Friday, June 3, 2016

Roadwork Ahead: Eisenhower Highways

Luke's American Adventures: Roadwork Ahead: Eisenhower Highways

On June 29, 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. The bill created a 41,000-mile “National System of Interstate and Defense Highways” that would, according to Eisenhower, eliminate unsafe roads, inefficient routes, and traffic jams that got in the way of “speedy, safe transcontinental travel.” But did the highway get in the way of itself?

Since before the founding of the nation, Americans have always been looking for more efficient means of transportation around the country. During the colonial era, the only practical way to travel and trade across long distances was along the nation’s natural waterways. A few roads connected major cities, but travel on them was challenging and time-consuming. Large ships moved passengers and freight across the oceans, and smaller boats plied the nation’s rivers, lakes, and canals. The first “National Road,” established a few years after the Revolutionary War ended, evolved from a need to get supplies and people beyond the frontier. While much of the road’s alignment is followed or overlapped by US Route 40, many of the routes original aspects, such as toll pikes, stone bridges, and inns, are preserved to this day.

The National Road Recapturing Glory

This “Main Street of America” was soon followed by wagon trails. The Oregon Trail, the Santa Fe Trail, and the Natchez Trace told travelers the destinations of the paths.

“Stagecoach stops” were settled and often run by settlers along the trails, such as the Mahaffie Farmstead in Kansas City. Though times have progressed since the 18th century, original towns and villages can still found along the routes of these original “highways.”

One hundred years later, the country had doubled in size, and there was a need to get people and goods across the nation faster. New steam-driven trains sped along thousands of miles of track, providing fast, reasonably reliable, and relatively direct transportation from coast to coast and points in between. When the “Golden Spike” of the Transcontinental Railroad was hammered into the ground in 1869, what used to take months of gruesome travel by ship, wagon, or stage could be traversed in under a week!

American innovators sought out an even more efficient means of transportation, one not limited to places a horse could negotiate or a track could be laid. At first, personal cars were fragile luxury items, but Henry Ford’s new “assembly line” mass manufacturing quickly made them reliable and affordable.

By the post-WWII years, the end of gasoline rationing and owning your own “set of wheels” seemed the bonus of the American dream: the freedom to come and go as you pleased, and without being reliant on a schedule.

1950 Ford Country Squire
Credit: Josephew  via Wikimedia Commons

However, a major problem was that these modern cars were traveling across antebellum roads. Stagecoach trips often ended outside the town saloon; you could almost consider the Oregon Trail a pub crawl. Towns settled as people decided they just didn’t want to go any farther; more sprang up when the Railroads came by and needed depots. The first cross-country car roads followed the familiar wagon trails. Unfortunately, these routes were made of terrain more suitable for a horse-drawn wagon than a self-propelled automobile. The routes often traversed marshes; while a horse and its rider could cross the mud, cars ran the risk of losing traction completely.

The routes also often conformed to the land and were full of steep hills and sharp turns. They followed the topography, rather than being a straight path, often increasing the driving distances. For example, Baltimore, MD to Washington, PA - the “eastern” portion of US 40, is over 300 miles long. The Eisenhower System highways cut that distance to under 250 miles. That’s a lot of gas saved! Limited access and higher speed limits make the Eisenhower roads more time efficient, too. Interstate-95 is the “Eisenhower Equivalent” of US 1. The drive from Houlton, Maine to Miami on US highways is a 42 hour, 2000 mile trek. The same journey on Interstate 95 is only 8% shorter in distance - 1842 miles - but the drive time is a mere 27 hours.

When the Interstate Highway Act was first passed, most Americans supported it. Building the Interstate Highway system would get people where they wanted to go more quickly on newly-built modern roads. However, progress doesn’t come without a price.

Wide rights-of-way consumed thousands of acres of land. The county’s natural mountain ranges, forests, rivers, and natural routes were excavated into and either partially or fully removed or bypassed. Community battles were waged to save historical landmarks. Most significantly, the coming of the Interstate Highway dramatically affected the flavor of America. These roadside colonies connected travelers to the communities through which they passed. The construction of Interstate Highways fundamentally altered this pattern of commercial development as long-distance travelers abandoned those former routes. Once-vibrant towns faded into obscurity leaving the roadside stores and restaurants struggling to make ends meet. With the coming of Interstate, whole architectural genres and local businesses were driven to extinction by abandonment. Disney Pixar’s Cars touches upon this “death by interstate” ideal. In the film, race car rookie Lightning McQueen learns that Radiator Springs, the town the majority of the movie is set in, used to be a popular stopover along the old U.S. Route 66, but with the construction of an interstate bypassing it, the town literally vanished from the map. The demise of the fictional Radiator Springs mirrors the path of many small towns across the nation; what once built up around pioneer trails and railroad lines fell into obscurity with this new highway system.

However, as these little roadside towns fell by the wayside, the same “if you build a road, they will come” phenomenon occurred near these new highways. Gas stations were built at these exits - after all, the cars needed fuel. With mini-towns popping up at each exit, exponentially shorter intervals - as frequent as every mile or two - meant drivers no longer needed to “tank up” every time they saw gas over the fear of running out because the next town was twenty or thirty miles away. Competition made travel more affordable; if a driver feels one exit’s gas prices are “on the high side,” he can easily take a chance that there will be lower prices at the next exit.

Since people were already stopping for gas, they might as well eat, so next came the quick-service restaurants. Instead of a relaxing meal to enjoy sitting still, these restaurants prided themselves on getting people their food quickly so they could get back on the road. One of the most famous of these “fast food” eateries is a little burger joint named McDonalds from San Bernardino, California that eventually expanded to an international chain. What made these restaurants so popular was the standardization of menu and ingredients. Customers knew that whether they drove through California or the Carolinas, they’d have the same meal, and at the same speed -- fast.

While the prevailing thought in American industriousness is, “If there is an easier, more efficient way, we will find it,” many realize that retaining natural beauty is just as important as progress. Thankfully, agencies like the National Park Service dedicate themselves to the restoration and preservation of historical and natural landmarks and beauty. On our summer road trip last year, my family had the privilege of traversing one of these protected “scenic highways”. It was an amazing ride through the Great Smoky Mountains along the Cherohala Skyway, and well worth spending eight hours traveling to an area that an interstate could have gotten us to in less than three.

However, there is no way we would have been able to see as much of the country that we did without the interstate system. Simple math says interstate speeds averaging 70 mph get travelers to their destinations nearly twice as quickly as the 40 mph average of the “local” route. In under four weeks, we traveled from New Jersey to Texas, visiting 30 venues in 16 states. Both types of highway have their place.

The Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways was an innovation that changed America. The highway system, the greatest public works project in American history, made travel faster, easier, and safer and revolutionized the American economy. However, there were serious adverse effects of the highways; they affected the environment and led to the demise of many small towns. The Interstate System has both supporters and critics, but all agree that President Eisenhower was right when he said the Interstate System would “change the face of America.”

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