A Brief History and Explanation: The Existence and Need of the United States Route Highway System, 1916-1930

“… The prominent headline, and some of the most talked about news of the year in Jackson County Indiana, as reported in the Brownstown Banner on November 27, 1928, were plans for “Road 50 Is On Paving Program Plans To Pave Same From Cincinnati To Brownstown Hard Surface On West Plans For Number 31”.”…







Jon Patrick Sage

May 5, 2015





Authors Note: Although numerous examples are presented in this paper concerning particular States, Cities, Highways, and Laws; all are meant to conform and act as a uniform and rather generic description of what was occurring in a near simultaneous manner nationwide. Effectively, what this paper has sought to accomplish is to explain as many of the “how’s” of the U.S. Route Construction, as well as several of the “whys”.




A Brief History and Explanation: The Existence and Need of the

United States Route Highway System, 1916-1930.

            The prominent headline, and some of the most talked about news of the year in Jackson County Indiana, as reported in the Brownstown Banner on November 27, 1928, were plans for “Road 50 Is On Paving Program Plans To Pave Same From Cincinnati To Brownstown Hard Surface On West Plans For Number 31”. This would cover a distance of some 120 miles, and would be the first completed leg of what was to become known eventually as U.S. Route 50, stretching from Baltimore, Maryland to Sacramento, California.[1] The initial plans for this report had been set into motion many years prior, and for some dreamers, there had always been plans for transcontinental highways across the United States. However, the roots for this particular project can be traced to the Highway Act of 1923, and from thence– to the original Highway Act of 1916. Although it may be easy to draw such distinct lines of connection with the benefit of hindsight and history, the actual route between the two proverbial points on the map of a Nation are much farther apart, and did not follow a straight line. Indeed, the road, if it was to be built at all, would be built as was being done– in small pieces, and bits and parts, slowly inching across the continent.

This paper will examine a relatively small portion time; from around 1916 thru the mid to late 1920s, and will seek to demonstrate the various government mechanisms which came into being during that period, as well as the differences and developments in the American psyche, all of which combined to make the United States Route(s) Trans-Continental Highway System a reality. Included in the discussion will be roadway construction, the national economy (domestic and foreign), and sociological foundations within the American culture. Thus, the paper will show that beginning with the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916, and then continuing with the Highway Act of 1921, America’s network of trails and rural routes grew into a transcontinental system of numbered U.S. Routes.


The story begins as far back as the turn of the 19th century, and an attempt by Alexander Hamilton in building the first National Road, now known as U.S. 40, which began in Cumberland, Maryland, and extended deep into the western frontier, with portions paved in gravel through Ohio. The road stopped abruptly, in 1838, and the farthest sections including those in Indiana and even into Illinois, were left unpaved, and at that time, unfinished, due to a lack of federal funding.[2] As it happened, 1838 seemed to mark the end of roadway construction, as the county began to realize the need and importance of the locomotive: accordingly, the era of the railroad began, and remained the standard in transportation, for freight and passenger, well into the 20th century.

With the turn of the century, the automobile soon became pervasive in everyday life. Although much has been attributed to Henry Ford, as a pioneer in his field, the first real production models of cars, was begun in 1989 by the Duryea Motor Wagon Co., when “13 essentially identical horseless carriages” represented the beginning of the era of the automobile in the United States.[3] Ford notwithstanding, the number of cars (registered cars) in America by 1912 numbered 180,000. And yet, the roadway had not progressed, much more than it had since Andrew Jackson’s day in 1836. As it stood in 1912, only 7% of the nation’s 2,500,000 miles of roadway were paved in anything more than dirt and/or graded gravel.[4] To put it simply, there were some roads, and many cars, but no real good place to go… if you expected to go very far at all.[5]

There were some fore-runners (many might claim pre-cursors and inspiration) to the actions of the federal government, and most noteworthy would have been Mr. Carl G. Fisher, of Indianapolis, IN. Fisher was a founder of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the owner of Prest-O-Lite, a manufacturer of state of the art automobile headlights, powered by compressed carbide gas. He and some other notables in the early automobile industry, such as Henry B. Joy, president of Packard Motor Car Company, began entertaining the notion of a transcontinental highway, and in 1913 formed the Lincoln Highway Association (LHA), with an official date of formation as July 1st 1913. The group, initially looking at a privately held/for-profit funded road, set a goal of $10,000,000 to be raised by 1915. The Association began work, and quickly raised $1,000,000.  Many of the early auto enthusiasts and manufacturers in the LHA were energetic and rallied around their cause. One exception to the notion of a privately funded national road was Henry Ford, who saw it as the government’s duty to build and maintain roads, not of private individuals. However, the majority of the group, including Ford, did not question the want and need for good roads– as well as the boost that all involved knew that automobiles and roadways would add to their business(s).[6]

As the LHA planned its eventual route, the idea was put before the many governors of the States in which the highway would pass through, and this “selling of the idea” may have been a foretelling of the future, especially as seen from Ford’s perspective. Coincidentally, during that same time, Fisher and his cohorts, in order to show the need and benefit of a good roadway, were beginning “The Hoosier Tour”. 17 cars and 2 trucks departed from New York bound for San Francisco. After the first leg of the trip brought the group to Indiana, the caravan once again departed, and pointed westward. Some 34 days and nearly 1,700 miles later, the group finally arrived in San Francisco. Not surprisingly, after such a grueling journey by car, the delegates of The Hoosier Tour “returned to Indiana via train.”[7]  By early 1914, the LHA had raised only about half of the $10,000,000. As such, the project was declared a loss, and the group began to shift the need of funding onto State and local governments. In turn, the highways would eventually be placed under the umbrella of funding from the federal government.

A Dream Further Towards Reality

As The Hoosier Tour concluded, the LHA set about looking for funding and backers in order make the project a reality. Although there were some sections constructed, the LHA lived mainly in name only, and actually continued operations throughout the ensuing federally funded projects, ceasing operations on December 31, 1927, and well after the original Lincoln Trail had been re-designated by a handful of U.S. Route Numbered Highways. For all practical purposes, the Lincoln Highway Association was a triumph, if in nothing else, in promoting an idea. The roadway itself was essentially, for the most part, a route– an imaginary line in the sand. Of the some 3,389 proposed miles, only a portion of that was actually a useable roadway. However, the LHA did help to begin a conversation, at first a relatively small and private venture, which would ultimately culminate in a much more ambitious project; the U.S. Numbered Route Highway System– one which would be sanctioned by public monies, and backed by the federal government.[8] It was this legacy, forged by the LHA, which served as the basis for H.R. 7617, known as the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916 (Road Act of 1916), signed into law on July 11, 1916.[9]

If the Lincoln Highway Association was an ambitious project, then the Road Act of 1916 was downright audacious. Listed on page 355 of the session of the 64th Congress as Chap. 241, the Secretary of Agriculture was entrusted with the “construction of rural Post Roads, and for other purposes”[10]. By this nod towards the Constitution, along with one other caveat, stating that such roads were to be without tolls, the federal government of the United States began the task of constructing a system of modern highways, for an emerging economy and nation bent on mechanization. There were several key issues which were addressed in the initial Road Act of 1916. Among these; the toll free nature of the roadways to be built (cost); the methodology of construction and/or payments for construction and maintenance; annual budgeted amounts, to be allotted for said construction and maintenance; and among others, the administration of the State Highway Departments and the federal roads and dollars they would be charged with.[11]

State’s Rights, Highways, and the Federal Solution

The method of funding was a topic which nearly made the conception and passage of the Bill impossible. In an era still rich with the legacy of State’s Rights, it was no small thing to announce huge amounts of public monies, which had no precedent, for the construction of roads. There was a two point argument for the construction of modern, hard surfaced roadways. First, there was the need and want of farmers to forego the rates and difficulty of the railroads, by being able to have a reliable network of roadways on which to carry their crop to market. Secondly, a motoring public, which had already begun the romanticizing of the American landscape and automobile, wanted to have roadways for travel– encompassing business and pleasure.

Therefore, the simplest way for lawmakers to introduce a concept of federal funding was tucked away in the bill named the Appropriations for Post Office Department, 1913.  Within that legislation, and originating in the “good roads” movement of 1899-1905[12], was the aggregate amount of $1,000,000 for post roads to be built and maintained by federal dollars.[13] In time, this would be heavily supplemented by land and gasoline use taxes, with the gasoline tax, originally introduced in Oregon in 1919, eventually winning the day in profitability and fairness in use.[14]

The original method, to tax by acreages owned, was reminiscent of colonial days, and even goes back to the feudal system in Europe, in which the largest and wealthiest landowners would have extraordinary influence over most matters, but would also be the primary bearers of tax.[15] However, as time passed, it became evident that those who used the roadways the most were in cars, and from urban centers. Also, interestingly enough, the roads in the urbanized areas were the first ones to be paved and maintained, with those in remote and rural farming communities, despite the disproportionally high tax burden, remained un-improved. Indeed, this was the case even until the 1930s, when by 1938, all but 42 miles of the Lincoln Highway (then marked as U.S. 30), remained unpaved.[16]

By contrast, the gasoline tax, though constantly complained about, was a fair way to pay for the highway, since it was ostensibly to be used by a motoring public, which was fueled by gasoline. The gasoline tax, much like an excise tax on liquor, was “invisible” in many ways from the consumer, although it was known to be there. However, the importance of the tax, in many ways, can only be briefly mentioned here, and will not be fully explained or imagined in a few sentences. Even still, the gasoline tax was peculiar in that it had a self-replicating effect, inasmuch as the more gasoline which was bought contributed to three things: more cars; more roads; and more gasoline being sold. Thus, from the standpoint of all involved, even the tax paying consumer, the tax on gasoline served all markets.

This, in no small part was heralded by the automakers, whose machines were powered by gasoline. Just as adamantly in favor of the tax, were the oil producers and service station owners, who– although a portion of their gross profits was commandeered in the form of an excise tax, still left room for a net profit, and even more importantly, continued sales of that product. The lawmakers on the State and federal levels could not have been happier with the tax, as it served their needs on every level, and provided ample funding for highway construction. This, in turn, equaled jobs for that construction, commerce as a result of the construction, and a larger tax base in general as a result of the increased infrastructure and commerce/population.[17] Last but not least, the motoring public, as a whole was more inclined to pay a tax on the gasoline, as they used it, rather than on assets owned, such as land, which had a very indirect effect on the use of gasoline. In the end, the farmer– only because he owned large acreage and utilized the roadways after the fall harvest, could not be construed as necessarily using the roadway more than someone who was merely driving across the country.[18]

Next, the issue of State’s Rights was addressed by making each State responsible for those dollars spent, the construction process, and the maintenance of roadways within the State. Of course, another point of contention was the final ratio of federal dollars to State dollars, and the manner in which the federal government intended for States to maintain the roadways. This was remedied somewhat by arguments promising economic progress within the States once the highways were completed, as well as key provisions which placed the distribution of funding in the hands of the State, to be dispersed only with the consent of the Governor, and at the pleasure of that State’s government. As such, the initial hurdle of funding a federal project with public monies, running through individual States, was determined, and enacted on July 11, 1916.

The funding approved allotted $5,000,000 for 1917; $10,000,000 for 1918; $15,000,000 for 1919; $20,000,000 for 1920; and $25,000,000 for the fiscal year ending June 30th, 1921.[19] These amounts would cover any and all approved construction, including reinforced concrete bridges and culverts, but could not exceed $10,000 in any one given mile of roadway, unless a bridge was farther in clear span of 20 feet. Additionally, as mentioned previously, said roadways should be “properly maintained”, and this was enforced by a provision stating that if the federal government noticed a roadway in need of repair, that it should provide that State’s Highway Department with 4 months’ notice to alleviate the issue. If, after 4 months, the issue remained, the Secretary of Agriculture was to “refuse any project for road construction in said State”, “until it has been put in a condition of proper maintenance”.[20]

With the funding and administration problems initially addressed in 1913, and then materially worked through in the 1916 Road Act, there remained but one more– very noticeable thing. What to call these new roads? In the past, a road was named for the place that it went to, or came from or possibly was named for the person who built it. In the case of the original Lincoln Highway, it was built by the Lincoln Highway association. There were other Trail associations, which would last into the 1920’s, and as such, the Santé Fe Trail ran along part of what was to become Route 66, along with some others along the way– East and West, North and South. The hope had been, with the private founders of the roadways that the historical and sometimes patriotic names of the trails would serve to draw attendance on them, and thus benefit the businesses and Trail Associations which had formed them.[21]

Modernization and Paved Roads across a Nation

As the new project was now funded and administered by the federal government, there came to be a search for names, which not only represented the grandeur and importance of the project, but also of the continuity of it. As an example, the Brownstown and Vallonia Road, extended from Brownstown, Indiana to Vallonia, Indiana. From Brownstown, one could also travel North East, on what was known as the Bloomington Trail (presumably ending at Bloomington, Indiana).[22] The crossroads at Seymour, Indiana were originally termed as “Market Roads”, with one of the routes being known as the “north and south route and will extend from South Bend to Louisville, through Indianapolis, Columbus, Seymour, Crothersville, Scottsburg, New Albany, and Jeffersonville”, and the other Market Road, soon to become State Route 4, was being termed the “east and west route. It will extend from Lawrenceburg to Bedford through Versailles, North Vernon, Seymour, Brownstown, Vallonia, and Medora…”[23] There was also mention of the roads being called National Roads, and Star Routes.[24] However clever these names might have been, they were still woefully inadequate for what was to come. Quite simply, the people of this time had nothing to gauge what was about to happen against, in name or in scale. The era of county-wide travel was soon to become State-wide, and in so doing, Transcontinental in nature. It is difficult to put into words on paper the lack of knowledge, at the local level, of what was transpiring. In the end, the naming of the new highways, or rather; the numbering of them, would become synonymous with travel as we know it today– and was ultimately the most simple and most direct and easily identifiable method of all. However, before the explosion in the construction, growth, need and want for those highways; the lives and worldview of nearly every American would be altered and re-shaped by a conflict of global proportions.

World War I, Internationalism, and the American Culture

On April 6, 1917 President Woodrow Wilson went before Congress to list the many transgressions of Germany against the United States. One day following, on April 7, 1917, the United States Congress declared war on Germany and her Allies. During the war effort, the country entered into a new era of productivity, as all industry was directed towards supplying the war effort. This necessarily put the Roads Projects, as well as any number of other domestic activities, on an indefinite hold. World War I was a time of industry and innovation domestically, as nearly all wars will tend to be. However, it is important to note, especially in the case of the First World War, that during this time, the notion of global consumerism and trade was beginning to take root as well, in ways that had not yet been attempted. In time, the United States began to play a larger part in the effort of the eventually victorious Allies, and the nation engaged in economic trade and international commerce on a much larger scale than had previously been thought possible or realistic. During wartime, Congress put forth the Edge Act, which authorized governmental loans (in addition to the already burgeoning amount of private loans), to foreign countries. Heretofore, the practice of the United States government lending money, and acting as a banker, was not considered within the purview of the federal government. But, with wartime powers and the newly formed Federal Reserve, many members of Congress hoped that the Edge Act would “marshal large sums of American capital, increase American loans abroad, and enhance the ability of foreigners to purchase American exports”.[25]

Victory in Europe, and Return to America

After the armistice, many in business and Congressmen were very vocal in wishing that Wilson might extend the Edge Act, and the governmental lending powers, into the post-war period. This would not be the case, and Wilson would instead encourage private investment and to a large degree, the exportation of American business into an interwar Europe, knowing that this, perhaps more so than government lending, would lead to greater wealth and economic prowess.[26] Also, as alluded to before, during the war, there was a sense of not only the exportation of tangible goods and funding, but also of ideals. George Creel, the Director of the Committee of Public Information (CPI), which was created by Congress expressly for purposes of war, noted the export of American information as “the Gospel of Americanism”… and that the American effort should be “educational and informative throughout”.[27]

Accordingly, the Americans who entered World War I, nearly as a timid force, had, by Armistice on November 11, 1918, developed into a nation unabashedly promoting itself and its ideals as an “apotheosis of all that is right”, and with that same attitude, sent home a force of newly enlightened and motivated soldiers.[28] By all accounts, the soldier described at the onset of hostility, as somewhat undereducated and not knowing what to fight for; emerged from World War I, and returned to a booming economy, and the citizen of the newest and very persuasive global superpower. In short, and in many ways, the mechanization and technical and economic strides made during The First World War signaled a true beginning to the 20th century. As such, the nation which was left behind in 1917 might now have seemed very much like the previous century; nostalgic, slow moving, and indeed, a relic of America’s newly acquired and fast moving future.

From the early 1910s, and on through the First World War, first time car sales had steadily increased. This eventually tapered off, and between 1918-1919, first time new car purchases, evened out. This drop in domestic production of cars, coincided with a general drop (due in no small part to the end of building a war machine) throughout industry, with the American economy and domestic industrial output shrinking by some 26% in early 1919. At this same period of time, with Armistice in effect, the United States Army was de-mobilizing its force of some 4,000,000 personnel by nearly 80%; which meant that nearly 3,200,000 formerly employed troops were being discharged into an increasingly uncertain economic climate which, a year prior, had been growing at remarkable levels.[29]

As is sometimes the case, after an economic boom, there comes the inevitable economic bust. In 1920-1921, the United States entered into a short lived, though somewhat severe recessionary phase. Viewed by many economists as more of a corrective measure (to the excessive war spending) than anything else, the conditions still placed enormous hardship on men now home from war, and looking for the prosperity and freedom that they felt was rightfully theirs. As such, there were 3 very important factors which helped to bring Americans back onto the positive side of the ledger, economically and emotionally.

Private Investment and the Driven American Engine of Prosperity

            As war in Europe ended, the Edge Act also expired. This caused the government to bear the brunt of what soon became an untold number of bad debts, taken on by the warring nations of Europe, whose economies were, in the early 1920s, in worse shape than was the American economy. However, Wilson and his successors in the White House believed implicitly in the value of private investment and they encouraged it at every turn. This led to many companies establishing operations and manufacturing centers in Europe and Central America, thus leading to a steady increase in American economic prowess on a global scale. It is also important to note that, in spite of an increasing recession, a post-war United States possessed the majority of the world’s gold reserves. As such, it was extremely important, in order to foster foreign trade that the United States also export a fair amount of capital– and this was accomplished by loans, during and after the war. In so doing, foreign nations were, by 1921-1922 and onward, willing and able to trade with the United States. Therefore, a business of loans to foreign entities and countries helped to re-stablish a global trade, with America firmly in the driver’s seat.[30]

Secondly, the establishment and productivity of credit extended to foreign nations not only helped to build trade within those nations, but also sparked supply side productivity in the United States. Likewise then, would be the case for domestic lending. In the late 1910s and early 1920s, many companies began selling on installment payment plans on a large scale. It was evident by those returning home from Europe that a taste for the finer things in life was sought after. Indeed, directly after the war, these were indulgences. Later, in recession, items such as electrical appliances and especially automobiles came to be seen as necessities for everyday life, as opposed to luxury items. Accordingly, the producers began the practice of buying on credit and this also had much to do with priming the well of the American industrial engine.

As mentioned prior, the sales of new cars had, by war’s end, plateaued. However, with the onset of a new attitude in buying power and plentiful credit, sales began to climb again in the early 1920s. As an example; in 1919 there were some 6,771,000 passenger cars in the United States. By 1928, this figure had risen to 21,630,000, a gain of nearly 216%. Trucks also saw a sharp increase. As many entered into the shipping business, and began to use trucks for agricultural and industrial purposes, the number of trucks during that same period of time rose 290%, from 794,000 in 1919 to 3,120,000 by 1928.[31] During 1923 alone, it was estimated that 75-90% of automobile purchases were made on terms of credit.[32]

Lastly, and as a crowning jewel to the war effort and the mechanization and industrial advances that it had come to represent, the Federal Highway Act of 1921 (Road Act of 1921) was passed into law on November 9, 1921. This law would ultimately act as the guide, which would finally complete the network first imagined by Carl Fisher, and the Lincoln Highway Association.

Finally… Real Roads and the Federal Highway Act of 1921

As previously described, the Road Act of 1921 was, in many ways, an extension of the Road Act of 1916. However, it differed in several key areas, not the least of which was the progression of culture and attitude within that 5 year period. Indeed, with all that occurred in that timeframe, it seems much longer in duration that only 5 years. As a brief rundown of some of the major differences and what was covered and expected under the 1921 Act, it should be noted that for all of the additions and enhancements which were present, the inherent structure of empowerment of the States and their respective State Highway Departments, working closely with the Secretary of Agriculture, was essentially the same.  A sentiment running through much of the conversation of that time reflected an attitude that World War I interrupted the good work begun by the Road Act of 1916, and that the Road Act of 1921 was merely passed in an effort to re-establish the need for the highway system. While this may, in part, be true; it must not be neglected that the 1921 legislation called for far more stringent measure and methods of construction, higher dollar amounts, and served to put a large number of people to work; effectively providing a much needed stimulus for the early to mid-1920s.[33]

Included in this legislation, which was essentially an outgrowth and continuation of the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916, would be more than enough federally subsidized funding to finally place into existence the network of Trans-continental roadways, and would also provide so many with an economic boost during and after its construction. Whereas the Road Act of 1916 only contained provisions for monies up until fiscal year 1921– the Road Act of 1921 contained $75,000,000 for fiscal year ending 1922. However, in a gesture of the perpetuity of the nature of this new law, that amount would then increase per annum by 2 ½ %, and this would constitute a continuous project. Of course, although appropriations are and have been amended, this ‘ongoing status’ of roads construction is evident even into the present day in America.

Different also from the Road Act of 1916, was the type and quality of the finished roadway. 1921 specified a “durable surface” of not less than 18 feet in width, and containing a shoulder or berm. Indeed, when compared with previous specifications calling for roadways to be “properly maintained” and a “reasonably smooth” surface, with necessary bridges and culverts, the 1921 wording was building a very modern and longer lasting roadway.[34]  Also present in the 1921 language were appropriations for the construction and maintenance of “Forest Roads”, which, coinciding with another movement of that time (the preservationist and naturalist movements), helped to popularize the National Parks system.[35]   In some ways, although the language was not necessarily termed as such, the 1921 Act was used as a public works project, when the country needed it most– and in more ways than one. Not only would federal monies become available for construction projects, thus helping State and local economies.[36] But also, a nation filled with cars and a new found national pride and would have roadways– which actually went somewhere! Along the way, National Parks, and too-many-to-count roadside attractions would be present for the travelers to amuse themselves with, as they journeyed Westward, Eastward, and then back across again.

In 1921, the United States was filled with automobiles, but as of yet did not have many useable roads. This problem as aforementioned, would be approached in the form of the legislation of the Federal Highway Act of 1921, and would by decade’s end, have largely solved the issues of the non-existent nature of a workable highway system in America. Construction would begin in earnest by 1923, and continue through the end of the decade. Progress moved rather swiftly, and by the early to mid-1920s, there were some 250 named trails and highways across the nation. A traveler might that some of these, such as the Lincoln Highway, would stretch a considerable distance; while other, lesser known routes, might only travel a few miles between towns. In any case, these roads were marked largely by concrete markers alongside of the roadways, or by colored bands affixed to trees, or painted on telephone poles. In time, it became obvious that these roads were improperly marked and routed, and effectively still had not fulfilled the language of the Road Act of 1921, which was to “expedite the completion of an adequate and connected system of highways, interstate in character”.[37]

As was the case, it came to be that by late 1924, federal officials agreed that some other manner of laying out and marking the roadways would have to be determined in order to meet the requirements of the law, and the expectations of the motoring public. In 1917, the Chief Engineer of the Wisconsin State Highway Commission, A.R. Hirst, introduced a design for numbering roadways: odd numbering for south to north routes, and even numbering for west to east routes. This idea caught on quickly in Wisconsin, and was codified into law as the State Trunk Highway Act.[38] In time, and through close work with the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO) and the newly formed Bureau of Public Roads (BPR), the system was adopted on a national level, and began to become standardized.[39] The Lincoln Highway would be eventually be designated by a mishmash of numbers — US 1, US 30, US 530, US 40 and US 50. Nearly two-thirds of the length of the Lincoln Highway would be called US 30.[40]

Accordingly, the now familiar West to East routes would be even numbered, and the South to North Routes were odd numbered.[41] The plan, would be fully approved and adopted by 1925. In so doing, the original trail markers and/or names were to be removed. Involved in this was the now legendary Lincoln Trail, perhaps the fore-runner of the notion of a modern roadway up until that point. The Lincoln Trail would eventually be mostly made up of present day U.S. 30, with some others highways comprising it in certain sections. However, in a measure approved in September of 1928, and as a memorial to Abraham Lincoln, the Boy Scouts of America, would eventually erect some 3,000 concrete markers along the route (many still visible today), embellished with a bronze plate which read “This highway dedicated to Abraham Lincoln”.[42] In the beginnings of growth, nostalgia was already firmly in place on the highway.

The Highway never ends, and where did it go from There?

The U.S. Routes, once constructed, connected towns and peoples which had previously been very much unaware of one another. With the exception of the railroads, which hauled people of at least a certain status (able to afford a fare), the highway offered mobility to any and all classes of people. This only continued to grow as the 1920s continued, and so, by the 1930s and depression, the highways did bring growth. But, the pavement was also capable of bringing other things– and growth and prosperity were not necessarily guaranteed. As routes were constantly straightened, aligned and straightened again*, some smaller towns were bypassed, while others may have been chosen as key locations and passed through time and again, making those connected communities into metropolises, while the smaller villages simply died.[43]

Yet, even early on, something in the mix of bypassed towns and cities burgeoning with growth appeared to weigh unevenly in the scheme of things. As one example, the town of Flagstaff was studied throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Flagstaff, made famous by U.S. Route 66, had become a bona fide destination along the way, and was indeed prosperous beyond all expectations. However, as the depression began and then continued to wear on, all of those who were displaced by depression and bypassed by the ‘big road’, found their way into Flagstaff, along the only road (the ‘big road’), which existed to carry them westward. As this occurred, the otherwise wealthy and prosperous town of Flagstaff was nearly overtaken and burdened beyond its means by what were termed as “auto nomads”, and the town nearly collapsed from the impoverished migrants who, by nature of the highway, were forced to pass through Flagstaff.[44] The town of Flagstaff, Arizona was certainly not the only case of bypassed towns, and the effects thereof. Indeed, many alignments occurred early in the processes of construction, and were quite large; while others were small, and occurred into the 1930s and well beyond, even into the present day. Alignments, no matter what their size or timing, had different and varied effects.

In Jackson County, Indiana, on November 27, 1928, the headline of the paper described the paving of U.S. 50 with a hard surface. Of that particular stretch of road, much of the original route is still in use in the present day. However, there have been some twists and turns, and at least a few alignments between Seymour and Cincinnati. With each alignment, and straightening of the road, a life was changed– perhaps one business was lost in some forgotten location, and one or two were gained in another, newer and more prominent locale. Whatever the count, change is always inevitable. If one were to travel west, towards Bedford and then Vincennes, the alignments and bypasses of the early to mid-1930s were some of the longest in the nation. At one point, such alignments cut off an amazing number of the existing people and towns in favor of open, flatter and straighter, albeit unpopulated routes. And so, old towns ceased to exist, while newer homesteads and at least a few gas stations sprang up, to give service to the travelers.

This is also the landscape of the American economy and sociological order at large. With technological advancements, comes the needed change to accommodate that advancement. In the process, lives are altered, and sometimes– the alteration turns out to be negative for more than a few. And yet, this is the pathway to prosperity. First paved with small and uneven stones, as was the case of the National Road of 1806, and perhaps traveled by only a few; the pathway eventually widens, and becoming smoother, is traveled by many more, as evinced by the modern roadways of the present day. Indeed, the road is the fabric of the nation, interwoven, and made strong by ties and crossties, alignments and junctions. The surface is paved and then re-paved; it changes constantly, and yet– is strangely the same. The American highway is the live skeleton of the nation, guiding success, propping up weary travelers, and urging them on toward a straighter and smoother passage.












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Bourne, Jonathan and Senate Committee on Post Offices and Post Roads. “Appropriations for Post Office Department, 1913.” (1912): 1-28.

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[1] Banner, “Road 50 is on Paving Program Plans to Pave Same From Cincinnati to Brownstown Hard Surface on West Plans for Number 31,” Vol. LIX, no. 33, November 27, 1928.

[2] Bruce Seely, “A republic bound together,” The Wilson Quarterly no. 1 (1993): 19, “Opponents claimed that the federal government had no constitutional authority to construct the road. Supporters replied that the constitutional injunction to “promote the general welfare” was sufficient. Throughout its life, historian Phillip Jordan wrote in The National Road (1948), “the project swung . . . on a swaying constitutional rope.” But lofty constitutional scruples often seemed little more than a veneer over deep regional jealousies. Pennsylvania’s representatives in Congress blocked construction for four years until a portion of the road was routed through the Keystone State. In 1820, Congress agreed to extend the road–then heavily used by farmers driving huge herds of cows and pigs to market–to the Mississippi River, but it only appropriated the necessary $4 million in 1825. Shortly thereafter, retreating from a direct national role in transportation, Congress decided to return the eastern sections to the states. (The road, long since paved, is now known as U.S. Route 40.)”


[3] Dworshak, Mobile Register, June16, 1996.


[4] Constance R. Cherba & Edward E. Deckert, “Traveling America: The Lincoln Highway,” History Magazine (June/July, 2010): 42.


[5]Bruce Seely, “A republic bound together,” The Wilson Quarterly no. 1 (1993): 19, “Beginning in the 1890s, a “Good Roads” movement launched by bicyclists nudged the states into road construction, and by 1910 every eastern state had created a state highway department. In 1893, an office was formed in the U.S. Department of Agriculture to gather information about roads. The federal role remained strictly advisory, but that began to change after the agency was renamed the Office, later the Bureau, of Public Roads (BPR) in 1905, during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. This agency ultimately propelled the federal government into its leadership in highway affairs”.

[6] Richard F. Weingroff, “The Lincoln Highway,” Federal Highway Administration, October 16, 2013.

[7] Constance R. Cherba & Edward E. Deckert, “Traveling America: The Lincoln Highway,” History Magazine (June/July, 2010): 42, Fisher and the LHA eventually went on to found and begin to construct what would become the Lincoln Highway, or much of present day U.S. Route 30.


[8] Richard F. Weingroff, “The Lincoln Highway,” Federal Highway Administration. October 16, 2013, “one of the Lincoln Highway’s greatest contributions to future highway development occurred in 1919, when the U.S. Army undertook its first transcontinental motor convoy. The highly publicized convoy, promoted by the LHA, was intended, in part, to dramatize the need for better main highways and continued Federal-aid. The convoy left the Ellipse south of the White House in Washington on July 7 and headed for Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. From there, it followed the Lincoln Highway to San Francisco. Bridges cracked and were rebuilt, vehicles became stuck in mud, and equipment broke, but the convoy was greeted warmly by communities across the country. The convoy reached San Francisco on September 5. The LHA considered the convoy a great success. Extensive publicity promoted the Lincoln Highway and good roads everywhere. According to the LHA’s official history, the convoy led directly to favorable action on many county bond issues for highway building. However, the greatest result of the convoy was not realized until the 1950’s. One participant in the convoy was a bored young Army officer, Lt. Colonel Dwight David Eisenhower. His “Grand Plan” for highways, announced in 1954, led to the 1956 legislative breakthrough that created the Highway Trust Fund to accelerate construction of the Interstate System”.

[9] “Federal Aid Road Act,” Federal Aid Road Act, Ch. 241, 1916, 355.

[10] Ibid, 355.

[11] Jonathan, Bourne, and Senate Committee on Post Offices and Post Roads, “Appropriations for Post Office Department, 1913,” (1912): 24-25.

[12] Richard H. Jackson, and Mark W. Jackson, “The Lincoln Highway: The First Transcontinental Highway and the American West,” Journal Of The West 42, no. 2 (Spring2003 2003): 57. Also “By 1905 there were more than 80,000 automobiles and trucks trying to use the inadequate roads of America, giving impetus to the Good-Roads Movement. The Automobile Club of America, organized in 1899, was renamed the Automobile Association of America (AAA) in 1902, the same year it suggested the importance of a transcontinental auto route. Pg57”


[13] Jonathan, Bourne, and Senate Committee on Post Offices and Post Roads, “Appropriations for Post Office Department, 1913,” (1912): 24-25.


[14] Christopher W. Wells, “Fueling the Boom: Gasoline Taxes, Invisibility, and the Growth of the American Highway Infrastructure, 1919-1956,” The Journal of American History (June, 2012): 74.

[15] John Snape, The Political Economy of Corporation Tax: Theory, Values and Law Reform, Oxford: Hart Publishing, 2011, 137-138.


[16] Constance R. Cherba and Edward E. Deckert, “Traveling America: The Lincoln Highway.” History Magazine 11, no. 5: 44.

[17] Christopher W. Wells, “Fueling the Boom: Gasoline Taxes, Invisibility, and the Growth of the American Highway Infrastructure, 1919-1956,” The Journal of American History (June, 2012): 72.

[18] Rebecca Conrad, “The Lincoln Highway in Greene County: Highway Politics, Local Initiative, and the Emerging Federal Highway System, ” Annals Of Iowa 52, no. 4 (1993): 358.

[19] “Federal Aid Road Act,” Federal Aid Road Act, Ch. 241, 1916, 356.

[20] Ibid, 358. Also, page 356 defines the nature of the creation of “rural post roads” by the State Highway Department(s) of including “any department of another name, or commission, or official or officials, of a State empowered, under its laws, to exercise the functions ordinarily exercised by a State highway department”, and such departments were to be formed by the States, and would receive funding only after the Secretary of the Treasury (to whom the States had to apply directly for funding), has determined that any plans for construction were deemed “approved”, which was at the discretion of the Secretary of Treasury, as listed on page 357. Such was the nature of the network of funding the original highways.

[21] Adam Plaiss, “Who Gets to Draw the Map? The Contentious Creation of the American Road/Map System, 1917-1926,” History and Technology, Vol. 28, No. 1 (March 2012): 6.

[22] Banner; May 3, 1916; Vol. XLVIII; No. 8.

[23] Banner; August 8, 1917; Fol. XLIX; No. 22, see also: “These two major highways would become U.S. 31, north and south; and U.S. 50, east and west. Thus, the two major highways that would cross the State of Indiana would cross each other at Seymour in Jackson County. Seymour, as it has been known by the crossing of the two major railroads in Indiana in its city, would now have the two major highways crossing in its city and would truly remain as the “Crossroads of southern Indiana,” if not, the nation.” The article goes on to state that one of the earliest settlers in the area, and the founder of Brownstown, the county seat, John Ketchum, “would have been impressed with the county becoming the “cross-roads of the country”.

[24] Banner; March 17, 1926; Vol. LVI; No. 49.

[25] Emily S. Rosenberg, Spreading the American Dream (New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 1982), 71.

[26] Jon Patrick Sage, “American Automobile Manufacturers Operating in Interwar Europe: The Reasons for

Initial Competitive Advantages, and the Eventual Return to Normal Markets,” I.S.U. Hist. 521 (Dec. 11, 2014): 11, accessed April 27, 2015,  http://www.jonpatricksage.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/American-Automobile-Manufacturers-Operating-in-Interwar-Europe-The-Reasons-for-Initial-Competitive-Advantages-and-the-Eventual-Return-to-Normal-Markets-Jon-Patrick-Sage.pdf.

[27] Emily S. Rosenberg, Spreading the American Dream (New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 1982), 79.


[28] Ibid, 84.

[29] E. Jay Howenstein, Jr., “Lessons of World War I,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 238, Post War Jobs For Veterans (March, 1945): 183.

[30] Emily S. Rosenberg, Spreading the American Dream (New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 1982), 142.


[31] Stuart Chase, Prosperity, Fact or Myth (New York: Charles Boni Jr., 1929), 73.

[32] Ibid, 72.


[33] A view of the Federal Highway Act of 1921, during the 1930s, was that it served as a pre-cursor and provided an applicable framework for the many public works projects which were implemented during the Great Depression; see page 185 of E. Jay Howenstein, Jr., “Lessons of World War I,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 238, Post War Jobs For Veterans (March, 1945).


[34] “Federal Aid Road Act,” Federal Aid Road Act, Ch. 241, 1916, 356.

[35] “Federal Highway Act of 1921,” Federal Highway Act of 1921 Ch. 119, 1921, 212.


[36] “Federal Highway Act of 1921,” Federal Highway Act of 1921 Ch. 119, 1921, 214.


[37]  Ibid, 213.


[38] Richard F. Weingroff, “From Names to Numbers: The Origins of the U.S. Numbered Highway System,” U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration (September, 2013), Accessed March 13, 2014, http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/infrastructure/numbers.cfm.

[39] Adam Plaiss, “Who Gets to Draw the Map? The Contentious Creation of the American Road/Map System, 1917-1926,” History and Technology, Vol. 28, No. 1 (March 2012): 5.



[40] Constance R. Cherba and Edward E. Deckert, “Traveling America: The Lincoln Highway.” History Magazine 11, no. 5: 44, see also “See also, Weingroff, Richard F. “From Names to Numbers: The Origins of the U.S. Numbered Highway System.” U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration. (September, 2013), and “This method of labeling roads prevailed until 1925, when “Federal and State officials established the Joint Board on Interstate Highways, which created the U.S. numbered system to replace the old trail designations”.[40] With some notable exceptions, such as the distinctive Lincoln Highway Markers (which were still necessarily government sponsored), “new rules banned all nongovernment road signs, and the old highway markers began to come down”.[40] This last move, of providing designated routes, numbering, and funding of interstate highway systems would become the model of our highway system today”.

[41] Richard F. Weingroff, “From Names to Numbers: The Origins of the U.S. Numbered Highway System,” U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration (September, 2013), Accessed March 13, 2014, http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/infrastructure/numbers.cfm, also note that mileages indicators were placed along the highways, with mile 0 beginning at the southernmost beginning of any road in any particular State, and increasing as the traveler went north. Likewise, mile 0 began at the westernmost beginning of any road in any particular State, and increased as one would travel east. Also, U.S. 1 was the easternmost route, stretching down the Atlantic seaboard, and U.S. 101 eventually ran up the Pacific. On the same token, U.S. 2 was northernmost, while U.S. 98 was southernmost. This scheme was effectively flip-flopped for the construction of the Limited Access Interstate Highway System of the 1950’s, with I-10 south, and I-90 north; and I-95 easternmost (following U.S. 1), and I-5 westernmost and running the north and south of the west coast with or around U.S. 101.



[42] Constance R. Cherba & Edward E. Deckert, “Traveling America: The Lincoln Highway,” History Magazine (June/July, 2010): 44.


[43] * “Aligned, Alignments”, and such terms refer to the near continuous re-routing and straightening of highways in general, but are particularly evident when speaking of U.S. Routes, which often have one or more newer sections built close to or beside older ones. This is especially true it hilly or particularly swampy and/or flood prone areas.

[44] John Larson Southard, “Riches, Ruin, and Recovery: The Impact of Route 66 on Flagstaff, 1926 to 1938,” Journal of Arizona History, Vol. 54 Issue 2 (summer, 2013): 166.