Modern Highways are 100 Years Old

While doing some research this fall, I remembered the birth of our modern highways are 100 years old. Sure, some of our roads and trails predate 1913, but those routes were the precursor’s of today’s modern highway system.

In 1913, 180,000 cars were registered in the nation of 2.5 million miles, but less than seven percent were improved in any fashion. Most travel was in urban areas, with travel into the country being attempted in fair weather. Rain quickly turned country roads into thigh-deep mud ruts, making travel extremely difficult. Many travelers had to enlist the aid of a nearby horse team to extract them from the quagmire. Good roads came as automotive transportation and commerce expanded across the nation.

1907 Maxwell
1907 Maxwell on roads of the day

On July 1, 1913, a group of automotive capitalists met in Detroit to form the Lincoln Highway Association. Their goal: “To procure the establishment of a continuous improved highway from the Atlantic to the Pacific, open to lawful traffic of all description without toll charges: such highway to be known, in the memory of Abraham Lincoln, as “The Lincoln Highway.” All they needed was a route.

Realizing the importance of reawakening interest in the Good Roads Movement, the Indiana Automobile Manufacturers Association decided that its 1913 Indiana-Pacific Tour in addition to promoting Indiana-built automobiles should also generate interest for building better roads.

Marmon No 22
The Lincoln Highway sponsored Marmon
On the 1913 IAMA Indiana-Pacific Tour

When the IAMA Tour left Indianapolis on July 1, 1913, the tourists experienced some delay due to the rains and the enthusiastic reception along the way. The rain continued for more than half of the trip. There were some soft spots on some of the hills. This was evidence that improved roads were needed.

The trail blazing efforts, like those of the Lincoln Highway Association and the IAMA Tour, soon leveraged road improvement efforts. On September 16, 1914, G.S. Hoag, secretary of the Nevada Automobile Association, communicated an urgent plea to both branches of Congress that a measure appropriating a substantial sum of money for public roads be distributed to several states and furnish needed employment to thousands of idle men. Mr. Hoag suggested the Lincoln Highway as the one road demanding first consideration.

The Lincoln Highway was no highway in the spring of 1915. Instead of being a completed highway to San Francisco, it more resembled a mudhole extending form Illinois to Wyoming. For the most part, the route was marked, but the little real improvement previously accomplished had been quickly swallowed up by the floods of spring. The route would never be this bad again.

1915 Studebaker
A 1915 Studebaker somewhere in
Indiana on the 1915 Coast-to-Coast Film Tour

On July 11, 1916, affairs related to good roads took a decided turn for the better when President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916, the first of many that would eventually see the highways of America built at public expense. This act was the first to contain any real funding for the nation’s roads as a whole. It appropriated some $75 million to be spent over five years to improve rural post roads and $10 million to be expended in ten years on forest road construction and maintenance.

In November 1921, President Harding signed the Federal Highway Act of 1921. Like the 1916 act, this bill provided $75 million in federal money to be matched on an equal basis with state funds. This bill stated that federal aid should be concentrated upon “such projects as will expedite the completion of an adequate and connected system of highways, interstate in character.”

In 1924, The Bureau of Public Roads of the Federal Government estimated that within an additional 10 years we would see the adequate completion of a basic American highway system if congressional appropriations were continued at the present scale.

The LHA understood, from the first, that the greatest benefit from its investment in automotive transportation could only be realized to the extent permitted by adequate, connecting highway improvement.

The thanks for our modern high highway system goes back to the efforts of automotive pioneers over 100 years ago.

For more information on our automotive heritage follow this link.

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