Book Review: The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways by Earl Swift

The Big Roads

The Big Roads by Earl Swift

Driving involves three equally important elements:  the car, the driver and the road.  Enthusiasts invariably focus on just the first two but take away the third, the road, and you go nowhere.  It seems painfully obvious to say that but the road is the driving element we take most for granted and yet, in many ways, its history is more interesting than that of the automobile itself – and much older.

In The Big Roads author Earl Swift recounts the history of the development of the Interstate Highway system in the U.S., examining its political and social implications as well its planning and engineering.  The story begins not in the 1950s when the federal legislation which created the system was finally passed, nor in the 1920s when the concept of an interstate network of highways (the U.S. Highway System) was first implemented but in 1874 with the birth of Carl Graham Fisher, one of three men around whom Swift’s story revolves.

Author Earl Swift

Author Earl Swift

Fisher began his career in transportation when, with his brother, he opened a bicycle shop in Indianapolis in the late 19th century.  When the automobile came on the scene around the turn of the century, Fisher embraced it with a passion.  He created a company to manufacture acetylene headlights for early cars, opened what is believed to be the first auto dealership in the U.S., was a partner in a race track that would become the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and is the father of the Lincoln Highway, the Dixie Highway and Miami Beach.

The second figure that Swift focuses on is Thomas McDonald, a civil engineer who spent his entire career as a highway official, first with the Iowa State Highway Commission and later with the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads.  He was instrumental not only in the improvement of U.S. roads but also with the planning of a nationwide network of highways and setting many of the engineering specifications for all highways.

The third man at the center of The Big Roads is Frank Turner, a protégé of McDonald’s and the chief architect of the Interstate Highway System.  Turner’s early experiences as an engineer building roads in Alaska and the Philippines served him well in his later role as America’s chief highway engineer and his patience and persistence were instrumental in shaping the public policy and the legislation that would be required to make this enormous public works project happen.

Roads existed long before the invention of the automobile, of course, but once a network of railroads was built in the mid-nineteenth century, long distance travel by roads made little sense.  A trip from my home town to the state capital, a distance of just 50 miles, would have taken the better part of a day – at least – by horse and buggy on roads that were rough and dusty as best and in wet weather were a nearly impassable morass of muck.  As the author recounts: “The routes out of most any town in America were ‘wholly unclassable, almost impassable, scarcely jackassable,’ as folks said then . . . .”

Just before the turn of the century a popular new conveyance hit the scene and drove a call for better roads – and it wasn’t the automobile.  The safety bicycle took the country by storm but owners soon discovered that with the poor condition of most roads there was nowhere to safely and comfortably ride.  The clamor for better roads became a national political movement, The Good Roads Movement, a coalition of cycling enthusiasts, public officials and business interests lobbying for public monies to be spent on improving roads.  Standing in the way, initially, were farmers who, according to Swift, “viewed good roads and the taxes they required as schemes favoring big-city dandies on their bikes.”  The buy-in for farmers came with the introduction of Rural Free Delivery, a service which the Post Office could only offer if the roads were improved.

Concurrent with these events was the introduction of the automobile and as its popularity grew so did the need for better roads.  In 1903, a few months before the Wright brothers historic flight, Horatio Nelson Jackson, along with his mechanic Sewall Crocker and a dog named Bud, left San Francisco on the first successful transcontinental motor trip.  They reached New York City 63 days later and became national heroes.

Almost immediately the need for a nationwide network of good highways became apparent, at least to some.  Up to that point, though, there was no public policy in place for federal support of such an initiative and creating that policy would be a task almost as monumental as the construction of the Interstate Highway System itself.

Highway engineers such as McDonald and Turner were often dismayed that decisions regarding highway construction, routing and funding became such hotly contested political issues but these were uncharted areas of public policy and the only way to forge such policy was in the cauldron of politics.  Some of those decisions would also have social implications as freeways in some cities were routed right through neighborhoods, ripping them apart and uprooting thousands of families.

In other cases the ideal engineering solutions would prove to be aesthetic nightmares.  Swift cites the example of San Francisco’s Embarcadero Freeway which he calls “a double-decker eyesore that separated the city from its famed waterfront . . . .”

We are now living with the results of that history and those decisions and, for better or worse, will be for a long time.  The Interstate Highway System is a mixed bag of pluses and minuses.  By connecting almost every major and minor city in the country, it has facilitated interstate commerce and contributed to the expansion of the American economy, but its construction also destroyed viable neighborhoods in many cities and has homogenized our culture into a bland compote of fast food restaurants, convenience stores and motels.

I-94 opening

From The Big Roads

In an interview after the book was released, Swift described the Interstate Highway System as almost a country unto itself, isolated from the world in which most of live.  In the introduction to the book he describes a cross-country road trip he took with his daughter and friend of hers.  He followed the route of the Lincoln Highway as much as possible on the west-bound trip and drove Interstate Highways on the return trip.  When he returned home he was surprised to see that while he had taken hundreds of pictures only a handful were taken on days when he was on Interstates.

Still, Swift isn’t particularly judgemental. His book lays out the history of this greatest of public works projects in a fairly matter-of-fact style and he keeps it engaging by focusing the story on the figures who were central to the development of our highways.  He explores their personal lives, their hopes and their struggles and presents them as the human beings that they were.

Author Earl Swift has had a long career as a journalist, working for newspapers in St. Louis, Anchorage and Norfolk, Va., and to The Big Roads he brings considerable experience and skill.  The book is exhaustively researched and is a story extremely well told.  Any gearhead worth his Valvoline should have at least a basic knowledge of the history of American highways.  The Big Roads is the perfect place to start.

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