use paddles or oars in the gentle current.
Steam-powered railroads (discussed below) were a vastly superior new technology. By the mid-1800s the spreading railroad network largely replaced the need for more canals. Three dozen canals remain in use.
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Anglo explorers and settlers established and heavily used the Oregon and California Trails during the 1840s-60s to claim new lands in the west. Perhaps 500,000 people migrated, largely for economic reasons--primarily land or gold. Others went to restore their health, or for adventure. Some 50,000 died en route, mainly from drownings, waterborne diseases like cholera, and gun accidents.
Most pioneers used covered wagons pulled by oxen. Others rode mules or horses and led pack animals. For protection, they formed into groups at jumping-off points like Council Bluffs IA, Independence and St. Joseph MO. Many went through a corner of today's KS, all went through NE following the shallow and non-navigable Platte River. Around Scotts Bluff in western NE (image above) the plains give way to mountains.
The trails continued across WY into ID before separating for OR or CA. Both Trails branched out as well. Except for the very beginning and end, the trip crossed rugged land with no infrastructure, and no help other than what wagon trains could provide. Settlements, government, and detailed maps would come later. CA became a state in 1850 and OR in 1859, but WY and ID didn't have enough people until 1890.
Pioneers began travel in spring, needing to reach their destination by fall--before the first snow. They traveled some 2,000 miles (3,200 km) through prairies, mountains and deserts, home to Native Americans and buffalo herds. The average speed for ox-drawn wagons was 2 MPH (3.2 km/h) over level ground, and a good day's travel was 15-20 miles (24-32 km).
Both Anglo settlers and the Native Americans they encountered suffered from misconceptions. Many Anglos considered the Indians savages, and the seemingly-open land free for conversion into private property. The Plains Indians had a communal and largely nomadic lifestyle, living in harmony with nature, following buffalo and other game over the same lands seasonally for generations. In the desert, other tribes of Indians had a precarious hand-to-mouth existence on roots and even insects.
Indians had no knowledge of Anglo settlements in the east: New York City had 300,000 people by 1840 and 1,000,000 by 1860. Natives were swamped by people they considered trespassers, and every year more and more of them came!
But conflicts were much more common in movies and TV than in real life--theft of animals was a much larger problem. Violence increased over time because of hotheads on both sides. It became worse when large numbers of young single males joined the CA gold rush of 1849-50. Some intentionally killed more buffalo than they needed for food, severely reducing and even eliminating the Indians' main food supply. (Operating separately, hunting parties did this as well, and the US Army later used the slaughter to drive Indians into submission.)
Most pioneer travel was westbound but some people gave up (or out), while others returned disillusioned. The trail corridor was sometimes more than a mile wide. But mountain sections frequently were barely passable and wagons were forced to go single file.
Most pioneers brought too much, and had to abandon heavy furniture, stoves etc. The staged scene above is at an Elko NV interpretive center. The truck is westbound on I-80 with the Humboldt River a darker line of vegetation and trees in the far distance. This entire area was the wide trail at seasonal peaks. Pioneers would spread out to pass, avoid dust, or allow animals to rest and graze.
Difficulties on both the Oregon and California Trails were heavily back-end loaded. Near the end, both had harsh terrain, unpredictable weather and a lack of water. Those CA-bound endured a long desert then a steep mountain climb.
The last 10% of the distance required more than 50% of the labor and endurance! But by then, pioneers and animals were exhausted, food supplies were dwindling or gone, and wagons were breaking down. In addition, some pioneers were lured by false "shortcuts" that proved deadly.
In the desert and mountain stretches ahead, some even left their wagons and resorted to pack animals. In extreme cases, with their animals killed by starvation or dehydration--or slaughtered for food--pioneers carried what they could on their own backs!
Trails were crude throughout their use, only a few improvements were ever made. Some pioneers and Indians built rafts, ferries or wooden bridges and charged tolls. Mormons turned this into a business, aiding their own and charging others.
Back in 1811-18, the US government constructed the National (Cumberland) Road, allowing settlers to reach the Midwest (entry above). But in the far west decades later, settlers were on their own! No significant government trail improvements occurred until 1857. On the California Trail, an organized effort could have furnished water and food along the horrendous NV desert stretch, saving pioneers and their animals. (Expanded treatment appears in the Preservation blog.)
Government support was mainly scattered military patrols following Indian conflicts. US Army forts operated in the 1850s and 60s, and by then a string of privately-owned crude trading posts offered an unpredictable supply of food, replacement animals, etc. at predictably steep prices.
While the Transcontinental Railroad (discussed below) ended the long wagon journey after 1869, many settlers then took branch trails to their destination. Traces of the pioneer migration remain in scattered spots--mainly ruts and "swales" or eroded gullies.
Mormons or Latter-Day Saints had a trail that was about half as long: 1,000 miles (1600 km)...and by far the easier half. But theirs was a forced migration, triggered by Christian mob violence in IL. The Mormon Trail crossed IA NE and WY to a land none of them had ever seen, what is now UT. It paralleled and at times joined the other trails along the Platte River.
One other famous route, the Santa Fe Trail from MO to today's NM, was used primarily by traders and the military, not pioneers.
There was strength in numbers, and nearly all pioneers traveled in groups on the established Oregon and California Trails.
(This photo gallery is in a very early stage of development.)
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This mountain crossing 7,135 feet (2,175 m) high between Reno NV and Sacramento CA was the last and greatest obstacle for early CA-bound pioneers. This must have been mind-boggling to emigrants used to gentle Midwestern terrain...like the Donner Party from Springfield IL. They were doomed by a bogus shortcut across UT and NV to starvation and cannibalism here in heavy snow. Later emigrants found easier--but still difficult--routes. (A fuller telling is in "Trails and Tribulations" on the Preservation page.)
In the 1860s, the Transcontinental Railroad tunneled through granite to get across, and built massive snowsheds across exposed areas. The Lincoln Highway used a crude wagon road, and beginning in 1925 the graceful Rainbow Bridge (above at dawn in May). Later US 40 came across this bridge.
The photo gallery includes pioneer locations, Donner Party sites, railroad infrastructure, the Lincoln Highway, and scenic views. Travelers on I-80 between Reno and Sacramento are two-miles (3.2 km) away and miss this area entirely.
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This horse-relay communications system briefly linked the eastern US with the geographically-isolated new state of CA. Riders, including many teenagers, sped across a frontier carrying important letters, telegrams and newspapers in leather pouches suspended from their saddles.
The Pony Express was slapped together. It was a temporary business running only until telegraph poles and wires could be installed. And it lasted just 19-months, from April 1860 to October 1861.
It had a contract to carry mail but was not established by the Post Office or US government. (Today's US Postal Service frequently blurs this distinction.)
The freight-hauling firm Russell, Majors and Waddell ran it as a demonstration project, hoping to snag more government business. But the plan backfired due to extremely high costs. And the extra business went to others.
The Pony Express operated in both directions. At first it covered nearly 2,000 miles (3,200 km) from the end of railroad tracks and telegraph wires in St. Joseph MO to Sacramento CA. The distance decreased as poles and wires went up. Initially the trip took 10 days, perhaps 12-15 days in winter. A portion used pioneer trails, other sections went through open prairies, deserts, mountains and wilderness in what are now these states: MO KS NE CO WY UT NV and CA.
Stagecoaches already ran along part of the MO-CA route, carrying paying passengers plus ordinary mail and newspapers. But their travel time was more than twice as long. Some mail from the east coast also went by ship around South America (!) which could take six-weeks.
Galloping horses could maintain 8-10 MPH (13-16 km/h) in good weather over level ground. But they tired quickly at that fast pace--especially over difficult terrain--and had to be swapped out at relay stations averaging just over ten miles (16 km) apart. Depending on the region, newly-tamed ("broken") fast mustangs or young horses were used--not ponies.
The Pony Express originally required nearly 200 staffed stations with fresh horses. Some locations needed everything shipped in, including food for humans and animals--even water! It was an expensive nightmare and the company suffered huge losses.
The Pony was the last gasp of ancient communications technology: fast horses changed frequently. The ancient Babylonians used the concept for mail some 4,000 years earlier, and the Romans copied them--but there had been no progress since then! The US established horse relays for mail between New York NY and Washington DC in 1832, and a few years later along the National Road.
Finally in 1844 came the telegraph, an American invention, allowing brief important messages to go by wire using Morse Code--short and long electrical pulses. (The telephone would be invented later.) By 1860, major cities in the East, South and Midwest were hooked up, and the Pony Express made a temporary connection with CA.
When the telegraph line was completed a message crossed the country in seconds, making the Pony obsolete. This was the goal and the operation disbanded. It left almost no trace on the land, and only a few crude structures.
The Pony was a big success for the US government, state of CA, and all Americans...except Russell, Majors and Waddell. It carried thousands of private letters at a bargain price, supplied general news to and from CA, and helped keep the new state in the Union at the start of the Civil War (1861-65).
The Pony Express was a losing bet by a private company, and in a sense deserves just a footnote. But it's a positive story demonstrating the frontier spirit and a great way to get children interested in American history. The National Pony Express Association (I'm a member) stages a summer Re-Ride alternating eastbound and westbound. The image shows a Re-Rider crossing a CA mountain pass nearing NV.
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Experimenters bolted a newly-invented steam engine to a wheeled platform. Steam pressure pushed drive shafts, the wheels turned...and the rest is history! The original concept and equipment came from Britain, but Americans quickly made significant improvements.
The idea behind railroad tracks is even older. Cut wood was laid down in strips over mud, reducing friction to help animals pull loaded carts out of mines. Later iron was substituted for wood, while the "horsepower" still came from animals.
Most early steam railways carried passengers and mail, and pulled only a car or two. Long-distance passenger service and hauling heavy cargo would come later.
Serious track-laying in the US began in 1828. Within decades animals were gone, equipment and tracks were standardized, and individual American and Canadian railroads operated largely as a system. By the 1850s, the US rail network extended from the East Coast to the Mississippi River. People, cargo and ordinary information (mail and newspapers) now moved faster than horses for the first time in history!
After the Civil War (1861-65), cities in the Northeast and Midwest had frequent short and long-distance passenger and freight service. The South, devastated by war, had a skeletal system.
Public reliance on railroads kept many roads in a primitive state, suitable only for horses and farm wagons. Many remained unimproved until the automobile era (discussed below). In the West and elsewhere, privately-owned toll roads and stage coach lines branched off from railroad stops.
Rails posed tremendous competition for canals. While the Erie Canal, for example, endured a routine four to five month shutdown because of ice, the nearby railroad plowed away heavy snow and continued operating year-round with only occasional delays. Railroads also moved people and cargo much faster than canals--plus they were generally cheaper to build and maintain.
The Transcontinental Railroad from Omaha NE to Sacramento CA went into full service in 1869, changing everything. People could then travel from New York to San Francisco on a through ticket in just seven days. (Four railroads were involved, passengers changed trains in Chicago IL, Omaha NE, and Ogden UT.)
For pioneers, completion of the railroad to CA saved time, money and hardship. A day sitting on the train replaced roughly a month walking and struggling on the trail! That could mean gaining a yearly harvest and building a house and barn before winter. Time spent on the trail was unproductive, wasted--and frequently deadly. In addition, the train was much cheaper: an average four cents a mile (2.5 cents a km) in 1870. So most pioneers rode the train as far as possible then some took branch trails to their final destination.
Back in 1846, the Donner Party left Springfield IL walking toward CA alongside ox-drawn wagons. Leaders foolishly took bad advice on a "shortcut" that wasn't. After months of struggle and suffering, many members starved in heavy snow...or committed cannibalism. But just a generation (23 years) later, they could have taken the train, arriving safely in five days with meals included. How's that for progress?
Cargo moved on trains in both directions along with people. To oversimplify: initially CA shipped out raw materials and specialized agricultural products, while receiving settlers and badly-needed manufactured goods from the East.
Nationwide, a great deal of speculative overbuilding, linking little towns by rail, occurred in the late-1800s. Modern diesel-electric equipment began replacing coal and oil-fired steam locomotives beginning in the 1930s and accelerating after World War II. Steam was essentially gone by 1960, except on "tourist" railroads.
Between 1920 and 1980 railroads declined financially, with competition from trucks, cars, buses and airlines because of the growing highway system. Rail passenger service became unprofitable, was reduced, and then restructured under Amtrak, a US government corporation. Eventually, regulators permitted widespread mergers and pulling-up unnecessary tracks. Today's railroads are again profitable hauling freight, while Amtrak operates a skeletal passenger system at a persistent loss, subsidized by taxpayers.
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LINCOLN HIGHWAY and named roads era
The Lincoln Highway deserves to be called the "Father Road" to today's highway system. This pioneering automobile route was originated by early car owners and manufacturers, not government. It ran some 3,400 miles (5,450 km) from New York NY across the continent to San Francisco CA. It was named for President Abraham Lincoln (1809-65) and existed from 1913-26 as cars were rapidly replacing horses and buggies.
The Lincoln Highway was the most important of 250+ "named" early automobile roads. At first it wasn't a "highway" anywhere, just a passable road between NY and IL, and a crude trail from IL to CA. But it was the first decently marked and promoted cross-country route. This mirrors the accomplishment of Henry Ford who didn't build the first car, but 20-years later revolutionized America with mass production of his Model-T.
Throughout this period and beyond, trains dominated travel with frequent passenger service. Railroads linked cities and towns, and dirt paths were good enough for farmers on horse-drawn wagons. But then came the automobile, and the first citizen attempts to create long-distance roads. The result was a lot of twists and right-angle turns along property (section) lines. Going most anywhere in a primitive car on a primitive road was quite the adventure--and primitive roads were the only kind we had.
Volunteers patched the Lincoln Highway together from what was available, including old wagon ruts, muddy farm paths, and one-lane mountain passes. The narrow brick section above was exceptionally good for the time and still carries local traffic in OH.
The Lincoln Highway Association (LHA) posted the route with painted or stamped-metal signs on poles, trees, barns and bridge abutments using donated money and volunteer labor. It published guidebooks and maps, and loudly tooted its own horn in publicity campaigns. The group paid for some improvements to existing roads, and even built new reinforced concrete "seedling miles" from scratch--practically goading governments into action.
The LHA was a prime catalyst in changing public attitudes about roads and their financing, building on the "Good Roads Movement" begun by bicyclists in the 1880s. It was backed by much of the early automobile industry along with car owners and others who stood to benefit. Many ordinary Americans donated a few dollars to be part of a great civic cause. Other groups named, improved and promoted branch roads off the Lincoln Highway.
The Lincoln Highway and Ford's Model-T had a symbiotic relationship, boosting each other. In 1913, when the Lincoln Highway was inaugurated and mass production of the Model-T began, only 1.3% of the public owned a motor vehicle. The Model-T was designed for rutted dirt paths...or mud. Only in larger cities were streets improved with brick, wooden blocks, cobblestones, or gravel. The LHA's lofty goal was to link them with a gravel road across the country.
East of the Mississippi River, greater population densities and a longer period of settlement meant generally better conditions. Most early Lincoln Highway trips were relatively short and in states like OH and PA. West of the Mississippi River, travel was frequently an adventure. Even driving in the rain across the gentle farm landscape of IA was impossible because the state became a giant mud bog.
The Lincoln Highway included this narrow and dangerous mountain stretch near Carson City NV which was never paved. Many desert and mountain areas were similar--others were worse. They imposed a hidden tax, holding back the nation and the economy. Farmers for example could only reach a small local market because transportation costs and times were so extreme--a problem India faces today.
The Lincoln Highway jump-started America's long effort to end reliance on railroads. Signs, guidebooks and maps represented a tremendous first step and made it at least possible to go cross-country in an automobile. In 1919, it took a military convoy 62 days to do it, digging out and building the "highway" as they went.
The "seedling miles" of concrete paving were a revelation to the public--especially with dust or mud at either end. They sparked widespread attention, prodding states into road construction and maintenance just as automobile ownership was taking off. Car and truck registrations soared 18-fold, from 1.25 million in 1913 to 22.2 million in 1926.
Finally after governments stepped in, Lincoln Highway conditions improved tremendously in the 1920s. Gasoline taxes and license fees paid for grading, bridges, gravel--and in some places paving. In largely unpopulated areas of UT and NV, the LHA and auto industry backers paid for construction. Eventually, remote dirt stretches had at least bridges, grading and occasional signs.
By 1935, with the government-imposed "numbered" system (described below) in place, the first American highway was completely paved coast-to-coast. It was US 30, and most of it from PA to WY was the former Lincoln Highway.
The 1913 LHA goal of an all-weather gravel road across the country (with urban upgrades) had been surpassed by something infinitely better: a continuous paved highway in just a generation--22 years! The Lincoln Highway is a concrete example of how quickly America modernized during that period. The idea of a coast-to-coast automobile highway captured public attention with the right cause, in the right place, at the right time.
And Henry Ford got a free ride! He refused to donate to the LHA, claiming that road-building should be left to government. Yet with the most cars on the road his company was the prime beneficiary. Ford also bought the Lincoln luxury car brand in 1922, reaping free advertising and implied association with the Lincoln Highway funded by many of his competitors.
Today, engineered and bulldozed Interstate-80 links New York with San Francisco. The former Lincoln Highway still twists and turns, zigs and zags across the landscape, carrying local traffic. It may be called Lincoln Way, US 30, 40 or 50...or something else. Historic bridges and short stretches of original pavement survive. Other early sections were never paved. Bypassing left them in a pre-automobile state to become hiking or recreational trails.
Roughly a half-century apart, two private initiatives--the Pony Express and Lincoln Highway--filled urgent needs, changing and improving America. One marked an ending, the other a beginning. All Americans know about the Pony Express, but very few have heard of the Lincoln Highway and the citizen-led era before highways had numbers.
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ROUTE 66 and numbered roads era
This is the most-famous highway of the "numbered" era beginning in 1926, after governments took over road building and maintenance.
The 250+ "named" roads (Lincoln Highway etc.) had become unwieldy to mark and map...and especially to follow. A crude stretch of dirt might have a dozen names with confusing signs and symbols painted by boosters on utility poles, trees, barns and rocks. Frequent turns only made things worse.
Some "highways" or "automobile trails" served no real need because they overlapped. Others were basically promotional scams. They lured motorists out of their way to benefit small-town merchants, or entire towns, that paid to be included.
After more than a decade of increasing chaos, government stepped in and assigned numbers using a rational system. "Named" routes disappeared--most were unmissed except by their promoters. Some older motorists still used the names until around World War II.
Under the 1926 government plan, odd numbered highways ran basically north-south, even numbers east-west. It began with US Highway 1 hugging the East Coast and US Highway 2 near the Canadian border. States also established their own numbered road systems. Large uniform metal signs were mounted along roadsides, replacing paint slapped on poles and trees. And gasoline stations began offering free maps.
By the mid-1920s, automobiles were no longer playthings of rich city-dwellers. Voters were increasingly car-owners, and paved roads became seen as a public benefit. Gasoline taxes and vehicle license fees paid for governments to begin linking towns and cities with reinforced concrete, asphalt or (occasionally) brick.
Life had also gotten faster. A Model-T could sustain 40 MPH (65 km/h), while a horse tires rapidly at just 10 MPH (16 km/h). Horses were suddenly obsolete. Then, pavement made the Model-T obsolete--and production stopped in 1927 after a 20-year run. Ford's replacement Model-A was designed to run on hard surfaces. It was bigger and heavier, had twice the horsepower, and a 65 MPH (105 km/h) top speed.
More pavement led to more cars with more creature comforts and bigger engines, including Ford's first V8 for the masses in 1932. More cars with more horsepower led to more demand for more and better roads with faster speeds...and on it went.
At this transition from Primitive to Pavement came US Highway 66. It ran 2,450 miles (3,950 km) from Chicago IL to Santa Monica CA on the Pacific Ocean just beyond Los Angeles. It went diagonally southwest from IL to OK, then almost straight west from OK to CA--receiving an even number. It was completely paved by 1938 and easily the best all-weather route to southern CA. Rt 66 never went coast-to-coast but many major eastern highways linked to it between Chicago and Tulsa OK.
No other American highway has a history like Rt 66. Peak fame came in the 1930s when it became the escape corridor for people in OK and nearby states fleeing the Great Depression, Dust Bowl and start of large-scale mechanized farming for a better life in CA.
John Steinbeck's use of "the mother road" in his 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath has endured with added capitalization. Steinbeck also called it "the road of flight." (Steinbeck's Biblical imagery is explored in The Blog.)
His fictional Joad family would have had the westbound view above in their old Hudson Super Six--the 1932 curbed concrete near El Reno OK is still in service! This is also some of the last intense greenery until well into CA--annual rainfall plunges from here.
In the 1930s, dust bowl conditions (caused by bad farming practices magnified by drought) varied by season and year, but generally peaked several hours ahead in TX, sometimes with blinding storms. Migration went both ways on Route 66 with many dispossessed and victimized farm families taking seasonal work, traveling in a battered car, by bus or hitch-hiking.
(Now for a very important distinction. The "Okies" and others on Rt 66 in the 30s were struggling to survive hard times. Many had owned land and/or homes but became refugees in their own country. Some turned into migrants--seasonal crop-pickers. In sharp contrast, earlier emigrants using the National Road and frontier trails were upwardly mobile, not migrants and certainly not refugees. And they only went once. Generally, they were young and middle-class, moving west permanently in search of a better life. This typically meant more or better land, advancement opportunities, or a chance to strike gold. Oregon and California Trail journeys were expensive, requiring animals, wagons and five months of food and supplies. The poor, if they went at all, hired on with wagon trains to manage animals. The rich had no reason to leave. Only the Mormons were fleeing.)
After the 1930s came World War II with a booming but severely rationed economy and a nationwide "Victory Speed" of 35 MPH (56 km/h). By the late 40s, prosperity returned, helped by pent-up demand. Car ownership became widespread, traffic volumes grew and Route 66 had to be upgraded. Multi-lane urban parkways, turnpikes and then Interstate highways replaced original pavement that generally linked the centers of towns.
Bypassing of towns and cities, the story told in the "Cars" movies, began in 1928 (see Preservation page article) and was completed in 1984 with the last stretch of parallel Interstate. Despite this, much of the Mother Road remains and can still be driven.
Images of Route 66 on this site were generally shot between 2000-2015. They show "artistic decay" at the peak or near-peak, and do not reflect today's conditions. Decay, spray-painting and other vandalism have since become extensive, especially at remote and abandoned locations along the road's western half.
The popularity of Rt 66 centers on nostalgia for a supposed American "Golden Era" of the 1950s (see entries in The Blog).
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This is a modern marketing term for US 50 across remote central NV. "Loneliest" is an exaggeration, but the two lane blacktop road is wide-open with small towns an hour apart. The middle section is so remote, there's no daytime radio reception. The gallery includes both US 50 and an earlier version, NV Hwy 722, forming an interesting loop. Portions were the unpaved Lincoln Highway of 1913-26 and the general Pony Express route.
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PACIFIC COAST HIGHWAY
Primarily a scenic route, this hugs the rugged CA coastline and is a favorite for car enthusiasts. Many print ads and TV commercials have been shot here, framed by dramatic mountain and ocean backdrops. Lovely arch bridges date from the 1930s, other sections are newer because of frequent mud and rock-slides. It has various other names including CA-1, US 101 and PCH.
(This photo gallery is in a very early stage of development.)
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We take them for granted now. We curse their monotony, big trucks, and badly-maintained pavement. But decades ago we couldn't wait to abandon old Route 66 (foreground) and get onto modern I-44 (background) because it bypassed all the little towns, had a passing lane and faster speeds.
Now we could drive long distances in a hurry, avoid unnecessary scenery, eat uniform McFood, and sleep at predictably sterile budget motels. It seemed too good to be true! And in a way it was.
The Interstate Era started in 1956 when President Dwight Eisenhower signed the bill into law. But the basic idea began decades earlier, coinciding with the first Model-T Ford in 1908.
In that same year, the privately-built Long Island Motor Parkway outside New York City opened its first section. This was a toll road, a financing method used since pioneer days. This conventional non-divided roadway had a single lane in each direction with banked curves and reinforced concrete pavement. It also had something innovative: controlled access. Bridges eliminated grade crossings with other streets and railroad lines.
By then, construction was also underway nearby on the government-built Bronx River Parkway, with multiple lanes in each direction and divided pavement. It used the centuries-old concept of wide downtown Boulevards with a park in the middle, combined with controlled access.
In most of the country however, roads were still dirt, mud or perhaps just wagon tracks. Generally, only cities had any pavement.
In 1919, young Lt. Col. Dwight Eisenhower crossed the country in a military convoy. The Lincoln Highway west of Chicago was primitive and the trip, full of mud and mishaps, took 62 days at an average 6 MPH (9.6 km/h)! Later, as Supreme Allied Commander in World War II, General Eisenhower saw the 1930s era German Autobahns and realized their importance.
In North America by the 1930s, automobiles and trucks had triumphed over animals. Paved highways (including US 30 and 66) linked the US. Now congestion was becoming a problem in large urban areas. Surging traffic volumes forced planners to think beyond conventional single-file roads and intersecting streets regulated by Stop signs or lights.
In 1937 Canada opened the first segment of the Queen Elizabeth Way (QEW) between Niagara Falls on the US border and Toronto ON. It was designed based on the Autobahns and, after completion, ran 86 miles (138 km) with two lanes in each direction and a grass median. It also had innovations including overhead lighting plus cloverleaf and partial cloverleaf (trumpet-style) interchanges. The QEW became North America's first modern long-distance divided highway with controlled access.
In 1939 the heavily-attended General Motors "Futurama" display at the New York World's Fair promoted an idyllic world of high-speed roadways free of any need to stop. It was supposed to be America in 1960 or so. It was a tremendous hit with visitors and received very favorable coverage in newspapers and magazines.
Then almost immediately the future started coming true! In 1940, the Pennsylvania Turnpike opened a 160 mile (256 km) section inaugurating modern long distance Interstate-style travel in the US. The design was nearly identical to the QEW: two lanes in each direction separated by a grass median. Other roads crossed over or under, and toll plazas regulated access. Cities were nearby but required an exit from the Turnpike. Long and gentle railroad-type grades replaced the need to use dangerous mountain sections of nearby US 30, the former Lincoln Highway.
The Interstate system that evolved from all this was built for safety, speed and traffic volumes. Language used in selling the 1956 legislation is instructive. We settled on utilitarian "Interstate and Defense Highways" not parkways. Design requirements included adequate clearances for military equipment, troop movements and safe evacuations of major cities in a nuclear attack. Any scenery you might pass on the Interstates is incidental--and besides, it would cost too much to bulldoze everything. Our T-shirt slogan sums it up: "Route 66, Interstate 0."
A few spots on the Interstates have grace if not beauty. This is I-25 and I-40 meeting in the high desert near downtown Albuquerque NM, bypassing Central Avenue--historic Route 66. The concrete has been painted traditional NM colors which helps a lot. And trees "feather" the abrupt boundary between earth and sky. Some beautification projects work, but fumes, road salt etc. mean that only strong, well-adapted vegetation survives.
The Feds paid 90% of the Interstate construction cost, states kicked in 10%. But all repair costs are state responsibilities and the bill is coming due. The 1956 legislation means some components began turning 65 years old in 2021. A few bridges are even older: eastbound I-70 crosses a river between Kansas City KS and MO on steel bridges with portions built in 1907. I-84 crosses the Connecticut River at Hartford on a stone arch bridge opened in 1908.
Engineering on the Interstates is generally good, with the exception of left exits, and 15 MPH (24 km/h) ramps. Many awkward spots could not be avoided, especially in cities and mountainous areas. Others like the I-95 Springfield interchange in VA were done on the cheap, created years of agony for drivers, and had to be rebuilt at great cost.
Engineers learned how not to do it on 1930s-40s urban road projects. They left behind mistakes in concrete and steel. Fortunately, many of those primitive early attempts (Davison Freeway in Detroit, Central Expressway in Dallas) have been rebuilt. Many, but not all. One survivor is still largely intact, an obsolete thrill ride that some commuters have no choice but to use twice daily. It's in the state that built a culture (or at least a pop-culture) around cars.
Between 1938-41, segments of the eight mile (13 km) Arroyo Seco Parkway opened connecting Los Angeles with suburban Pasadena CA. This was the start of the LA freeway system, replacing an original section of Route 66. The Parkway has divided pavement with a narrow median and controlled access. It also climbs hills with narrow lanes, tight turns, a dangerous median curb plus woefully inadequate entrances and exits. Trucks have been banned since 1943, because it was too dangerous for them--and they were too dangerous for everybody else! This hideosity is now called the 110 or Pasadena Freeway.
The first lengthy Route 66 bypass by a modern roadway came in 1953 when the 86 mile (140 km) Turner Turnpike opened linking Oklahoma City and Tulsa OK. It used a design similar to the Pennsylvania Turnpike and QEW. It was utilitarian, largely straight, scenically-challenged...but safe and necessary. And it arrived none too soon.
Even in the middle of nowhere, narrow two-lane roads including parts of Route 66 had become functionally obsolete because of heavy traffic between distant large cities. Vehicle registrations had increased 2.5-times in 20 years since the first narrow paving. Truck registrations grew even faster--plus trucks became wider, longer and heavier. Buses too, Greyhound and Trailways were big factors into the 1960s. Cars were now continuously backed up behind trucks and everyone was forced to go single-file into dinky towns, where they had to slow down and stop.
After ordering studies beginning in 1939, Congress finally passed The National Interstate and Defense Highways Act in 1956. And companion legislation provided money to start moving dirt. Lessons learned from all the earlier efforts helped to set uniform national design standards. The Pennsylvania Turnpike and Turner Turnpike were close enough to be "grandfathered" into the system. They and the "free" Interstates have since been upgraded with median barriers and concrete walls around bridge supports etc. The same is true of the QEW.
The Interstates, which honor Eisenhower on occasional signs, are meant to be safe and efficient for high-speed travel. But driving enjoyment has been engineered out and many are monotonous. A straight line, especially over flat country, can make a fast trip seem long and boring--but it's still the shortest distance between two points.
In creating the Interstates, some highway departments intentionally killed off mom-and-pop businesses. The FedEx truck is on I-40 which plowed through eastern NM in the 1960s. This two pump adobe brick Route 66 gas station was cut off from customers and had to be abandoned.
Serious designed-in flaws, like on the Arroyo Seco, are relatively rare on the Interstates. The biggest shortcoming is state maintenance and repair of older pavement which ranges from barely adequate to nonexistent.
Interstates appear sporadically on the site but do not have a separate gallery.
(Fact sourcing is available on request.)
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MISSISSIPPI RIVER US 80 BLUES
No veteran driver ever gets nostalgic for this!
Today, crossing the Mississippi River is safe and uneventful. Drivers on I-20 at Vicksburg MS use a wide 1973 bridge with dual 12-foot (3.66 m) lanes and shoulders in both directions. That's the Interstate standard.
But the Old Vicksburg Bridge (above), now closed to traffic, was the stuff of nightmares. It opened in 1930 and carried US 80, the Interstate's predecessor. The span is one-point-six-miles-long (2.6 km) with three extremely narrow lanes: westbound US 80, eastbound US 80, and trains!
Vehicle lanes are only nine-feet (2.75 m) wide! By the early 70s, Buicks, Chryslers and Cadillacs were approaching seven-feet (2.1 m), with mirrors jutting beyond. Trucks and buses were up to eight feet (2.4 m) wide, so their clearance on either side was just six inches (15 cm).
This was the only Mississippi River highway bridge for 400 miles (640 km) until 1940.
All traffic had to stop for a toll booth. Truckers and bus drivers pulled in their sideview mirrors, or risked getting them torn off. Curving onto the bridge, they kept their right wheels rubbing against a rail, and with luck would just avoid sideswiping each other...or perhaps a train.
Some car drivers likely got onto the bridge unaware. Then a train came rumbling up from behind, or perhaps worse, a locomotive came roaring at them.
Eastbound drivers had exactly this viewpoint. The unluckiest were hauling their families in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, trapped between an oncoming line of trucks and a coal-fired steam locomotive belching dense black clouds.
One image survives from that period, a reverse-angle shot looking west from the MS shoreline into LA:
The locomotive is perhaps a mile (1.6 km) away. Imagine experiencing this up-close as you squeeze through in your narrow lane, with choking coal smoke filling your windshield. The bridge shakes as the oncoming train rumbles and sways. Suddenly there's a total blackout as erratic river winds blow hot soot and ash in your face through open car windows. Then the locomotive's automatic pressure-relief valve opens, blasting excess steam sideways into your car with a sinister hiss.
Your hysterical spouse wakes up screaming next to you, while unrestrained young kids cower and whimper in back. And your little dog too.
Now imagine realistic variations on this theme. Heavy storms...or squinting at sunrise...or deceptive shadows at sunset...or blinding truck, bus and locomotive lights at 2 AM. Then add snow or ice (this is a bridge after all).
For all my complaining about monotonous Interstates (see essay above) sometimes a reality check is helpful.
Boring can be good. Have an unmemorable day.
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Modern diesel-electric locomotives can't match coal-fired steam for visual pollution! Trains have the bridge all to themselves now, vehicles and pedestrians are banned. Warren County MS owns it and is considering installing better fencing to create a hike and bike trail--a good plan.
The 2019 screenshot above is from www.pedestrians.org which offers a 28-minute video on this bridge (#267) and a wealth of information on pedestrian trails, safety etc. Screenshot Copyright © John Z Wetmore.
Vicksburg is near the Natchez Trace and city images appear in that gallery.
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THREE CENTURIES IN ONE IMAGE
This is only spot in the country showing three centuries of American roadbuilding. The view is roughly south from the National (Cumberland) Road over the Casselman River near Grantsville MD. The restored 1813 stone bridge in the foreground was used by frontier settlers, animals, wagons, and then cars until 1933 when the US 40 steel truss bridge in the middle went up.
This is still a vital transportation corridor. Modern I-68 is in the far distance, with a westbound truck crossing a steel and concrete bridge.
The river is significant too, for what might have been. It was supposed to help form a canal from the Chesapeake Bay to the Ohio River--thus linking the Atlantic Ocean and Mississippi River. But that technology was supplanted by American roadbuilding success and new technology: steam powered railroads.
The canal never got this far because we found better options in our westward drive. Trails, roads and rails took us the distance.
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