ROAD MAP_6-ed-2_edited-3ROAD MAP_6-ed-2_edited-3








The story of American mobility begins with 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 productive 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 beginning and end--only main routes are shown.  Corridors overlapped along the Platte River in NE, were miles wide, and shared with the Pony Express.  The Santa Fe Trail and Lincoln Highway had widely-used alternate loops.  The Lincoln Highway and Rt 66 had several changes over the years which are not shown.

State abbreviations (used throughout the site):  AL-Alabama, AZ-Arizona, CA-California, CO-Colorado, IA-Iowa, ID-Idaho, IL-Illinois, IN-Indiana, KS-Kansas, MD-Maryland, MO-Missouri, MS-Mississippi, NE-Nebraska, NJ-New Jersey, NM-New Mexico, NV-Nevada, NY-New York, OH-Ohio, OK-Oklahoma, OR-Oregon, PA-Pennsylvania, TN-Tennessee, TX-Texas, UT-Utah, WV-West Virginia, WY-Wyoming.

Permission is granted to link.  Written material may be quoted or reprinted for non-commercial use only with appropriate credit.

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NATIONAL (Cumberland) ROAD




WHERE THE ROAD BEGAN #2 (National Road Cumberland MD)WHERE THE ROAD BEGAN #2 (National Road Cumberland MD)The view is west at sunset. The plaque is in a small park next to a stone monument.

An artistic effect has been added.



The National (Cumberland) Road was "The Road That Built The Nation."  It was the earliest improved passage to the interior and jump-started American expansion and development.  Future president Thomas Jefferson championed the project after a 1791 carriage trip from Philadelphia through New York and New England.  He carefully noted road conditions in his daily journal:



Jefferson road key 1791Jefferson road key 1791



Through his travels, Jefferson realized only the US government had the resources to build a decent road to what is now the Midwest.  With his leadership the National Road was authorized as the first Federal highway project.  It would have far-reaching effects on what was then a frontier nation.

Construction finally began on the western edge of Cumberland MD (above) in 1811, after Jefferson left office.  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.  The road was free to all users during this era and had heavy traffic.  At Wheeling many pioneers took an easy steamboat or raft trip down the river to settle the Midwest.

In 1818, Erie Canal construction was just starting.  Railroads didn't exist and wouldn't reach Wheeling for another 35 years.  (Both have entries below.)

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. 

Finally, by the 1840s, the National Road stretched half-way across IL to Vandalia, 632 miles (1,015 km) from Cumberland.

Westbound settlers traveled on foot and horseback, or in huge Conestoga wagons.  Traders went both ways in wagons, typically hauling farm products to eastern cities and bringing back manufactured items.  Stagecoaches were the luxury vehicles of that era, carrying passengers and mail.  And livestock was driven on the road to markets or slaughterhouses.



BYPASSED S-CURVE (National Road nr New Concord OH)BYPASSED S-CURVE (National Road nr New Concord OH)This 1828 structure has been restored and is now a roadside park. The red car is westbound on modern US 40. An artistic effect has been added.



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 trade and expansion.

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 area, stimulating agriculture, development and investment, and thus tax revenue.

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 declined in importance across the Midwest because of rivers, flatter land and trains.  While the 1811-18 MD-PA-WV National Road section to Wheeling was essential, the later OH-IN-IL portion was merely useful.  And railroads, rapidly building west, took away most of the passengers, mail and freight by mid-century.  The eastern rail network extended to Chicago by 1852. 

National Road construction ended in 1839 and control passed to the states with western 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, awaiting a new century and the automobile.



RURAL SCENE (National Road nr West Alexander PA)RURAL SCENE (National Road nr West Alexander PA)This is a bypassed section of highway. US 40 is some distance away.



On this stretch of the National Road in PA, a pillar-shaped mile marker appears just above the truck's hood.  I-70 is nearby and gets the heavy traffic.  US 40 still follows much of the old alignment but bypasses many segments including this one.  The National Road's original stone path, covered by asphalt or concrete, remains the narrow main street through countless hamlets bypassed by progress. 

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CURVES AHEAD (Natchez Trace nr Natchez MS)CURVES AHEAD (Natchez Trace nr Natchez MS)This is a straight photograph. A companion image is offered with an added linen postcard effect.



Best known for the modern Parkway (above) the original Natchez Trace runs parallel, through the woods.  "Trace" is an archaic term for "trail" or "path." 

The Natchez Trace was first used by Native Americans and animals, then American settlers and slaves.  It stretches 444 miles (710 km) from Natchez MS on the Mississippi River, northeast to near Nashville TN. 

Just after 1800, the US Army widened the trace enough for wagons, but it remained crude with only a few small pole bridges and toll rafts on major rivers.  Unlike the National Road, the trace wasn't engineered or graded, didn't have a stone surface, and received no maintenance--dooming much of the Army's work.  It was never a "high way" but in many places an eroded "low way" collecting water.  

Peak usage was northbound from 1790-1820 when this area was on the frontier.  Ohio Valley settlers walked back home after floating rafts of farm products down to Natchez or New Orleans LA.  Many formed into groups for protection against bandits.  By then, farm and plantation houses provided food and lodging, but many travelers slept in the open nearby. 

Mail carriers on horseback could travel the Natchez Trace in 10-15 days, but it took a wagon 2-3 weeks.

Black slaves from the east were forced to walk the trace, generally shackled and tied by ropes or chains, heading for sale to new owners in the Deep South.  US soldiers used the trace to establish control over the Mississippi River and to reach New Orleans during the War of 1812.



SUNKEN TRACE #6 (Natchez Trace nr Port Gibson MS)SUNKEN TRACE #6 (Natchez Trace nr Port Gibson MS)Dappled morning sunlight in late summer shows two paths of the old trace leaving an "island" of trees in the middle. Once the compression from foot (and hoof) traffic starts, rain turns them into gullies and then to serious erosion with trees caving in.



This is typical of the "Sunken Trace" from the early 1800s.  Foot and wheeled traffic compacted the soil and many sections became badly eroded.  Huge puddles or swamps could persist under the forest canopy, even in dry weather.  Trees were always falling down blocking the way, as on the left.  Users simply created a new path nearby.

The Natchez Trace was largely abandoned after 1830 when new technology, steamboats, made the return trip much faster and cheaper.  Some sections became local roads.

Seventy-percent of the Natchez Trace winds through MS.  Although slavery was abolished in 1865 its ugly legacy continues, and MS is by many measures the poorest state.  You see evidence on most any trip--except this one--where the tranquil beauty of the land comes through. 

The Natchez Trace Parkway, begun in 1937, parallels and repeatedly crosses the old path.  The free two-lane blacktop National Park Service road is one of the country's most-enjoyable drives.  Trucks and buses are banned, and there's generally a 50 MPH (80 km/h) speed limit.  Many short portions of the original trace are marked and can be walked.

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SPILLWAY, RIDER & FLAG (Erie Canal Lockport NY)SPILLWAY, RIDER & FLAG (Erie Canal Lockport NY)The upper three of five former locks are lit by directional sun in autumn. Lock gates were removed creating this spillway a century ago.

This is 30% of the original 1817-1825 infrastructure, five locks in each direction separated by the stone stairway at left.

The two upper arched walkways are of tapered stone blocks mounted to metal. At the upper right corner a bike rider waves after a steep climb on the towpath, originally for animals pulling boats.



Canals had a half-century of importance in the early 1800s before railroads (discussed below) 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.  President Thomas Jefferson called the project "little short of madness" for a frontier nation, and suggested waiting a century.

The Erie Canal was a tremendous investment for a state--and an even bigger success.  It created an agricultural and industrial boom by greatly expanding marketing areas and lowering transportation costs more than 90%.  And tolls paid off construction costs within five-years!

Building the canal 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. 

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) but some boats reached 10 MPH (16 km/h) on open stretches.

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.



TUG & JOGGERS (Erie Canal Gasport NY)TUG & JOGGERS (Erie Canal Gasport NY)The tug Dewitt Clinton heads into the morning sun after passing under the Gasport Lift Bridge. Around the bend is a guard gate that can be lowered, allowing portions of the canal to be drained or repaired.

Two joggers are on the towpath used in the 1800s by animals pulling boats. An artistic effect has been added.



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 by word-of-mouth and 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 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 frequently decline.

The Erie Canal, opened in 1825, 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 by summer recreational traffic.  Mules are long gone, replaced by diesel or gasoline power.  Kayakers and canoers use paddles or oars in the gentle current.  The towpath is now a hiking and jogging trail.

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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FRONTIER TRAILS (Oregon, California, Mormon)



COVERED WAGON AT SUNSET (Gering NE)COVERED WAGON AT SUNSET (Gering NE)This is a Park Service display at Scotts Bluff National Monument. The rock formation is 800 ft (245 m) tall and was a landmark on the Oregon, California and Mormon Trails.

The Pony Express passed by here in 1860-61. Mitchell Pass is just ahead.



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 or more people migrated, largely for economic reasons--primarily land or gold.  Others went to restore their health or for adventure. 

Many died en route, mainly from waterborne diseases like cholera, drownings, and gun or wagon accidents.  A lack of basic government support, and inaccurate guidebooks also claimed victims.  Death estimates range from 20,000 to 65,000.  Indian confrontations happened, primarily later in the period, but were much less common than in movies and TV.  

Most pioneers used ordinary farm wagons (not large Conestogas) pulled by oxen--bulls bred for strength.  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 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 branched out as well.  Except for the very beginning and end, pioneers crossed rugged land with almost no infrastructure.  Help came only from wagon trains, just a few forts and trading posts existed.  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. 

It was a slog against time.  Oxen have one forward speed when pulling a wagon: 2 MPH (3.2 km/h) over level ground.  Able-bodied adults can walk nearly twice as fast.  A good day's wagon travel was 15-20 miles (24-32 km), a typical day might be 12-15 miles (19-24 km).  But in mountains late in the trip progress might be measured in yards (meters) up or down across rocks.  Adults and older children typically walked nearby the entire distance to ease the burden on animals.  The journey was 4-5 million steps.

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.  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 existence on roots and 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, competing for water, grass and game, and every year more and more of them came!

Emigrant diaries show animal thefts were always a major problem.  But violence increased over time because of hotheads on both sides.  It became worse after 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 buffalo 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.



CALIFORNIA TRAIL #1 (nr Elko NV)CALIFORNIA TRAIL #1 (nr Elko NV)This was the primary route west for pioneers who relied on the Humboldt River. It appears as a horizontal dark area and grove of trees at far right.

The semi is a very lucky shot. It is heading west on I-80 past an interpretive center devoted to the western migration, largely from 1840-69, when the Transcontinental Railroad was finished.

Nevada was a long tough stretch and many pioneers had to discard belongings to lighten the load for their exhausted animals. Some areas were littered with belongings, as shown here. Info:



Most pioneers brought too much, and had to abandon heavy furniture, stoves etc.  The staged foreground 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.

Physical 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 brutal desert then a steep mountain climb.

The last 10% of the distance (200 miles or 325 km) required 50% of the labor and endurance!  But by then, pioneers and animals were exhausted, food supplies were dwindling or gone, water was scarce, and wagons were breaking down.  In addition, some pioneers were lured by false "shortcuts" that proved deadly.

In desert and mountain stretches, 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.  Everyone was racing the calendar.  On some mountain passes snow can begin falling in September.

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).  Still earlier, troops improved the Natchez Trace.  But in the far west decades later, settlers were on their own!  No significant government trail improvements occurred until 1857. 

Even reliable directions were not available.  Competing privately-printed guidebooks and bogus shortcuts crowded out advice of a few trail veterans.  And even they did not know the best route into CA, because comparative scientific surveys had not been done. 

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 on the HISTORY page.)

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.

When the Transcontinental Railroad (discussed below) ended the main wagon journey after 1869, many settlers took branch trails to their destination.  Traces of the migration remain in scattered spots--mainly ruts and "swales" or eroded gullies.

The Mormon Trail used by Latter-Day Saints was just over half as long: 1,200 miles (1950 km)...and by far the easier part.  But theirs was a forced migration, triggered by Christian mob violence including the murder of their founder in IL.  The Mormon Trail crossed IA NE and WY to a land none of them, including leader Brigham Young, had ever seen, what is now UT.  It paralleled and at times joined the other trails along the Platte River.  Mormons continued using the trail after founding Salt Lake City in 1847.

One other famous route, the Santa Fe Trail has a separate entry below.

There was strength in numbers, and most overland pioneers traveled in groups on the established Oregon and California Trails.  Others went along a distant southern route, by ship around the coast of South America, or across what is now Panama (not included in the photo galleries).  

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DAWN AT RAINBOW BRIDGE (Lincoln Highway Donner Pass CA)DAWN AT RAINBOW BRIDGE (Lincoln Highway Donner Pass CA)A rosy dawn transforms weathered grey concrete and ancient rocks. The Donner Party of 1846-47 had the same view, minus the bridge.



This mountain crossing 7,135 feet (2,175 m) high between Reno NV and Sacramento CA was a tremendous obstacle for early CA-bound pioneers.  It came just after the brutal NV desert crossing, and after the summit a rugged and rocky downslope was still ahead.  Sacramento is 90 miles (145 km) away, and 7,105 feet (2,165 m) lower in elevation! 

This scene is near the top.  The view from Donner Lake, far below, must have been mind-boggling to emigrants used to gentle Midwestern the Donner Party from Springfield IL.  They were doomed by a bogus shortcut across UT and NV to starvation and cannibalism below here in heavy snow.  Later emigrants found slightly easier--but still difficult--routes.  (A fuller telling is in "Preventable Tragedies" on the HISTORY 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, still used to reach ski resorts. 

Railroads used the original routing (out of view on the left) until the 1990s, but the single set of tracks has been removed and the historic grade is now a hiking trail.  Trains bypass the area entirely on an easier grade with double tracks and long tunnels.

Donner Pass is one of the world's snowiest places with an average annual total of 34 feet (10.3 m).  The record year was exactly twice that.  Typically only July and August don't have snowfall.

Donner Pass is just west of Truckee CA.  Travelers on I-80 are 1.5 miles (2.5 km) north and get only a glimpse.

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RALPH'S RUTS #5 (nr Lyons KS)RALPH'S RUTS #5 (nr Lyons KS)The first Anglo trade with Santa Fe was in 1821, and the first organized wagon caravan along the Trail was in 1822. Later, the railroad built west, shortening the trail and replacing it through KS before the final stretch into Santa Fe NM opened in 1880.



This was primarily a commercial trail, pioneered by MO businessman William Becknell to pay off his debts after a financial panic.  Incredible profits attracted many others and the trip became a yearly event.  From 1821 to 1880 pack animals and then wagons made the trip between MO and what is now NM.  The Santa Fe Trail was later used by the US Army to take control of NM, CA and the Southwest from Mexico. 

Wagons went diagonally through KS before the trail branched into two routes.  The longer path went through mountains of CO, the shorter crossed what is now the OK Panhandle, but had a long stretch without reliable water and was very stressful on animals. 

The Santa Fe Trail brought American goods and culture to a remote part of Mexico.  Traders brought back precious metals, furs and animals--including the "Missouri" Mule.  Over time, Hispanic traders used the trail as well, bringing goods to KS and MO. 

The US government surveyed and marked the trail with mounds of dirt in 1825-27.  Military forts provided some protection, including escorts, during Indian hostilities.  But the only major improvement was a private toll road opened in 1866 through Raton (Ra-TONE) Pass between CO and NM. 

The trail originally ran 1200 miles (2000 km) from central MO.  But improvements soon allowed for a "jumping-off point" around today's Kansas City, shortening the distance to less than 900 miles (1450 km).  The trail was replaced in stages by a railroad, the AT&SF or "Santa Fe" which reached the city in 1880.  Ruts and "swales" or eroded gullies remain, along with homes and other buildings from the period.

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RE-RIDE #179 (nr Twin Bridges CA)RE-RIDE #179 (nr Twin Bridges CA)This is a straight photograph. A companion image is offered with an added oil painting effect.



The Pony Express was slapped together.  It was a temporary communications link running only until telegraph poles and wires could be installed.  And it lasted just 19-months, from April 1860 to October 1861.

This horse-relay system briefly linked the eastern US with the geographically-isolated new state of CA.  Admitted in 1850, CA had 380,000 people a decade later and was growing rapidly.  It also had gold...lots of gold.  Its wealth and strategic location were correctly seen as a key to Union success in the impending Civil War (1861-65).

The Pony carried information--not goods, packages or people.  Riders, including many teenagers, sped across a frontier with telegrams, urgent letters and important newspaper pages in leather pouches suspended from their saddles.  Sending a brief message on special lightweight paper cost the equivalent of $100 today.

The Pony had a contract to carry mail but was not established or operated 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 from both ends.  Initially the trip took 10 days, generally 12-15 days during the lone winter.  The extreme was 20 days.  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.  (MO and CO had short distances.)

Stagecoaches already ran along part of the 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 go 8-10 MPH (13-16 km/h) in good weather over level ground.  But they tired quickly at that pace 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 a logistical nightmare and the company suffered huge losses.  Some areas were extremely dangerous for riders and station personnel with frequent Indian attacks.

The Pony was the last gasp of ancient communications technology: fast horses changed frequently.  The ancient Babylonians used animals for mail some 4,000 years earlier, and the Romans followed.  The US set up horse relays for mail between Boston MA and New York NY in 1637, New York and Washington DC in 1832, and then along the National Road.  But technology was riding to the rescue.

In 1844 an American invention, the telegraph, allowed 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 telegrams and 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.  The four leather pouches over his saddle are filled with commemorative letters. 

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Experimenters bolted a newly-invented steam engine to a wheeled platform.  Steam pressure pushed drive shafts, 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.  To help animals pull loaded carts out of mines, strips of wood were laid over mud, reducing friction.  Later, iron was substituted for wood, while the "horsepower" still came from animals.

Track-laying in the US began in 1828.  The first steam railroads were short-distance haulers carrying passengers and mail, and pulling only a few cars.  But track laying progressed rapidly, followed by long-distance passenger service and hauling heavy bulk cargo.

In frontier areas, settlements left off the rail system could die.  So countless bypassed hamlets moved all their buildings to newly-laid tracks.  

Within decades, equipment and tracks were standardized and American and Canadian railroads operated largely as a system.  By 1852, the rail network extended from the East Coast to Chicago, and by 1856 the Mississippi River had been bridged.  People, cargo and ordinary information (mail and newspapers) 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.



THEY'RE JOINED! (Promontory UT)THEY'RE JOINED! (Promontory UT)A tourist strikes a pose for someone else nearly 150 years after the fact.



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 over seven days.  Generally, four railroads were involved, passengers changed trains in Chicago IL, Omaha NE, and Ogden UT.

Land grants and other government financial support helped two private enterprises construct this expensive and initially-unprofitable missing link across unsettled territory.  The Central Pacific built east from CA and the Union Pacific went west from NE.  The contemporary scene above is at the Golden Spike National Historic Park in UT.  Note the different ties--she's exactly over the famous "joining of the rails" spot, posing for a friend.

For pioneers, completion of the railroad to CA saved a great deal of time, money and hardship.  A day sitting on the train replaced roughly a month walking and struggling on the trail!  That could mean gaining an entire year's harvest and building a house and barn before winter.  Time spent on the trail was expensive, unproductive, dangerous, and sometimes deadly.  A train ran daily and was much cheaper: an average four cents a mile (2.5 cents a km) in 1870.  So most pioneers rode as far as possible then some took branch trails to their final destination.

Before the railroad, in 1846 the Donner Party left Springfield IL heading for CA in ox-drawn wagons.  Leaders foolishly took bad advice on a "shortcut" that wasn't.  After months of struggling and suffering, many members starved in heavy snow...or committed cannibalism.  But just a generation (23 years) later, they could have ridden the train, arriving safely in five days with meals included.  How's that for progress?

Cargo and mail 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. 

The two railroads profited once the area was settled.  Technically they were only in the passenger and freight-hauling business.  But they sold off land grants to settlers who became prosperous farmers and ranchers.  And the need for locomotive fuel and water created trackside towns and businesses across half of the nation.  Early locomotives, huffing and puffing steam, required water every 7-10 miles (11-16 km). 

Nationwide, a great deal of speculative overbuilding, linking little towns by rail, occurred in the late-1800s.  Modern diesel-electric equipment began replacing polluting and inefficient 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, due to trucks, cars, buses and airlines.  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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Side notes:  The Golden Spike National Historical Park is near the north shore of Great Salt Lake.  Locomotives, tracks and ties etc. are modern replicas.  Tracks run only to maintenance sheds and are not connected to the nation's rail system.  In 1905, the Union Pacific mainline was upgraded to a more-direct UT route, and branch line service here ended in 1942.

Through a merger, Union Pacific acquired the entire 1860s Omaha-Sacramento route and heavily uses it today.  Dozens of "tourist" railroads offer short excursion trips, some with restored steam locomotives. 

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LINCOLN HIGHWAY and named roads era



BRICK SECTION (Lincoln Highway nr Robertsville OH)BRICK SECTION (Lincoln Highway nr Robertsville OH)Parts of the Lincoln Highway are in perfect shape, like this original narrow brick section still open for traffic. But the road is more than just something from the past.



The Lincoln Highway is the "Father Road" to today's highway system.  This pioneering automobile route was set up in 1913 by auto industry leaders and car owners--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. 

Sections later became part of US 30, 40 or 50.  Still later, Interstate-80 crossed the same general areas.  Fragments of the Lincoln Highway including the lovely OH brick section above remain in use as local roads.

The Lincoln Highway came at a "tipping point" for mass adoption of the automobile.  The first verified test of a practical gasoline-powered car in the US was 20-years earlier, in 1893:



Duryea paper_edited-1 copyDuryea paper_edited-1 copy



Then in five years the horseless carriage advanced from a prototype to a product.  This 1898 ad was aimed at wealthy early adopters in cities with crude pavement:






Meantime, in Detroit, Henry Ford ran through the alphabet before finding success in 1908 with the Model-T.  In 1913, Ford moved production of his "car for the masses" to a huge new plant with a moving assembly line, changing everything.  Efficiencies let Ford cut the price by 70% over 17-years, from $850 to $260, creating incredible demand. 

The Model-T and Lincoln Highway had a symbiotic relationship, boosting each other.  The Model-T was designed for dirt or mud, making it perfect for the times.  In 1913, just 1.3% of the public owned a motor vehicle.  But with so many people becoming "autoists" as they were then called, attention quickly shifted to roads, or lack of them.

Only in larger cities were streets improved with bricks, wooden blocks, cobblestones or gravel.  The Lincoln Highway's lofty goal was to link major northern and western cities with an all-weather gravel road across the country.  In remote areas with almost no traffic it would be wide enough for one vehicle in one direction, with occasional pullouts.  To repeat: this was the goal! 

Throughout this period and beyond, trains dominated travel with frequent passenger service.  There was no road system, just paths radiating from cities or railroad depots.  They were only used by locals who knew where they were, so they were generally unmarked.  Most early autoists merely aspired to make short trips in their shiny new automobile, but a few were determined to travel long distances...or even cross the country!



1916 LH_edited-11916 LH_edited-1



The idea for this marked and promoted "fair weather" road originated with Carl Fisher, founder of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Indianapolis 500 race.  He and other key members of the early auto industry formed a non-profit group, the Lincoln Highway Association (LHA) with a professional staff in Detroit, assisted by volunteers along the route, and motorists.  They stitched the road together from what was available, including old wagon ruts, muddy farm paths, and one-lane mountain passes.

The Lincoln Highway was among the first, and easily the most important, of 250+ "named" early "automobile trails" or roads.  It linked major cities, from New York NY through Philadelphia and Pittsburgh PA in the east, to near Chicago IL and Omaha NE in the Midwest, then Denver CO, Salt Lake City UT, Reno NV and San Francisco CA in the west.  Five of the country's largest cities were on the Lincoln Highway and two were a short drive away. 

Now traveling between, say, Pittsburgh and Chicago was at least possible by car...when it wasn't raining or snowing.  But even in the well-populated east the Lincoln Highway was crude at first, not even matching the National Road's first section of 100-years earlier.

The LHA posted the difficult 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, both highly necessary, since a single missing, or missed, sign could mean hours of wandering.



Gothenburg NE Stairstep_edited-5 copyGothenburg NE Stairstep_edited-5 copy



Incredibly, traveling 33 miles across the gentle terrain of NE originally required 30 twists and turns (in blue) following section or property lines.  Pioneers of the previous century had an easier time!  Covered wagons followed natural paths along the Platte River, as US 30 would later.  Riding horseback here in 1850 would have been shorter--and likely faster--than riding in a car in 1920.

The LHA paid for some improvements to existing roads, and even built new "seedling miles" of concrete poured into a steel lattice.  This "reinforced concrete" pavement was a revelation, especially with dust or mud at either end.

The group loudly tooted its own horn in publicity campaigns.  Many ordinary Americans donated money to be part of this civic cause.  They were encouraged to drive the road and report problems on a postcard, so volunteers along that section could be notified.



LH Volunteer Inspector's Report_edited-1LH Volunteer Inspector's Report_edited-1



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.  Local groups helped by improving and promoting branch roads that connected to the Lincoln Highway.  Other support came from AAA and its state organizations which lobbied for road improvements generally.

East of the Mississippi River, greater population densities and a longer period of settlement meant better road conditions.  Some governments and private groups had begun to link towns with automobile paths even before the Lincoln Highway.  But 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 west posed other problems.  When the Lincoln Highway was established, NV had only 82,000 people and didn't set up a road department until 1917.  Motorists going through remote western UT used the old Pony Express trail from a half-century earlier when the area had more people.  Cell phones and OnStar didn't exist, so here's how they got help:



Fish Springs 1915 LH_edited-1Fish Springs 1915 LH_edited-1



Western states had severely limited tax bases and needed to link their own widely-dispersed towns, not build a New York to San Francisco highway for city-slickers.  There was one bright spot in the west.  CA was a pioneer in road building and its motorists had some of the nation's best early roads.  The problem was getting across the mountain and desert barriers to and from CA.



KINGS CANYON #30 (Lincoln Highway nr Carson City NV)KINGS CANYON #30 (Lincoln Highway nr Carson City NV)Even though vehicles were narrower back then, the road was generally wide enough for only a single car or wagon. There was little traffic and folks pulled over where they could. Frequently they stopped and talked, exchanging information about conditions ahead.



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.

In 1919, a military convoy on the Lincoln Highway took 62 days to cross the country.  Soldiers endured choking dust, axle-deep mud, and crude wooden bridges that collapsed under them.  But those problems had a single solution: reinforced concrete.

The "seedling miles" 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.

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.



OLD BRIDGE (Lincoln Highway Greensburg PA)OLD BRIDGE (Lincoln Highway Greensburg PA)



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!  And it was paid for by drivers, not taxpayers at large.

The Lincoln Highway is a concrete example of how quickly America modernized during that period.  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.  (His son Edsel took over in 1919, bought the Lincoln luxury car brand and became a major LHA supporter.) 

Today, engineered and bulldozed Interstate-80 links New York with San Francisco.  In places 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, 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.

(Also see "Lincoln vs. Hitler" on the HISTORY page.)

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ROUTE 66 and numbered roads era



NEEDLES & 66 SIGN (Rt 66 Needles CA)NEEDLES & 66 SIGN (Rt 66 Needles CA)This sign is a reproduction on a dead-end section of old pavement along the Colorado River. The view is eastbound with the rock formation known as the Needles in the distance.

In the center is a railroad bridge, with the graceful steel arch used by Rt 66 barely visible.



Route 66 is the most-famous highway of the "numbered" era beginning in 1926, after governments took over road building, maintenance and signing. 

By then there were at least 250 "named" roads (Lincoln Highway etc.) which 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 made things much worse. 

Many early "highways" or "automobile trails" overlapped and served no real need.  Others were promotional scams luring 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, the government imposed a rational numbered system.  Highways now joined towns and cities.  No more duplication, no more memorials, no more scams.  "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 (or lettered) road systems.  Large uniform metal signs were mounted along roadsides, replacing painted rocks, poles and trees.

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 let governments install paving.  And new chains of gasoline stations began offering free maps along with tires, oil, water, minor repairs...and restrooms.

Life had gotten faster, making horses and buggies obsolete.  A Model-T could sustain 40 MPH (65 km/h), while a horse tires rapidly at just 10 MPH (16 km/h).  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 improved 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. 

The new highway incorporated segments of crude earlier "booster" roads, "National Old Trails" begun in 1912 and "Ozark Trails" begun in 1913.  US Highway 66 (Rt 66 or Route 66) never went coast-to-coast but many major eastern highways linked to it between Chicago and Tulsa OK. 



PEACEFUL EASY FEELING (Rt 66 nr El Reno OK)PEACEFUL EASY FEELING (Rt 66 nr El Reno OK)The Eagles song is from 1972, too old now for even the oldies station to play. But it's out on newfangled CDs and if you can figure out which button to mash it will keep repeating all the way to Texas.

The view is westbound on original early 1930s pink concrete in perfect shape. An artistic effect has been added.



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 the Great Plains, Midwest and South fleeing the Great Depression, start of large-scale mechanized farming and Dust Bowl, for a supposed better life in CA, heavily romanticized in movies.

Most migration was due to depressed agricultural prices, and tenant farmers or sharecroppers being "tractored out" by landowners who no longer needed them.  A tractor (and other new equipment) operated by a single person replaced a dozen or more tenant families.

John Steinbeck's fictional Joad family in his 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath dramatized the era.  The Joads were struggling cotton farmers evicted from bank-owned land in eastern OK.  The average annual rainfall there is 47" (120 cm), equivalent to central IN or OH.  But recurring droughts gripped the southern plains in the 30s, and cotton rapidly depletes soil nutrients.  The worst of the Dust Bowl was more than 400 miles (700 km) away in 20 counties where CO KS OK NM and TX come together.  (A fuller telling is on the HISTORY page.)

The Joads 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 sustained greenery until well into CA.  Annual rainfall plunges from here.

The Dust Bowl produced dramatic photographs and news stories, but it was a secondary factor in the Route 66 Exodus because relatively few people lived there.  Route 66 generally skirted the southern end of this zone across TX and eastern NM.  But in the peak year of 1935, Amarillo TX had blinding storms.

Steinbeck's use of "the mother road" in his 1939 novel has endured with added capitalization.  Steinbeck also called it "the road of flight."  (His Biblical imagery is explored in The Blog.)  Migration actually went both ways on Route 66 with many dispossessed and victimized farm families taking seasonal work, traveling in a battered car, by bus, freight train or hitch-hiking.

The "Okies" and others on Rt 66 were struggling to survive during the Great Depression.  In sharp contrast, earlier emigrants using the National Road and frontier trails were upwardly mobile.  Generally, they were Anglo, young and middle-class, heading 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.

In 1939, World War II erupted in Europe, catching the US woefully unprepared.  An all-out military build-up with nearly full employment ended the Great Depression.  After the US entered the war in December 1941, the economy boomed but was heavily restricted, with severe gasoline and tire rationing and a "Victory Speed" limit of 35 mph (56 km/h) until fighting ended in 1945. 

By the late 40s prosperity returned helped by pent-up demand.  Even the Dust Bowl began healing through conservation programs.  Car ownership became widespread, traffic volumes surged and Route 66 had to be upgraded.  Multi-lane urban parkways, turnpikes and then Interstate highways (discussed below) replaced original pavement that generally linked the centers of towns.

Bypassing of Route 66 towns and cities, the story told in the "Cars" movies, began in 1928 (see HISTORY page article) and was completed in 1984 with the last stretch of parallel Interstate.  The new pavement was necessary but destructive too. 

In the nearly 100 miles (160 km) between Oklahoma City and Tulsa OK, every Route 66 city or town was bypassed by the Turner Turnpike in 1953.  (It later became I-44.)  One place, Depew, was left stranded 7-miles (11 km) from the new road.  The turnpike, with limited access and toll booth delays, made getting on and off awkward.  It was designed for longer-haul drivers who didn't consider exiting, because the turnpike built "Service Plazas" with gas stations and restaurants.  Profits that had gone to small-town businesses were diverted, and the state took a cut.  






Until very late in the Route 66 era, Black travelers faced tremendous problems even getting the basics--food, lodging, gas and restrooms.  Many businesses openly (and until 1964 legally) refused to serve them.  Entire "sundown towns" were openly racist, warning Blacks not to stay there, or even drive through after dark.  "Jim Crow" laws were widespread and extended well beyond the South.  

The last piece of US Highway 66 was "decommissioned" in 1985 and the road officially no longer exists.  Despite this, much of it remains and can still be driven.  "Historical Route" and commemorative signs are common. 

Route 66 images 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.  Destruction and vandalism have since become extensive, especially at remote and abandoned locations along the road's western half.  This is detailed on the PRESERVATION page.

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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RUSTED CAR #2 (Lincoln Highway Middlegate Station NV)RUSTED CAR #2 (Lincoln Highway Middlegate Station NV)



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 FM or AM 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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CALIFORNIA LIFE #106 (nr Gualala CA)CALIFORNIA LIFE #106 (nr Gualala CA)



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.

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OLD AND NEW ROADS (Rt 66 nr Rolla MO)OLD AND NEW ROADS (Rt 66 nr Rolla MO)Route 66 hugs the land and is fun to drive. The Interstates are efficient but monotonous.

Here a pickup truck heads west on 66. In the background I-44 drivers move over an earthen fill that is not apparent to them...only to us.

Our T-shirt slogan says it all: "Route 66, Interstate 0."



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 the little towns, had faster speeds and a passing lane.

Now we could drive long distances in a hurry, avoid unnecessary scenery, eat uniform McFood, and sleep in predictable chain motels.  It seemed too good to be true!

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 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.  There was no road "system" just primitive paths radiating from towns, cities, or railroad depots. 

In 1919, young Lt. Col. Dwight Eisenhower crossed the country in a military convoy.  The Lincoln Highway west of Chicago was horrendous 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 and congestion was becoming a problem in 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 Ontario Canada opened the first segment of the Queen Elizabeth Way (QEW) between Niagara Falls on the NY border and Toronto ON.  This "freeway" 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.

Plans for this new class of US highway were developed by highway engineers in the 1930s.  They were "on the shelf" awaiting the end of the Great Depression.  But then came World War II (1941-45) and the Korean War (1950-53).  The Interstate highway idea did not originate with President Eisenhower or his administration, although that's when everything came together, propelled by the realization that congestion would soon become unmanageable.

The Interstate system 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 clearances for military equipment, troop movements and evacuations in a nuclear attack.  Any scenery you might pass on the Interstates is incidental.  Our T-shirt slogan sums it up: "Route 66, Interstate 0."



AHEAD & BEHIND (Albuquerque NM)AHEAD & BEHIND (Albuquerque NM)If you can ignore the lack of routine maintenance, the Interstates can be a thing of beauty. This is I-40 and I-25 tangling in Albuquerque NM.



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 has come due.  The 1956 legislation means some components began turning 65 years old in 2021.  

A few Interstate bridges are over a century old: eastbound I-70 crosses a river between Kansas City KS and MO on steel bridges with portions built in 1907.  I-84 spans the Connecticut River at Hartford on a 1,075 foot (328 m) stone arch bridge opened in 1908.  Northbound I-5 between Portland OR and Vancouver WA uses a steel vertical-lift bridge built in 1917.

And despite strict "Interstate standards" some sub-standard things were grandfathered into the system.  I-10 still uses a notoriously steep and narrow 1952 bridge at Lake Charles LA built for US 90.  While the Interstates were proposed as "freeways" some existing "turnpikes" or toll roads and toll bridges were included. 

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.  But others like the wretched I-95 Springfield interchange in VA were done on the cheap, created years of agony for drivers, and then had to be rebuilt at great cost.

Engineers learned how not to do it on 1930s-40s urban road projects.  Fortunately, many 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.  (These "Jersey Barriers" could have saved the life of Britain's Princess Diana.) 

The Interstates, which honor President 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. 

Urban Interstates were sometimes designed and located to reinforce racism, adding a polluted, noisy concrete and steel barrier between already-segregated neighborhoods.  Bulldozers pushed around dirt, debris...and "Slum Clearance" forced powerless minorities to abandon homes and apartments.  Prime examples include I-81 through Syracuse NY and I-20 across Atlanta GA. 

Opponents managed to stop just a few projects including two in New York City: the Mid-Manhattan and Lower Manhattan Expressways.  I-40 through Memphis TN would have taken out much of Overton Park.  Instead it was awkwardly rerouted around the city's north side.  A grandiose non-Interstate toll road plan, the Trans-Texas Corridor, found few supporters beside the then-Governor and the construction firm that would have used Eminent Domain to seize land on the cheap.  And community opposition stopped the Spadina Expressway in Canada's largest city, Toronto.



FEDEX FEDEX (Rt 66 Newkirk NM)FEDEX FEDEX (Rt 66 Newkirk NM)Full-service on Rt 66 is gone, and the world moves on. This humble structure was once a gas station. Other images show it earlier in a more-or-less intact condition.

The semi is eastbound on I-40.



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 abandoned.

Serious designed-in flaws, like on the Arroyo Seco, are relatively rare on the Interstates.  The biggest shortcoming is state maintenance which ranges from adequate to nonexistent.

Interstates appear sporadically on the site but do not have a separate gallery.

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In several internal improvements profiled above, citizens or groups were the prime movers--not government.  But government still had an important role to play.

Businesses built the Transcontinental Railroad.  A three-man partnership ran the Pony Express.  An affinity group established and improved the Lincoln Highway.

Financially, their record is mixed.  After some lean years, the Union Pacific Railroad prospered by developing markets, selling off land grants, carrying passengers and now freight.  The Pony Express was a useful disaster benefitting CA and the Union.  The Lincoln Highway Association was a non-profit designed to encourage car-ownership...and did it ever!

All made lasting contributions to the nation.  So did innumerable short canals, private turnpikes and railroads, their names now just footnotes.

Some jobs are just too big and require all of our resources: the Transcontinental Railroad of the 1860s, the Moon landing of the 1960s, and our road system in between.  All needed direct or indirect Federal aid.

When government fails to lead and invest we get the Oregon and California Trails.

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