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July 2006:        
50th Anniversary of the
Interstate Highway System

This is an auspicious year in the annals of American highways. Fifty years ago—June 29th, 1956—President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed legislation that created the Interstate Highway System.

No news photographers were present when the bill was signed, no senators or congressmen crowded around. The bill wasn’t even signed at the White House. President Eisenhower was at the time in the hospital recovering from surgery; he signed it in his hospital room. Yet the simple act of adding his signature to the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 set into motion a process has been a key factor in creating everyday life as we know it today.

First of all, this project was massive. In order to build the Interstate Highway System, authorities acquired land equivalent to the size of the state of Delaware and moved enough earth to cover Connecticut knee-deep in dirt. The concrete that went into its construction would been enough to build six sidewalks to the moon. The resulting system  of highways is currently listed as 46,508 miles. Astronauts circling the earth report that among the few human structures that can be identified from outer space is the Interstate Highway System (another structure that can be seen from outer space is the Great Wall of China.) 

            President Eisenhower was a Republican who distrusted big government. So it is perhaps ironic that he presided over creation of the biggest public works project in the history of the nation. But Eisenhower had a personal commitment to improving the nation’s highways, based on an experience from many years before.

On July 7, 1919, officials gathered near the south lawn of the White House for a kickoff  ceremony marking the beginning of an adventure. The US War Department was sponsoring a convoy of  trucks and other military vehicles that would make its way from Washington D.C. to San Francisco—3,239 miles across the continent. This was to be the largest motorized military convoy ever assembled: 81 vehicles carrying 37 officers and 258 enlisted men. The press called it a “motor truck train.” The convoy was partially a test of the army’s motorized vehicles, partially a public relations ploy to show off the modern equipment the military had at its command. It was also an experiment. Nobody  knew if it was possible for this “motor truck train” to make it all the way across the country.

Among the officers taking this journey was a young lieutenant colonel, Dwight D. Eisenhower. Ike was at the time considering leaving the military. He served as commander of a tank battalion headquartered in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, which had missed seeing action in World War I—by the time orders came to ship out to Europe, Germany had surrendered. Eisenhower was bitterly disappointed at missing the war and envisioned a dull future for himself as a bureaucrat. When this convoy was proposed, he saw it as an opportunity to get away from his desk and go on an adventure. He signed on, he later admitted, as a lark.

            Also as a challenge: the American road system at the time was primitive According to one estimate, there were 2 ½ million miles of road throughout the nation in the early 1900s but only 7% of these roads were in any way improved—that is, graded and/or surfaced with gravel or brick. The remaining 93% of the roads were just plain dirt. And roads hadn’t been planned; they had sort of happened, spreading out from existing communities, sometimes connecting to another town, sometimes just ending. There were parts of this coast-to-coast trip for which there weren’t even maps.

The convey started out well enough, making its way from its Washington DC starting point  and then proceeding to the Lincoln Highway, which brought the convoy to Chicago. That first leg of the journey was 906 miles—it took them 16 days. There were delays. Vehicles sometimes broke down, bringing the caravan to a halt. The roads they encountered were of uneven quality—a heavy rain could stall the whole procession. Other delays were caused by the excitement this trip generated. People all along the route came out to gawk and cheer as the “truck train” rumbled by. Evenings, the convoy halted and camped out in a town along the route. The community fortunate enough to be the site of an overnight stay turned out in numbers, cooking meals for the soldiers and mounting programs with band concerts and speeches followed by dances and parties lasting well into the night.

By the standards of the day, the journey from the nation’s capital to Chicago was reasonably smooth. West of Chicago, though, was a different story. A good road then was a dirt road. When the convoy reached the deserts of the west, the roads sometimes disappeared altogether. Desert sands clogged the engines, and the men of the convoy sometimes had to pull the trucks, rather than the trucks transporting them.

            It took this convoy 46 days to get from Chicago to San Francisco; the entire journey lasted 62 days in all, traveling at an average rate of 6 miles per hour. By the time they reached the west coast, the men were exhausted and numb from the journey. Dwight Eisenhower, an easy-going young man with a penchant for practical jokes, was nevertheless chastened by the hardships of this journey. He came away knowing first-hand that the nation needed better roads.

Change did not come quickly, however.  Throughout the 20s and 30s, a system of national highways was developed, but these soon became congested—Americans were putting more vehicles on the roads than the roads could handle.

The first four-lane limited access highway in the nation? The Pennsylvania Turnpike. Today, driving the Pennsylvania Turnpike can be a challenge, but when the first 160 mile segment opened on October 1, 1940, the new highway was a marvel touted as the eighth wonder of the world. On October 6th—the first Sunday on which Turnpike opened—traffic backed up for miles to get onto it. During the first two weeks, 10,000 cars a day drove the route. The Pennsylvania Turnpike was not just a means to get somewhere; it was a destination in itself. Families would picnic in the median or by the side of the road for the thrill of watching cars rush by.

World War II offered another impetus for developing a modern highway system. The Germans had created a system of limited access highways—the autobahn—upon which troops and military vehicles could be transported efficiently. Furthermore, then General Eisenhower noted that these highways were more resistant to enemy attack than other forms of transportation, such as, trains. Bombing a rail line could halt all the trains running on it, perhaps for weeks before repairs could be made. But a bombed highway could be repaired or by-passed much more quickly.

So when General Eisenhower became President Eisenhower, he immediately began to promote a modern efficient system of highways: the Interstate Highway System, later named in his honor.

The Interstate Highway System has changed our nation, our society and our everyday lives—it provided conditions that helped create everyday life as we know it today. Just about the whole country has become available to anyone with access to a vehicle.  We have become more mobile as a people; we live in places far from where we happened to have been born; the economy has boomed.

But the Interstates dealt an almost fatal blow to the nation’s passenger rail system, which was already in decline. Same with much of the nation’s mass transit. With more and better roads, the demand for cars and trucks increased, producing more air pollution and creating a condition that has driven the policies of the nation for almost a half century: dependence upon foreign oil.

Suburban sprawl was made possible by the Interstates. With these highways it became practical to move farther and farther away from one’s place of work. Then the places of work moved from the city center to the edges so employees could live still father away. Hand-in-hand with suburban development has come the decline of America’s cities and the demise of downtown shopping districts. Another consequence of the interstates has been the homogenization of the country. Chain stores have replaced locally-owned enterprises in just about every realm of retail sales. A key to running a successful retail chain is an efficient system to get the goods where they’re needed when they’re needed. The Interstate Highway System provided the means for such systems.

The Interstates have brought us good roads, safe roads, roads that take us quickly to most places we want to go. They have also brought an increased uniformity to our nation. The things we see from the road are more and more the same: the places we live, where we shop, eat, stay overnight. The highways themselves are uniform. Sometimes when driving an interstate, it’s hard to tell what part of the country you’re in.

At the Museum of the Open Road, we seek to counter the tendency for everything to become alike. Yes, at first glance a road trip on an interstate brings more and more of the same. But we can still spot things that take us below the surface of uniformity and tell us about the area we’re driving through—why it’s not like everyplace else in the country.

We provide audio programs: CDs or cassettes you play in your car while driving specific interstate highways. Each gives a commentary on the region you’re driving through. It’s like the audio programs available at museums that take you from one painting to the next, from one exhibit to the next, telling more than you can get by just reading the captions. That’s what we do too, except that the road is our museum and the exhibits are things we can spot from the road.

Driving the Interstates can be monotonous: that’s a downside of the Interstate Highway System. But the vast diversity of this nation is still out there. When we know what to look for, it still can be seen—even on an interstate highway.


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