Group Retraces Old, Little-Known Coast-to-Coast Highway Route

It all began 100 years ago, when Congress approved funding for Bankhead Highway.

📅   Wed May 25, 2016 - West Edition
Gordon Dickson - Fort Worth Star-Telegram


It all began 100 years ago, when Congress approved funding for Bankhead Highway. Much of the road is still on the ground today, although it is known by many other names in various cities.
It all began 100 years ago, when Congress approved funding for Bankhead Highway. Much of the road is still on the ground today, although it is known by many other names in various cities.

STRAWN, Texas (AP) Bankhead Highway may be the most important road many Texans have never heard of.

The coast-to-coast highway, which connected Washington, D.C., to San Diego — and stretched 850 mi. (1,368 km) through Texas, from Texarkana to El Paso — was vital to the development of not only major cities such as Fort Worth and Arlington, but also smaller places such as Strawn that blossomed during the state's oil, coal and railroad booms.

It all began 100 years ago, when Congress approved funding for Bankhead Highway. Much of the road is still on the ground today, although it is known by many other names in various cities.

Only a handful of places, including Aledo and Weatherford, still call it Bankhead Highway or Bankhead Drive on street signs. In other cities, it was (and sometimes still is) known as U.S. 80, U.S. 67 or Texas 1. In west Fort Worth, it is Camp Bowie Boulevard. In Arlington, it's Division Street.

To celebrate the centennial of Bankhead Highway, a convoy of nearly 50 antique cars retraced the routes through Texas, making stops in Arlington and Fort Worth before passing through Weatherford, Mineral Wells and Strawn, where the drivers were to enjoy a picnic before heading to Abilene.

Often, the stretches of old Bankhead Highway run parallel to modern highways such as Texas 180 and U.S. 180, or interstates such as I-20. The interstate system, which now serves as the preferred route for most cars traversing Texas, has nearly banished Bankhead Highway to antiquity.

“Bankhead Highway needs to be for North and Central Texas what Route 66 is for Oklahoma and Missouri,” Dale Truitt, who organized the 500-mi. (804.6 km) tour of Bankhead Highway from Texarkana to Odessa, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. The caravan of cars from the Antique American Independent Automobile Association included a 1911 Dodge, a 1915 Packard and several Ford Model Ts.

“It's just time we get on it,” Truitt said. “This tour is going to be the kickoff of hopefully more interest in Bankhead Highway.”

In the tiny city of Strawn, about 80 mi. (129 km) west of downtown Fort Worth, a two-story building is still brightly painted with a sign that reads “Bankhead Hotel & Apts.” The building has sat vacant for decades, as Strawn entered into a slow, steady economic and population decline linked to the area's oil and coal production, but the hotel is still a well-known local landmark and one of the few structures in Texas that uses the iconic Bankhead name.

Strawn's little piece of Bankhead Highway is now known alternatively as Texas 16 or Front Street — a rather nondescript road in a city with no red lights other than at railroad crossings. But a block of the roadway in the city center, directly outside the Bankhead Hotel, still features the original Bankhead Highway red bricks made at a now-closed factory in nearby Thurber.

“We're very proud of those bricks,” said Danny Miller, who grew up in Strawn and is now city secretary. “Many people who lived here helped make those bricks, and we've still got them right in our downtown.”

But more than just that Texas connection, Bankhead Highway was one of the first coast-to-coast roads in the United States, starting at the Zero Milestone on the White House South Lawn in Washington and ending near the Pacific Ocean in San Diego.

And, after years of being all but ignored by history — to the point where many motorists today probably know little or nothing about it — Bankhead Highway is now the subject of a cultural reawakening of sorts. And that renaissance includes several car shows and other events that were held in Fort Worth and several West Texas communities.

“Bankhead Highway was the nation's first all-weather, cross-country highway,” said Dan Smith of Fort Worth, a retired meteorologist who wrote the book The Bankhead Highway in Texas, published in 2013. “The Lincoln Highway was first, but you couldn't use it all year because it went up through the northern U.S. and through the mountains out west, and that made the roads impassable. Bankhead Highway went all across the country through the South, and you could rely on it all year around.”

The highway was named after Sen. John H. Bankhead of Alabama, a strong advocate of building a coast-to-coast highway in the pre-World War I years.

The road was commissioned a year before Texas even formed its highway department, an agency that became the Texas Department of Transportation. The department and the Texas Historical Commission have worked together in recent years to map Bankhead Highway and catalog several thousand adjacent attractions.

The road wasn't built for military purposes, although many members of Congress supported the project for its ability to move people and equipment from one coast to another. As the U.S. entered World War I and later World War II, the need for troop movement to respond to a potential enemy invasion became paramount.

But in the cities on Bankhead Highway, the real value was the ability to bring in tourists and other visitors, and to more easily connect with the rest of the country.

In Strawn, Bankhead Highway harks back to a time when the city was at least four times its current population of about 600 residents.

“The Bankhead came through in the early '20s at a time before there were interstates or anything like that,” said Miller. “It was very important to the economy of Strawn. Many businesses thrived catering to the traffic that passed through. It was a big deal having a major highway coming through a little town like this.”

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