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U.S. Interstate System -- From I-4 to I-99

Wed August 11, 2004 - National Edition
Pete Sigmund



The next time you drive on an interstate highway, remember the mud.

People are still alive from the early days of the 20th century, when a federal road census reported in 1907 that there were just 141 mi. of paved roads in the entire country. No paved roads connected any cities. Roads were mudpits that sometimes swallowed whole horses.

The U.S. Interstate Highway System, which replaced the mud with sleek, wide ribbons of pavement, has been the largest earthmoving project in history, moving approximately 42 billion cu. yds. (32 billion cu m) of earth.

The construction of the original interstate system — designed in 1956 — will finally be completed in 2006 when the I-93 portion of the “Big Dig” is finished. Covering approximately 46,000 mi. (74,030 km), the system includes 62 highways, 54,663 bridges, and 104 tunnels.

The concrete used to build the original system could build a wall 9 ft. (2.7 m) thick and 50 ft. (15.2 m) high around the equator.

Construction of the interstates consumed more than 1 billion lbs. (453 million kg) of explosives, 2.3 billion tons (2 billion t) of cement and crushed rock, 3 million ft. (914,400 m) of lumber, and millions of miles of steel reinforcement bars (rebar).

The story of the interstate system includes the efforts of Presidents (from George Washington to Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower), legendary roadbuilding leaders like Horatio Earle, civil war veteran Gen. Roy Stone, and Thomas Harris “The Chief” MacDonald, and millions of people hoping to conquer the mud and travel faster.

The movement toward interstates also reflects U.S. history and progress: horses pulling blue Conestoga wagons with orange-red wooden wheels more than 5 ft. high, stagecoach drivers yelling to passengers to “lean left” to stay on the road, the first cars putt-putting on “Sunday drives … ”

Also, laborers breaking rocks into small pieces for road surfaces in the early 1900s, to be succeeded by armies of scrapers, bulldozers, graders and other equipment, and many thousands of workers who built the interstates during the last half century, uniting all sections of the nation via superhighways of concrete or asphalt.

How did this all happen? The Interstate System is our story.

First Interstate

The first interstate was the National Road, whose initial portion was completed in 1818, connecting Cumberland, MD, with Wheeling, VA (now West Virginia) on the Ohio River.

President George Washington surveyed 680 mi., seeking the best route for the road and its extension, in 1784. He mostly followed a trail blazed with the aid of Nemacolin, a Delaware Indian, in 1751. Washington knew the trail well, since he had followed it on British General Braddock’s ill-fated expedition against the French at Fort Duquesne, near Pittsburgh, during the French and Indian War.

Washington envisioned a road over the Appalachian Mountains, making travel and commerce possible between the East Coast and the Ohio Valley and further westward.

President Thomas Jefferson, the nation’s third president, carried the vision forward, signing a new law establishing the National Road. He appointed three commissioners to select a route and plan construction of this first federal interstate.

It took four years to map the exact route. Construction then began in 1811. The work eventually included as many as 1,000 men — from axmen cutting down trees to stump grubbers hauling roots out of the ground. Laborers placed seven-inch rocks at the bottom of a foot-deep foundation and covered them a layer of three-inch stones and then a layer of sand, gravel or clay.

Extending 131 mi., the highway was America’s first interstate and the federal government’s first participation in road construction.

Extending the Road

Construction of an extension of the National Road, also with federal funding, began on July 4, 1825. Supervised by the Army Corps of Engineers, the 600-mi. extension was completed in 1839, when it reached Vandalia, IL, near the Mississippi River. The federal government agreed to pay for improvements and install tollgates. It then turned the system over to the states, which were responsible for the road’s upkeep. The National Road became known as the National Pike. Fares were collected for horses, pigs and anything else that passed.

The road became the main gateway to the frontier. Poor farmers headed West on wagons, sleeping in them at night. Conestoga Wagons, 20 ft. long, holding only freight, with drivers smoking “stogies” (cigars) as they walked next to them, rumbled along, pulled by teams of horses draped in brass bells. Brightly colored stagecoaches, upholstered in silk, with names like June Bug or Good Intent, carried travelers, stopping at inns to “water the horses and brandy the men.”

Railroads, Bikes and Automobiles

Railroads became the chief mode of mass transportation in the 19th century. Roads remained mud.

The movement towards better roads — and eventually the Interstate System — really gained force with the League of American Wheelmen, whose 100,000 members wanted better surfaces for bicyclists in the 1890s.

Then, in 1893, bicycle mechanics Charles and Frank Duryea drove a broken-down horse carriage, powered by a one-cylinder gasoline engine, down the streets of Springfield, MA. They called it a “Buggyaut” (part buggy, part automobile). It was the first American-made automobile. Henry Ford meanwhile was developing his own vehicle, attaching a gas engine to a 500-lb. carriage equipped with bicycle tires.

More and more people wanted better roads. The Agricultural Appropriation Bill of 1894 appropriated $10,000 for a yearlong study of national road conditions and roadbuilding techniques.

Gen. Roy Stone, who had been wounded at Gettysburg during the Civil War, headed the study by the new Office of Road Inquiry, writing every county seat for help in charting their roads, and asking states for detailed information on the condition and materials of their roadways. The federal survey, completed in 1904, with results tabulated by 1907, showed the 141 mi. of paved roads mentioned earlier. Only 18 mi. of these roads were paved with bituminous blacktop. Most of the 2.2 million miles of rural roads were dirt, dust — and the omnipresent mud.

To stimulate good roads, Stone built “object lesson roads” (demonstration projects), often only several hundred feet long, in nine states, including New Jersey and Georgia.

After the general left office, railroads sponsored Good Roads Trains because they wanted better roads to carry freight and passengers to their rail lines. The trains carried equipment and laborers who built 1-mi. strips of good roads at stops along the route.

By 1902, Horatio S. Earle, a Michigan official who had headed the wheelmen association, was advocating a federally-funded “Capital Connecting Government Highway System connecting all state capitals with Washington, D.C.” Earle founded the American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) that year.

Movement Grows

The movement for good roads grew steadily throughout the 20th century. It was spurred, of course, by the increase in cars. In 1905, 48,000 cars were on American roads. By 1916, this number had grown to 2,500,000 — an increase of 5,000 percent.

As late as 1913, Alabama required each of its citizens to work 10 days a year maintaining the state’s highways.

World War I accentuated road needs. In 1917, the Army ordered 30,000 trucks for service in France. Most of them were driven from Detroit to Philadelphia, and hit lots of mud.

The Federal Aid Road Act of 1916 had appropriated $75 million in matching funds over five years for highway construction.

President Woodrow Wilson loved drives in his Pierce-Arrow and backed the organization of the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHTO) in 1914. AASHTO would become a key player in the construction of the Interstate System.

Another key player was Thomas Harris MacDonald, who was named Chief of the Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) in 1919, succeeding another road advocate, Logan Page.

MacDonald, called “The Chief,” served 34 years. He led an unprecedented roadbuilding program, using nearly a quarter-billion-dollars of decommissioned World War I hardware, from steam shovels to more than 40-million lbs. of explosives.

In 1921, The Chief negotiated the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1921, allowing states to manage their own roadbuilding and authorizing more than $75 million a year.

MacDonald chaired the Joint Board of Public Roads, established in 1924, which formulated a system of numbering and marking highways of interstate character. They decided that North-South U.S. routes would carry odd numbers and East-West U.S. routes would end in even numbers.

During World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt advocated to MacDonald that the nation build eight transcontinental highways. FDR’s early maps were lineal ancestors of the interstate system.

Enter ’Ike’

President Dwight D. Eisenhower is credited with establishing the Interstate Highway System, officially called the Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways, as we know it. “Ike” had traveled from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco in 1919 as part of the Army’s 3-mi. long, 81-vehicle motorized cross-country expedition to dramatize the needs for roads.

During World War II, he observed the success of U.S. forces using the Autobahn highway to defeat German armies, and the achievement of the “Red Ball Express” supply route serving U.S. troops over French and German roads.

When Eisenhower took office in 1953, 47 percent of the nation’s highways were still unpaved. Roadbuilding became his prime domestic agenda.

Ike wanted a $50-billion new highway system on a new right of way alongside the old U.S. routes. His “Grand Plan” wanted to offer fast evacuation to city residents if they were attacked by nuclear bombs. It also aimed at much faster commercial, military, and private travel. Congress passed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. It included a Federal Highway Trust Fund devised by Congressman Hale Boggs, who, according his daughter Barbara said, “was sick and tired of riding over icy mountain roads in Tennessee” every Christmas to spend the holidays with his family in New Orleans.

The trust fund established our present system of collecting money for roadbuilding from taxes on gasoline. It provided funds for paying back to the states 90 percent of the cost of the Interstate System.

The 10 years that followed (1956 to 1966) has been the “Interstate Decade.” More than half of the new interstates were built in that time, transforming America. (Most of the roadbed was built between 1958 and 1963.)

The country set aside more than 1.6-million acres of land for the project — an average of nearly 40 acres for each mile.

Seven miles of test road were first built near Ottawa, IL, to standardize materials and designs. The system was engineered to last at least 20 years before reconstruction. Soldiers drove Army trucks over the road until 1960 to determine when sections would wear out.

The original interstates had concrete surfaces. Asphalt was used later. Depth of the road bed varied according to location. Sections of I-95 in Maine were up to 5 ft. thick because of the cold weather.

The interstate system’s lowest numbers begin in the western United States. The numbers increase the further north and east you drive. Red, white, and blue shields designate the highways. The old U.S. routes have black and white shields. Beltways for the interstates have a third, even, number while spurs have a third, odd, number.

The 54,663 bridges on the interstate system meanwhile continue to inspire. These include such gems as he Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge, called the “crown jewel of the Big Dig,” which last year became the last bridge of the original system.

Transformed the Nation

The interstate system became a powerful engine for the economy. I-85, for instance, is credited as the main force behind the South’s economic boom.

Once an interstate was built, people moved out of cities in the new era of suburban sprawl. By the mid-1970s, more Americans lived in suburbs than in cities.

“Today there is no disputing that the 46,000-mile interstate system has transformed America,” said Matt Jeanneret, a spokesperson for ARTBA. “It is the safest road network in the world, connecting American families and communities. It has provided all Americans with an unprecedented freedom of mobility and it established a foundation that has helped make America the world’s only economic and military superpower.”

(Further information is available in “The Roads That Built America: The Incredible Story of the U.S. Interstate Highway System,” by Dan McNichol, Barnes & Noble, 1993, which was the main source for this article.)