Thursday, September 25, 2008

U.S.Highway System--A Short History

Anyone who has ever traveled the United States by car is familiar with the numbered highway system. Most have given it little thought.

The national highway system was created in 1926 and administered by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (or its cumbersome acronym, AASHTO), which designated the numbers of the various highways. Although the roads are referred to as federal highways, they have always been maintained by state and local governments.

The nationwide highway system was created to fill a need. America's roads had proved inadequate in World War I for transporting military equipment. To highlight the deplorable condition of America's roads, and to determine the feasibility of transporting troops and supplies cross-country, the War Department organized a two-month transcontinental convoy to travel from Washington D.C. to San Francisco. The 1919 expedition included the former Army football star, Lt. Col. Dwight D. (Ike) Eisenhower (yes, that one!), along with 81 motor vehicles and 282 officers and enlisted men. The long march across America graphically demonstrated the atrocious condition of the nation's highways. The 3200 mile trip took 62 days to complete at an average speed of about 6 mph over mostly unpaved roads. Vehicles got stuck in the mud, the heavy equipment collapsed many road surfaces, and at least 62 bridges had to be rebuilt by Army engineers.

The men on the convoy were not the first to travel cross-country by sutomobile. That honor belongs to Vermont physician Horatio Nelson Jackson and chauffeur/mechanic Sewall K. Crocker, who, in 1903, to win a $50 bet, drove a Winton touring car from San Francisco to New York in 65 days over dirt roads and sometimes no roads at all. Dr. Jackson had accepted the bet although he didn't own a car and, until just before the trip, neither man knew how to drive. The car had no windshield and no top.

The Eisenhower caravan roughly followed the route of the recently created Lincoln Highway (now U.S. 30 and I-80). Along the way, the crew stopped at Harvey Firestone's Ohio farm, where the tire man added two trucks equipped with his company's inflatable pneumatic tires. The men encountered many breakdowns and got a good feel for what worked and what didn't. The end result was that Ike became convinced that Firestone's pneumatic tires worked best. Afterwards the two men lobbied Congress and authorities for better highways to unite the country's transportation and communications systems.

Ike never forgot the lessons of that long trip, and after he wsa elected President, he created the American interstate highway system which formulated minimum design standards for higways. The popularity of those highways transformed the American culture and experience. Every family needed a car or two. As more and more Americans obtained automobiles, they had the urge to travel from city to city. That was very difficult until the federal government was able to coordinate the construction of new roads. National chains like Holiday Inn and McDonald's built outlets along the 41,000 miles of interstate highways to serve the newly mobile public.

In the early years, prior to World War I, the nation's highway grid system started small, with the Lincoln Highway, built with no federal assistance. The Lincoln Highway Association was formed in 1913, and the coast to coast highway was completed in 1915 from San Francisco to New York. Except in the cities, most of the Lincoln Highway was unpaved. Early auto trails, as they were called, were created by organizations like the Lincoln Highway Assn., to mark and promote roads for long distance auto travel. Some such organizations made major efforts to improve the roads, while others just built the roads through towns willing to pay for sponsorships and post signs along the roads.

In general, the two-digit U.S. Routes do not have minimal design standards, although today all are paved. But most are not built to Interstate Highway standards which require at least 4 lanes, divided, and limited access.

The numbering system works as follows: Odd-numbered highways run generally North and South, and even-numbered highways run East and West, although as with every rule, there are exceptions. The lowest odd-numbered routes are in the East and the highest are in the West. For example, U.S. 1 runs along the East Coast from Fort Kent, Maine to Key West, Florida, and is known as the Atlantic Coast Highway. U.S. 101 (considered a 2-digit highway, the first digit being "10") runs along the West Coast from Port Angeles, Washington to San Diego, California, and is known as the Pacific Coast Highway.

The lowest even-numbered routes are in the North and the highest are in the South. Thus, U.S. 2 runs along the Canadian border from Houghton, Maine (also the beginning of I-95) to originally, Bonners Ferry, Idaho, but now to Everett, Washington. However it is interrupted between the Vermont-New York border and St. Ignace, Michigan. U.S. 90 runs from Jacksonville, Florida to Van Horn, Texas and was known as the Old Spanish Trail.

The longest U.S. Highway is U.S. 20, which spans 3365 miles from Boston to Newport, Oregon. U.S. 50 traverses the Pony Express route across the far Western states.

The most famous is U.S. 66 which doesn't even exist anymore. It was decommissioned in 1985. However, the merchants along that road formed an association to stimulate their small businesses by appealing to Americans' nostalgic memories. Route 66, the Mother Road, was the first national highway to be completely paved (in 1938). It was the preferred route of Dust Bowl migrants traveling to California, memorialized in John Steinbeck's great novel, Grapes of Wrath. It was originally designated as Route 60, but Kentucky objected because it had been left off major East-West routes, and its Route 62 didn't have the same pizazz as Route 60. But other states objected to losing Route 60--Missouri had already printed maps and Oklahoma had prepared signs. Eventually a compromise was reached and Route 66 was considered a nice round number. Kentucky to this day has Route 60 spanning the state.

As one can see, there's more to the highway system than meets the eye, and there's a rich history behind it.




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