My colleague Michael Barnes, who probably gets around on foot more than anyone in the American-Statesman newsroom, could be considered an unlikely candidate to bring me a book about the interstate highway system.
But about a month ago he handed me the paperback version of a 2011 book by Virginia journalist Earl Swift on the origins of the interstate highway system, and he recommended I read it. Swift, he said, had written it “straight down the middle,” without a pro-road or anti-road slant.
Thank you, Michael.
Now, allow me to recommend to all of you “The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries and Trailblazers who Created the American Superhighways.” I do this from time to time in this space, taking on the role of gonzo book reviewer. In the past I vouched for a very funny book about traffic (yes, that is possible) and a history of how roads and the San Gabriel River shaped Williamson County.
Swift’s book, first of all, is readable. I knocked out its 330 pages in about two weeks in between a lot of other stuff. And I lost some sleep along the way, continuing to read when I should have cut off the light.
Yes, you learn everything you need to know about how the 47,000-mile, $130 billion system came to be – it demolishes the old saw that former President Dwight Eisenhower conceived of the system and made it happen between rounds at Congressional Country Club. Yes, passage of the law funding it happened on Ike’s watch — and the past couple of weeks here at the Texas Capitol demonstrate that pushing through road funding legislation is no snap. But the conception of that system, and detailed planning, occurred when Major Eisenhower was still an obscure staff officer before World War II.
All that aside, what makes the book especially fascinating is that Swift lays out how America quickly went from rutted dirt roads to a network of paved roads in the early days of the automobile.
His book makes it clear that the advent of cars and roads, and their progress to an American daily fact of life, was just as fast and perhaps even more significant than what we’ve seen with the information superhighway over the past 20 years. Swift captures how stunning it must have been for someone born in, say, 1890, to go from riding to town in a buckboard as an 8-year-old to owning a car and taking a thousand-mile trip as a 40-year-old.
Swift focuses on several indelible characters who made it all happen, none of them familiar to me. Such as:
- Carl Fisher, a sixth-grade dropout and early race-car driver from Indianapolis with more than a bit of larceny in him. Fisher started out with a bike shop, then opened the Fisher Auto Co. Eventually, he and his partners founded the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and created the iconic race there (bad pavement led to a deadly first year in 1909, for racers and spectators), and he was later the original developer of a scraggly barrier island that became Miami Beach. Fisher, realizing that his car sales couldn’t continue to grow without better roads, began calling for a coast-to-coast highway and was instrumental in the privately financed building of the Lincoln Highway. Pieces of that early interstate road survive today in some Eastern states.
- Thomas MacDonald, an Iowa highway engineer who as early as 1913 was talking about the need for “great transcontinental highways.” By 1919, he was head of the federal Bureau of Public Roads, a position he held for more than three decades. President Franklin Roosevelt, we learn, called MacDonald into the Oval Office in 1938 and, intrigued by Hitler’s autobahn system (which MacDonald had visited a couple of years earlier), sketched out a crude system of U.S. cross-country roads on a map. Investigate this and get back to me, FDR said. Within months, MacDonald’s bureau had produced a report that showed roughly the system we drive on today, minus the urban sections.
- Frank Turner, a quiet engineer who was MacDonald’s successor in 1953 and, holding that job until 1973, built something like 90 percent of the interstate system approved by Congress in 1956. Turner presided during an era of what must have been bewildering change for him and his staff of highway engineers as they morphed, in the public mind, from mobility gods solving what had been numbing traffic congestion — yes, long before freeways — to narrow-minded plunderers of cities.
- Joe Wiles, from Baltimore, who, along with other activists, managed to stop highway officials from running what would be Interstate 70 through a city park and several African-American neighborhoods. After a couple of decades of false starts and ever-shifting maps, Wiles and others prevailed: I-70 today dead-ends at Baltimore’s western end, short of the park.
There’s still some summer left, and beaches to our southeast. Buy the book, take Interstate 10 and Interstate 45 or Interstate 35 and Interstate 37, rent an umbrella and start reading. You won’t be sorry.