Monday, July 11, 2011

"The Big Roads" by Earl Swift

When I was in the Navy one of the things I missed most about being home in America was driving around in cars. Especially freeways. At the time I didn't have a drivers license, but there were always cars available. You could rent one through a friend, or just ride around as a passenger, eating junk food and enjoying the scenery as it flew past.

Over time I became interested in the old signs I saw on the side of the road. They said "Eisehower Interstate Highway", or something like that. The conventional theory is that General Eisenhower, during World War Two, was so impressed with the German highways that he saw great value in building such a system here in America. From a military standpoint this makes sense. Historically it is only part of the story which Mr. Swift lays out in this sprawling history of the Interstates which we take for granted.

The desire for good roads in America goes back to the earliest days of the first settlers. Footpaths and trails were the common means of travel for the Native Americans, but the settlers built carts and needed a way to transport their goods from settlement to settlement. These muddy trails were usable for about half of the year. The winters were the worst times, often leaving the settlers stranded in their own villages until the spring thaw, and even then they still had to contend with the mud.

Nothing much had changed by the late 1800's. There were a few National Roads, most notably the Baltimore National Pike, which was really the beginning of modern day Route 40, but the country was still a hodgepodge of muddy, uneven roads by the late 19th century. And then along came the bicycle.

After the Civil War large tricycles made their appearance. They were clumsy and somewhat dangerous, being about 6 foot off the ground. Then came the two wheelers, with the same large front wheel, and a miniscule rear one. Even getting up on one of these machines was an accomplishment, riding one on cobblestone streets was truly an ordeal. Clearly, smooth and even roadways were called for. This is when our desire for modern roads first sprang up.

The author expertly traces the roots of our modern highway system to Carl Fisher, a bicycle maker in Indiana. Beginning as a sixth grade dropout, he entered into the bicycle business, popularizing the new, sportier models that we have come to know as today's bicycles. With this venture came the need for new roads.

After the First World War, with the automobile becoming a more modern means of transportation, people like A.V.Williams in Maryland, began buying up all the World War One tanks and mounting plow blades on them. Heavy equipment was born.

In the years between the two wars many ideas were floated for a national roadway, but not much progress was made. Thomas MacDonald was one of the earliest pioneers in this effort. He envisioned a system of roads not too far removed from what we have today.

All of these efforts were not unopposed. The newer and bigger roads would mean the death of many smaller towns, along with the Mom and Pop businesses which dotted the countryside. Lewis Mumford was one of these opponents. His arguments against the roads were both social and economic. And, largely, his predictions have come to pass.

One of the best examples of the struggle for modern roads and how they should be built, or not, concerns the section of Route 70 which runs to downtown Baltimore and then comes to an abrupt end. Thousands of people were forced from their homes for a section of this road which was never built. The city and state became the owners of the properties, which they held for 20 years without building the road. When they tried to sell these properties years later, the values had gone up, and the original, displaced, owners filed suit for the return of those properties. They won.

This is a very thoroughly researched book on the history of Americ'a Interstate highway system. It will change the way in which you perceive the history of these roads as you drive them.

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