The U.S. road network is less than one hundred years old.

Arizona’s Enchanted Mesa was still far from the highway in 1964.

Click on photos to enlarge.

We strongly advocate driving across the U.S. sometime.  So much is missed travelling only by plane.  But imagine if there were no paved roads.

The modern American road system is less than one hundred years old.

Romans paved roads to support military conquests and run their empire.  Americans walked on brick-paved streets in Colonial times.  But in 1900 America was huge, still overwhelmingly rural and paved roads were a rarity.

Modern highways are taken for granted.

American Road: The story of an epic transcontinental journey at the dawn of the motor age by Pete Davis describes that era’s roads.  Published in 2002, it is not particularly gripping.  But it is filled with interesting facts and tidbits, especially for those who have driven across the country.

On July 9, 1919, the First Continental Motor Train, an Army expedition that included cars, trucks, motorcycles, ambulances, mobile kitchens, machine shops and wreckers, set out from Washington, D.C. for San Francisco, California.  There were nearly 300 men in 81 vehicles. Future President Dwight Eisenhower was among the officers.  The trip took two months and averaged five miles an hour.  There were times when some doubted they could do it.

Alaska’s gravel Dalton Highway goes 240 miles from Coldfoot to Deadhorse with no services.

The first production automobile was made in 1886.  Between 1904 and 1908, there were 241 U.S, producers selling cars, mostly made in small shops.  Henry Ford created the Model T in 1908, and that same year Durant founded General Motors.  By 1913, 485,000 automobiles were produced. Americans owned six and a half million vehicles in 1919.

But only the most adventurous could cross a state in a car let alone cross the nation.  Motor vehicles were common in towns, but the roads connecting those towns were mostly dirt.

Off the paved highway in Colorado.

When Alie and I drive “dirt roads,” we usually mean gravel roads that have been graded at some point.  As late as 1919, most roads outside major cities were just dirt, trampled down by passing generations of feet, horses and wagons.  As late as 1907, there was not a single mile of paved road in rural America.  In 1908, there were no road maps, no road signs, and in some places, especially west of the Mississippi River, no roads, just trails.

The Grand Canyon was long a barrier to western travel: Marble Canyon Bridge over the Colorado River.

The Lincoln Highway Association was formed in 1913 to support the construction of a transcontinental road — or more accurately, a transcontinental route over a collection of roads.  Automobile and tire companies wanting a place for customers to drive were among the major proponents. Cement producers also saw a market.

But in 1919, the Lincoln Highway was still a conglomeration of routes from city to city leading from New York to San Francisco.

One can still encounter unusual traffic crossing the U.S.

On the first day, the 1919 expedition went about 50 miles to Frederick Maryland.  On the second day, they discovered covered bridges were too low for the trucks.  During the next two months, they often discovered bridges were not strong enough and had to be rebuilt.

Progressive Pennsylvania had paved a steep and dangerous road through the mountains.  West of Pittsburgh, however, the roads were again unpaved, rutted and full of potholes.

One can clock traffic speeds over Nebraska’s I-80 where Eisenhower once struggled over dirt tracks.

Ohio also had a paved road, mostly brick, 13-foot wide.  You can still see part of it near Canton.

In Indiana, local private entrepreneurs sponsored one-mile long “seedling” roads hoping to encourage governments to follow through.  But most of the road was so dusty it clogged carburetors.

The road deteriorated as the expedition moved west.  Iowa farmers didn’t see the need to spend money on roads.  When the drivers weren’t blinded by dust, they bogged down in mud.  Where Interstate 80 now runs through Nebraska, the road was little more than a wagon trail.  Trucks bogged down in soft soil and sand.  In Wyoming, they literally followed the path of settlers’ wagon trains.  Bridges collapsed, their wood weakened in the dry air.

The “loneliest road” goes over Utah’s salt flats.

On our first trip across the “loneliest road” through Utah and Nevada, we made sure we had enough gasoline because there were few towns.  We were interested when we saw another car on the road. Trucks and cars driving  across those same salt flats in 1919 frequently broke through the crust into the silt below.  They couldn’t even be pulled out; they had to be dug out by hand and moved over a makeshift base of planks and sagebrush.

By comparison, California did have relatively good roads.  The first speeder was arrested in California in 1919.  Having spotted him but unable to catch him, a policeman chased him down in an airplane, landed on the road, and arrested the motorist who stopped thinking the pilot had trouble.  The driver was doing sixty miles an hour.

North Carolina’s “Road to Nowhere” was a government plan gone bad.

P.S.  Despite have driven across the U.S. a number of times, I found remarkably few pictures of roads in my files — “familiarity breeds indifference.”


About ralietravels

Ray and Alie (Ralie) are a retired couple who love to travel. Even during our working years, we squeezed a trip in whenever we could, often when we had to stretch the budget to do so. We have been fortunate to vacation in all 50 states, all the provinces of Canada and one territory and a little more than 50 countries. We like to drive, but we particularly love to travel back roads to find unusual sights, people, and experiences.
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13 Responses to The U.S. road network is less than one hundred years old.

  1. That’s a very interesting post – I resorted to Wiki several times to look things up and am now bursting with information on the early American road system. 🙂

    You’re right about taking things for granted, I’ve often driven the routes of Roman roads and similar things – I must make an effort to photograph some.


  2. Keith & Loraine Beckman says:

    Very interesting about the start of paved roads etc. I remember Keith telling me about the time he worked in Colorado on the Million Dollar Highway. He drove truck and did whatever else I guess they needed him to do. I think this was in his late teenage years. It is all interesting and again, thanks for the history lesson.Hugs

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The road system seems to be integral to the American psyche. Driving cross-country remains one of the quintessential traveling pastimes.


  4. Coral Waight says:

    So interesting. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. JohnRH says:

    My father worked as a civil engineer on the first 100 miles of the Pennsylvania Turnpike in the 1930s.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Ray, with paved highways to take us just about anywhere we need to go, I’m sure that most people have no idea how recent the road system is. President Eisenhower was seriously interested in developing roads in America. You probably read that this goes back to WWII, when one of the main obstacles faced by the Allies in the war were poor roads that varied from country to country. And after becoming president, he said: “Not in America.” Nice, informative post. ~James


    • ralietravels says:

      Yes. It is said that it was the combination of his 1919 journey and seeing the German autobahn during WWII [It was begun in 1929] that caused his support for the Interstate Highway system now known as the Eisenhower Highway System.


  7. 56packardman says:

    Great post! I like the open road, so this was a treat!

    Thank you for visiting


  8. Pingback: The biggest and most economically important road networks in the world |

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