The first Europeans reaching America didn”t find an uninhabited wilderness: this land was occupied by a bewildering plethora of Native American Indian tribes mostly independent and related primarily by shared hunting grounds and fragile ceasefires between hostilities. They had extensive trading arrangements dependent upon a network of waterways and trails.
European trappers and traders in the wooded East depended primarily upon waterways, but Indians relied on trails through the woods and alongside the streams and rivers. Many of their paths or trails were originally made by deer or buffalo in their seasonal migrations between feeding grounds or in search of water or salt licks. Many maps of the colonial period indicate that these trails extended with few breaks practically the entire length and breadth of the continent.
Indians avoided river banks with heavy vegetation concealing enemies waiting in ambush.
Roving bands and tribes typically traveled in single file on trails only 18 inches wide.
Plains Indians in later times followed wide roads beaten down by large parties passing with horses dragging tipi poles and travois. These trails were well marked, often being depressed two feet below the surface.
The Santa Fe and Oregon trails were well-known trails beginning in Independence, Mo., one ending in New Mexico, the other at the Willamette River, Oregon. The route taken by General Knox down lakes Champlain and George and along the Hudson river followed an ancient Iroquois Indian trail. With few exceptions, trails through mountains followed the lowest, easiest, path of least resistance later chosen for roadway and bridge sites.
Indians had well-traveled trails extending to hundreds of miles marked only by natural landmarks. “The trees, next to the stars, were the pilot of the Indian, but it was to the heavy moss on their southern sides and the ragged branches on the north-western sides that he looked—not to the white blaze which the clumsy European made and depended upon.” (Indians did blaze trees to lure whites following them into ambushes.) (1)
The coming of the automobile required more and better roads which motivated civic boosters to form voluntary associations to mark, identify, maintain, and market stretches of highways—many of which followed ancient Indian trails. The Lincoln Highway Association in 1913 became the first group promoting a group of connecting state highways. It eventually stretched 3,142 miles from Times Square in New York City to San Francisco.
Eventually, 85 such associations were formed including 18 having names ending in the word “Trail” — an allusion to their American Indian origins. (See card on Susquehanna Trail.)
They formed the first arrangement, but not system, of interstate highways.
Matching the bottom-up initiatives of local entities, state and federal highway officials organized then met in the Raleigh Hotel in Washington D.C. in December 1914 to form the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO).
Page 2 of 2 - The cooperative and complimentary relationship between the three levels of government in establishing and maintaining the nation”s highways is the finest example of federalism. The Federal Road Act of 1916 established the basic parameters of their respective spheres. It rejected toll roads in favor of tax financing. Each state was required to establish a highway department which would determine routes and maintain roadways. Thirty-five state highway department officials cooperated with the Federal Office of Public Roads (now DOT) in a cooperative effort.
It did not build an interstate system, however.
Interstate Roots and Routes
The key element in the plan of cooperation between the levels of governments was classifying roads as “primary” or interstate and “secondary,” those connecting county seats. The Federal Highway Act of 1921 assigned States the authority to create plans and the feds as the ones to enforce design, construction, and maintenance standards. States were given the all-important role of designating up to 7 percent of their highway mileage as “primary” and to be fully financed by the feds. Military and civilian roads would be the same.
The act ushered in the golden age of road building. In 1922, more than 10,000 miles of federal aid highways were laid down, transforming the country through which they passed. The bulk of these federally-subsidized roads were strictly local roads. The Federal Highway Act of 1921 was the single most important piece of legislation establishing the national network.(*)
Among the standards were those creating 100-foot wide rights-of-way, 1,000-foot radius, banked curves designed to be taken at 35 mph and 10-foot wide concrete lanes. Surfaces evolved from dirt to sand-clay mixtures, gravel, macadam (progressively smaller layers of rock and gravel), tarmac (tar-like oil on top of macadam), blacktop (asphaltic concrete), and finally concrete (Portland cement with embedded reinforcing steel bars or rebar). Portland cement evolved from a crude form made with volcanic ash by the Romans and used for the construction of their coliseum.
Next week we conclude this series with a look at the inception of the modern Interstate Highway System, but first a transition statement concerning its origins. When I was employed by the Oklahoma Highway Department in 1959 appraising right of way for the future I-40, I stayed in Clinton on Highway 66. Interstates from Chicago to Los Angeles now essentially parallel old U.S. 66, the highways actually in sight of each other west of Amarillo — evidence of the origin of interstate routes.
• Hulbert, Archer B., Historic Highways of America, Cleveland: Arthur Clark Company, 1902-5, V0l.2, 29-31.
• Swift, Earl, “Big Roads,” Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2011, p.73.