The Long Road to the Interstates

The story behind America’s remarkable coast-to-coast highway system.

Woman driving down an early 20th century paved highway in front of the Rocky Mountains.

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Like Stonehenge, the pyramids of Giza, and Mick Jagger, the U.S. interstate highway system is one of those marvels that seems to have been around forever. The reality is quite the contrary. In fact, most superhighways are scarcely more than 50 years old.

The story of the interstates begins a decade into the 20th century, when the success of a handful of intrepid automobile drivers in crossing the country demonstrated the potential for long-distance travel by car. America was ready to start building a system of roads and highways to connect its distant ends. All that was needed was someone to help pave the way.

Portrait of automobile dealer Carl Fisher of Indianapolis
Carl Fisher (Lincoln Highway Digital Image Collection/University of Michigan)

That person was Carl Fisher of Indianapolis, although at first he hardly seemed destined for success. He wasn’t much of a student and quit school at the age of 12, taking a job packing groceries to supplement the family’s income. Work taught Fisher more than he ever learned in school, especially when he took a job as a “news butcher” hawking newspapers, tobacco, and candy at the Indianapolis train station. He learned he had a natural gift for convincing people to buy whatever he had to sell. Soon he’d squirreled away $600, a substantial sum.

At the same time, he became swept up in the bicycling wave enthralling the country. Resolved to marry his ­talent for sales and passion for cycling, Fisher, at just 17 years old, convinced his brothers to join him in opening a bicycle shop in 1891, and by the age of 19, he owned the largest bicycle store in the city.

But Fisher realized that bicycles were being overtaken in popularity by faster and more thrilling machines: automobiles. He purchased what was likely the first automobile in Indianapolis, a French-made 2.5-horsepower De Dion-Bouton. He transformed his bicycle shop into an automobile dealership — possibly the first in America — and began selling cars using the same promotional tactics he had used successfully selling bikes.

Once, he showcased the durability of the automobiles he sold by pushing a seven-passenger car off the top of a tall city building. When the car came to rest on the street below, one of Fisher’s brothers hopped in the driver’s seat and drove off as an amazed crowd of onlookers cheered and followed along back to Fisher’s dealership. At least that’s what many believed happened. Considering Fisher’s considerable flair for showmanship, it’s likely a little chicanery (and an identical second car) was involved.

Bigger things lay in store for Fisher. In 1904, he was approached to help market a patented process that used compressed gas to illuminate automobile headlamps. The new system offered a substantial improvement over the dim kerosene lamps in current use. With a friend, Fisher founded Prest-O-Lite, a company that would become the leading supplier of headlamps in the United States. As head of Prest-O-Lite, Fisher made millions and developed friendships with top auto executives and politicians.

“You will get tired, and your bones will cry out for a rest cure; but I promise you one thing — you will never be bored!”

Joining a handful of other Indianapolis businessmen, Fisher invested in another project, a grand racetrack constructed just outside the city. Intended to test and showcase the auto industry’s newest and fastest cars, the track eventually became known as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. However, the legendary venue’s 1909 debut would be marked by tragedy rather than cheers. The problem was the track’s surface of loose gravel and tar. During that first race, the inferior material crumbled under the stress of the cars’ maneuvering. Large chunks of rock were hurled in every direction. Before the race could be halted, dozens of onlookers were injured, and six people, including two drivers, were killed. Fisher and his partners were devastated.

The decision was made to repave the track with 3.2 million 10-pound bricks, improving safety for drivers and spectators alike. In so doing, they also provided the Speedway with its famous nickname: The Brickyard. The tragedy also got Fisher thinking about the poorly constructed roads people traveled on every day. He understood that the continued growth of automobile sales — and the headlamps he manufactured — depended on the public’s confidence in the safety of motorized travel. He also knew automobile owners longed to drive far beyond the limits of their home cities to far-off destinations.

Checks made out to the Lincoln Highway Association. One is worth $100,000 in July 1918; the other, $25,000 in March 14, 1917.
Check mates: Many in the automobile industry pledged support for the Lincoln Highway, but Henry Ford opted out. (Lincoln Highway Digital Image Collection/University of Michigan)

Never one to think small, Fisher conceived his most outrageous idea yet: He would build a paved highway spanning the country from coast to coast.

Fisher had nowhere near the means necessary to undertake such a monumental project alone. By his own estimate, construction would cost $10 million, about $260 million in today’s money. The projection would prove to be laughably miscalculated. Still, Fisher hoped the project could be financed entirely by the automobile industry and private contributions. To that end, he called together a large group of his prominent friends to unveil his idea at a dinner party in Indianapolis in 1912. Fisher’s plan called for a highway of crushed rock stretching from New York City’s Times Square to San Francisco’s Lincoln Park. Its purpose, in Fisher’s words, was to “stimulate as nothing else could the building of enduring highways everywhere that will not only be a credit to the American people but will also mean much to American agriculture and American commerce.” His goal was to complete the highway in time for San Francisco’s 1915 World’s Fair.

As testament to Fisher’s sales skills, the reception to his idea was overwhelmingly positive. Goodyear’s Frank A. Seiberling wrote a check for $300,000 on the spot. Others pledged smaller amounts. Fisher also received checks from friends Thomas Edison, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson. Notable for his absence of support was Henry Ford, who steadfastly declared that it was solely government’s responsibility to build better roads. Packard Motor Company’s president, Henry Joy, sent Fisher a check for $150,000, requesting the highway be named for a man both he and Fisher regarded as a hero. Fisher agreed. The project would be called “The Lincoln Highway,” after the president who had preserved the Union. Joy was elected president of the Lincoln Highway Association (LHA), the organization responsible for overseeing construction, with Fisher serving as vice president.

Ike argued that the interstate highway system would improve the country’s ability “to meet the demands of catastrophe or defense, should an atomic war come.”

Still, funding for the ­Lincoln Highway fell far short of what was needed. A month after presenting his idea, Fisher had collected just $1 million toward his $10 million goal. He needed another strategy and devised a scheme that was both simple and brilliant: The LHA would sponsor the construction of “seedling miles” along the highway’s planned route. Fisher reasoned that when motorists traveled the route and could compare the paved and unimproved sections side by side, they would lobby local officials to finish the dirt portions and connect the whole. The plan worked — at least in areas where taxpayers lived. In sparsely populated areas of the country, particularly out West, there wouldn’t be funds to construct vast stretches of the Lincoln Highway for years.

There was also the matter of determining the route itself. East of the Mississippi River, the task was easy. Planners could include a number of existing roads that needed only to be widened, paved, and connected. But the western United States was another story. In order to scout the best course, the LHA assembled a team of what were called Trail-Blazers. Their mission was to trek across the vast expanse and identify the most feasible path. The team spent months wandering the countryside and ­diligently surveying the landscape. Wherever they went, they were greeted by cheering residents and smiling public officials well aware of the potential economic rewards of their town’s being included on the route. In the end, LHA leaders did as leaders often do: They largely ignored the recommendations of their subordinates and simply chose the most direct path possible.

Stretching 3,389 miles, the route of America’s first transcontinental highway crossed the Mississippi at tiny Clinton, Iowa; folded in sections of the Mormon Trail; and snaked up and over the Sierra Nevada at the Donner Pass before terminating in San Francisco.

Packard Car Company president Henry B. Joy drive a car through a muddy track.
Here’s mud in your eye! In 1915, Henry B. Joy, president of Packard Car Company and the Lincoln Highway Association, embarked on a 12-day, 2,836-mile cross-country trek to promote better roads — negotiating a few puddles along the way. (Lincoln Highway Digital Image Collection/University of Michigan)

Merely marking the official route was no small feat. That task fell largely to the Boy Scouts, who trudged through dense forests, across yawning plains, and up steep mountainsides to post signs bearing the distinctive Lincoln Highway emblem: a vertical rectangle bordered with red on top, blue on the bottom, and bearing a large blue L against white in the middle. A series of bronze statues of Abraham Lincoln was also commissioned to serve as landmarks in key locations.

Considering the common delays of road projects ­today, it should come as no surprise that Fisher’s goal for completing the first Great American Highway was, in a word, optimistic. Vast sections of the Lincoln Highway would remain unconstructed for well over two decades. Yet the highway’s signs remained posted, nailed into trees in remote forests and mounted on poles in the middle of empty prairies, no doubt to the considerable befuddlement of passing hikers and horseback riders.

Despite its incomplete state, the Lincoln Highway opened for motorists as work progressed. Suffice it to say, the situation set the stage for some interesting travel experiences. Even the LHA’s own 1916 Official Road Guide described a cross-country trip along the Lincoln Highway as “something of a sporting proposition.”

Motorists were advised to plan for a journey of 20 to 30 days and to top off their gas tanks at every opportunity. More revealing, drivers were warned to get out of their cars and wade into any pools of water they encountered to determine the depth before attempting to drive through them. The guide also listed recommended travel accessories: shovel, ax, chains, jacks, cans of spare fuel, tire casings, inner tubes, and a complete set of tools. Firearms were deemed unnecessary, but travelers heading west of Omaha were advised to pack camping equipment. The guide also informed readers that in certain areas private citizens could be called on for help. Around Fish Springs, Utah, for instance, stranded travelers were instructed to “build a sagebrush fire. Mr. Thomas will come with a team. He can see you 20 miles off.” Finally, the guide offered this last bit of advice: “Don’t wear new shoes.”

Still, intrepid motorists were not to be dissuaded. Among this group was Beatrice Massey, who in 1919 recorded her cross-country adventure both on and off the Lincoln Highway in a journal as her husband drove. She published their experiences in a book splendidly titled It Might Have Been Worse: A Motor Trip from Coast to Coast. In the final chapter, Massey advises other would-be Lincoln Highway travelers: “You will get tired, and your bones will cry out for a rest cure; but I promise you one thing — you will never be bored! No two days are the same, no two views similar, no two cups of coffee tasted alike. … My advice to timid motorists is, ‘Go.’” She made this declaration despite never completing the road trip herself.

Two cartographers look at a map next to their car while on a trip through Utah's mountains.
Chart-topper: Utah’s mountains and mud flats made mapping the highway’s course through the state particularly challenging. It ended up with more Lincoln Highway miles than any other state. (Lincoln Highway Digital Image Collection/University of Michigan)

After covering more than 4,100 miles over seven weeks on their looping journey beginning on the East Coast, the Masseys encountered terrain they deemed impassable around the Great Salt Lake. So they simply loaded their car onto a train and made the rest of the journey to the West Coast by rail.

Once the country got rolling on road construction, not even the Great Depression could stop it. In fact, the dismal economy of the 1930s only encouraged it. With unemployment running as high as 25 percent, President Franklin D. Roosevelt viewed road building as an ideal way to put Americans back to work. Through passage of various New Deal emergency relief programs, FDR and Congress pumped a staggering $1 billion into road projects between 1933 and 1938. The spending spree funded the construction of 54,000 miles of improved roads.

Just how “improved” they were, however, varied considerably. There simply weren’t enough well-trained engineers and managers to supervise all the projects. In many cases, men were simply trucked off to worksites, handed shovels, and told to get going. The quality of the resulting roads was often correspondingly shoddy.

With the nation drawn into World War II, highways were put on hold, but the war ultimately helped accelerate their construction. American factories that had been busy producing Jeeps and airplanes for the military made an easy peacetime transition to making automobiles for consumers. It’s hard to say if production inspired demand or vice versa, but car companies produced dramatically more cars each successive year following the war, from fewer than 1 million cars in 1945 to more than 9 million 10 years later. It added up to scores of eager motorists driving a record number of cars looking for new places to go and a faster way to get there.

But when it came to building America’s interstates, the war may have provided no bigger catalyst than Dwight D. Eisenhower. America’s most famous general at the war’s conclusion, Ike had become the country’s president in 1953. He entered office with a healthy respect for roads. In particular, he had observed how Germany’s thoughtfully planned and well-engineered autobahn highway system allowed Hitler’s armies fast and easy transportation across the country.

As the Cold War with the Soviet Union heated up and the prospect grew that an atomic attack would focus on large cities, Eisenhower felt compelled to provide urbanites speedy evacuation routes. He’d also noted the obvious: Owing to postwar prosperity, the nation’s roads were becoming flooded with automobiles, making congestion a headache for civilians and raising doubts about whether the military would be able to maneuver through traffic in the event of war. Between 1945 and 1955, the number of cars on American roads doubled from 26 to 52 million.

In 1954, Eisenhower presented his solution — a national system of interstate highways to enable “safe, speedy, transcontinental travel and intercity communication.” Ike argued that such a system would reduce congestion, increase economic efficiency, and improve the country’s ability “to meet the demands of catastrophe or defense, should an atomic war come.” The plan’s estimated cost was as lofty as its goals: Eisenhower was proposing the most expensive peacetime project in history.

Approval of the project would, of course, hinge on determining who would pay for it. State governors didn’t want to contribute any more toward highways than they already were, and Eisenhower didn’t want the project to add to the national debt.

The dilemma reinforced one of the great maxims of road building: Everybody wants good roads, but nobody wants to pay for them. Eventually Eisenhower conceded that because the project promoted national interests, the federal government should bear the brunt of the cost. The feds would pay 90 percent of the costs of the new superhighways, with most of the money coming from an increased tax on gas.

With agreement reached on how to pay for the project, the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 was passed, providing for the construction and purchase of 41,000 miles of interstate highways. While many existing roads would be folded into the system, the vast majority of the highways would be brand new. These superhighways would be far superior to the narrow two-lane highways motorists were accustomed to. The new interstates would be specifically designed for high-speed driving, with the vast majority of the system’s mileage offering four-lane divided highways and broad shoulders to accommodate breakdowns or pullovers. At-grade crossings would be eliminated, with intersections replaced by overpasses and underpasses to keep traffic moving in all directions. Access to the interstates would be limited to on-ramps in select locations. Finally, the new high-speed highways would be elevated well above the surrounding terrain to prevent flooding and promote quick drainage.

A directions sign in East McKeesport, Pennsylvania. It directs travelers on the Lincoln Highway to either Greensburg, or to continue further on the road.
Signs of life: The Lincoln Highway found support more easily in populated areas like East McKeesport, Pennsylvania. The deserts of the West were a different story. (Lincoln Highway Digital Image Collection/University of Michigan)

America’s superhighways were estimated to cost $30 billion and be completed in 1966. In what may be the single least surprising fact in this article, I must now inform you that the projections were a trifle off. I’ll let Thomas L. Karnes deliver the grim details, as he summarizes so well in his book Asphalt and Politics: A History of the American Highway System: Land costs, inflation, and upgrading of standards forced Congress to amend the laws regularly after 1956 to raise more revenue. Taxes were increased in 1958, 1959, and 1961, pushing the interstate appropriation up to $41 billion.

The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1968 added 1,500 miles to the interstate system. At the end of 1974, 36,500 miles were completed, and 2,800 more were under construction. The bicentennial date of 1976 became the new target date. That proved naive. In 1981, approximately 5 percent of the network was still unfinished, and the federal bill now exceeded $130 billion.

Eisenhower and Congress didn’t just miscalculate the cost of building the interstates. At the time of their construction, the interstate highways were engineered to last just 20 to 30 years. In other words, well before the last stretches of the interstates were completed, the first sections were already crumbling.

If you’ve ever had the feeling that road construction never ends, you now know why: It doesn’t. Today’s road crews are engaged in a never-ending battle to patch and rebuild highways that have been falling apart since the late 1970s.

When construction of the national interstate highway system finally concluded in the 1980s, America was a much different place. It was crisscrossed from coast to coast and north to south in ribbons of thick concrete — enough to form 700 mounds the size of Egypt’s Giza pyramid. It was also a fundamentally much smaller, more accessible country. Connected by smooth, multilane, high-speed expressways, America’s distant ends didn’t seem quite so distant. What’s more, the land’s treacherous mountain ranges, impenetrable swamps, and forbidding deserts no longer blocked the way in between.

Suddenly it was possible to travel from one state to the next and even one coast to the other in a fraction of the time it once took. Places many Americans could once only read about in newspapers or see pictures of in magazines were now all within reach, given a reliable car and enough cash for fuel. What’s more, the whole family could come along. In an automobile, four or five people could travel nearly as cheaply as one.

Making things even nicer for my family, many of the interstates had been around long enough by the 1970s for an ample number of restaurants, gas stations, motels, and other conveniences to sprout up along their sides. By and large, we could count on exits with such services at regular intervals, allowing us the opportunity to fill our tank, grab a bite to eat, or rush in to take a quick potty as needed. At the time, my siblings and I took all of these things for granted. It seemed like they’d been around forever.

Of course, we were young. Compared to us, it all had been around forever.

From Don’t Make Me Pull Over!: An Informal History of the Family Road Trip by Richard Ratay. Copyright © 2018 by Richard Ratay. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Editor’s note: Do you love cars? If so, don’t miss our two special collector’s editions Automobiles in America: The Early Years and American Cars: 1940s, ’50s & ’60s. Find them both at saturdayeveningpost.com/shop.

Feature image credit: Lincoln Highway Digital Image Collection/University of Michigan

This article is featured in the March/April 2019 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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