For Okies, the most meaningful story of how the interstate highways impacted existing highways has to be that of “The Mother Road,” “America’s Mainstreet,” Highway 66. In 1921, Cyrus Avery, owner of a service station 7 miles east of downtown Tulsa, was elected head of the Associated Highways Association of America [AHAA]. Three years later he led the AHAA to recommend to the feds the creation of a system of interstate routes. Avery was asked to lead the effort to designate the most important interstate highways. He was responsible for designating the route from Chicago to Santa Monica, the Great Lakes to the Pacific, U.S. Highway 66.
As the interstate system came to reality at the end of WWII, Clinton barber Jack Cutberth was elected head of the Main Street of America Highway Association [MSAHA] to promote the interests of Route 66 and other highways bypassed by the new interstate highways.
Originally, the interstates were supposed to be constructed in 12 years. But, it was built incrementally, one town at a time bypassed by construction. (Oklahoma law specified that no project could exceed 7 miles with the result being all my projects were 6.99 miles. The idea was to pass around construction contracts to persons favored by local politicians.)
Bypassing towns destroyed businesses along the highway being bypassed, energizing the affected owners and their politicians to delay being “bypassed.” The last stretch of highway 66 was wasn’t bypassed until 1984. [*]
My first job out of OU in 1958 was as an appraiser for the Oklahoma Highway Department [OHD]. In September 1959 I was staying in the Calmez Hotel in Clinton while appraising land for the stretch of I-40 that would “bypass” U.S. 66 from Weatherford to Clinton.
I ate all my meals at Pop Hicks Restaurant. Every evening when the sun blinded west-bound truck drivers, they would park for blocks east of downtown and come into Pop’s for dinner and coffee. There I caught up on the gossip about how the interstate was affecting the locals.
One tale described how a rancher west of town had his modest frame house moved directly into the right-of-way, had it clad in brick, then demanded an extortionate price, which OHD refused to pay. The rancher appealed to Governor Gary who was reported to have acceded to his demands. Hearing of this deal, many owners from El Reno to Sweetwater also refused to sell for the appraised value—preferring instead to go to trial in hopes of obtaining a similar deal.
One owner claimed his parcel downtown had commercial value. Seeing his land under red water from the nearby Washita River after a heavy rain , I snapped a few pictures with my new Graflex 35mm camera. He too went to trial, giving testimony that his land wasn’t in the flood plain. OHD lawyers used my slides to prevail.
Page 2 of 2 - At the time, the heart of the African American community in Clinton was a single East-West street. OHD officials placed the center line of the right-of-way down the center line of their street, effectively wiping out much of their community. Accident? Who knows.
Rumor had it that powerful political forces in Clinton prevailed with state officials to delay I-40 bypassing downtown Clinton for a decade.
Following our move in 1968 to Ann Arbor, Mich., I was to observe the effect of the interstate highway system on Detroit. The interstates relieved congestion by eliminating half its people. Departing residents were those with jobs and cars to commute to them. Those left behind had no jobs, cars, or public transportation. The city was described in this morning’s paper as, “83% African-American, fighting for survival in bankruptcy court, and with residents exasperated by high taxes, poor public services, blight, unemployment, and crime.” * Forty percent of the city’s 139 square miles are back to vacant lots. A hopeful sign: yesterday voters elected a white mayor on the basis of his business ability rather than his party, race or union ties.
Fed-Ex has revived Memphis, making their airport the second busiest in the world and employing 10,000 to move 1.5 million packages each night. Likewise, UPS has created 9 percent of jobs in its hub, Louisville. Both businesses move packages by land over interstates.**
OHD appraisers subtracted the estimated value of an owner’s land after the new highway clipped or severed it from its fair market value before and tried to settle without going to court under the doctrine of eminent domain. Presumably, owners were thus fully paid for the “taking.”
But, an owner forced out of business lost more than his real estate, he lost his or her job, and identity in the community. For every business in the right-of-way who was compensated, there were scores of others outside who were almost as injured by diversion of the traffic outside the community. In Detroit, the interstates effectively took the lives of huge numbers.
• Michael Wallis, “Route 66,” NY: St. Martin’s Press1990. Compliments of Shawnee historian, Dr. W.M. [Bill] Hogan.
• The Economist, Nov.2, 20`13.
• USA Today, Nov. 6, 2013.