ROADS © www.rt66pix.com
This site attracts viewers from 170 countries, so here's a summary of major US roads and transportation/communication corridors in chronological order. All have extensive image galleries.
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 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.
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
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:
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.
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.
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.
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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Best known for the modern Parkway (above) the original Natchez Trace runs parallel, through the woods. It was a dirt trail first used by Native Americans and animals, then American settlers. 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 the Trace 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 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.
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 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 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. Trucks and buses are banned, and there's generally a 50 MPH (80 km/h) speed limit. 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 (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!
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.
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.
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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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--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, 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). Able-bodied adults and older children typically walked nearby to ease the burden on animals.
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 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, 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 brutal 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, 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 time. 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. 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 Preservation 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.
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 including the murder of their founder 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 an 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 below 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.
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.
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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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 service running only until telegraph poles and wires could be installed. And it lasted just 19-months, from April 1860 to October 1861.
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. 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 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 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.
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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. Strips of wood were laid down over mud, reducing friction and helping animals pull loaded carts out of mines. Then iron was substituted for wood, while the "horsepower" still came from animals.
Most early steam railways carried passengers and mail, and pulled only a few cars. Long-distance passenger service and hauling heavy cargo would come later.
Track-laying in the US began in 1828. Within decades animals were gone, 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.
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. The Central Pacific built east from CA and the Union Pacific went west from NE. The contemporary scene above is at the Golden Spike site in UT run by the National Park Service. She's exactly over the famous "joining of the rails" spot, posing for a friend, and the locomotives are operating replicas.
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, 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.
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 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 (now combined into Union Pacific) profited once the area was settled.
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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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 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:
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 most of 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 it would only 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 dirt or mud 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!
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. Now traveling between, say, Pittsburgh and Chicago was at least possible by car...when it wasn't raining or snowing.
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. Incredibly, traveling 33 miles across the gentle terrain of NE originally required 30 twists and turns (in blue) following section or property lines:
The group 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 LHA 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.
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 naming, 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 overall. Some governments and private groups had begun to link neighboring towns with serviceable automobile paths even before the Lincoln Highway. Most early Lincoln Highway trips were relatively short and in states like OH and PA.
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 arid west posed other problems. When the Lincoln Highway was established, NV had only 82,000 people and didn't even set up a road department until 1917. Motorists going through remote western UT used part of the old Pony Express trail from a half-century earlier when the area had more people. Cell phones and OnStar didn't exist yet, so here's how they got help:
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.
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 all 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.
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! 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, 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
Route 66 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 made things much worse.
Some "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 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 begin paving with reinforced concrete, asphalt or (occasionally) brick. 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 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. 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.
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 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 were typical. They were cotton farmers evicted from bank-owned land near Sallisaw in extreme eastern OK, 100 miles (160 km) beyond the eastern edge of the map below. 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 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. The US population was nearly 123,000,000 in 1930. The 20 hardest-hit counties where CO KS NM OK and TX come together had 152,000 people and by 1940, 31,000 had fled (about 1 American in 4,000). The Dust Bowl was a region, but low low farm prices were nationwide.
Dust bowl conditions were caused by primitive farming practices magnified by drought, and varied by season and year. Route 66 generally skirted the southern end of this zone several hours ahead in TX. But in the peak year of 1935, Amarillo (in Potter County) 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. Hard times were widely shared, but some folks got a bigger slice.
The "Okies" and others on Rt 66 in the 30s were struggling to survive the Great Depression. Many had owned (or were buying) land and/or homes but became refugees in their own country, working unskilled jobs for low pay.
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.
Putting the travels and travails of the 1930s in perspective, Dr. Walter J. Stein notes: "If this migration of white Americans had not occurred, Mexicans and tramps would have continued to pick the crops in accustomed poverty and misery. No Grapes of Wrath would have been written...." *
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 entering the war in December 1941, the US had a booming but heavily restricted economy, 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 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 Preservation page article) and was completed in 1984 with the last stretch of parallel Interstate. 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, 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).
* Stein, W. J. (1973). California and the Dust Bowl Migration. Westport CT: Greenwood Press (p 215).
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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 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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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 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. Now 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 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 has come due. The 1956 legislation means some components began turning 65 years old in 2021. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 pavement repair which ranges from barely adequate to nonexistent.
Interstates appear sporadically on the site but do not have a separate gallery.
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SUMMARY: POWER TO AND FROM THE PEOPLE
In several internal improvements profiled above, citizens or groups were the prime movers--not government.
Corporations built the Transcontinental Railroad. A three-man partnership ran the Pony Express. An affinity group established and improved the Lincoln Highway.
Financially, the record is mixed. The Union Pacific Railroad eventually prospered by developing markets, selling off land grants, carrying passengers and now freight. The Pony Express was a disaster. 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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