Why We Drive 55: The Strange but True Story of America's Interstates

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Feb 14, 2017

An unusual military convoy of 81 vehicles left Washington, D.C., on the morning of July 7, 1919. On board was a future American president, Dwight Eisenhower (then a lieutenant-colonel), and a destination—San Francisco.

The "Motor Truck Train" heads out across America--in 1919.

In some ways, what lay ahead matched the logistic challenges the Army had faced in the just-concluded World War I—moving men and supplies through seas of mud and barely improved roads. The “Motor Truck Train” was to travel 3,242 miles, moving through 11 states in 62 days. They didn’t drive at 52 mph; they made 52 miles a day. The first breakdown came after only 46 miles, in Frederick, Maryland.

The ramrod straight gentleman on the left is future President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The nation's roads were in shocking condition, and crossing the country was an adventure. The first man to accomplish it, Horatio Nelson Jackson (with his dog Bud), took 64 days to make the journey in 1903, and had to replace nearly every part of his Winton touring car along the way.

Add the terrible roads to primitive tire technology and this is how the poor Packard ends up. 

The lessons of his cross-country trip (the roads hadn't improved any since Nelson's time) were to remain with Eisenhower, who later saw the German autobahns when he was Supreme Allied Commander during World War II. When he became president in 1952, Eisenhower at last had the power to do something about our terrible roads.  And it was easy to sell in the "duck and cover" days. Advocates claimed we needed the interstates "in case of atomic attack on our key cities, the road net [would] permit quick evacuation of target areas.” Of course, the idea of such "quick" evacuations was ludicrous, but it sold to the public at the time.

Building the Hollywood Freeway in 1952.

“After seeing the autobahns of modern Germany and knowing the asset those highways were to the Germans, I decided, as President, to put an emphasis on this kind of road building,” said Eisenhower. “The old convoy had started me thinking about good, two-lane highways, but Germany had made me see the wisdom of broader ribbons across the land.”

Vermont's Winooski River Bridge under construction in 1961.

I was born the year Eisenhower took office, and loved Tonka trucks as a kid—I once sat on one in the bathtub! One of my earliest memories is being taken by my parents to see the under-construction I-95, which complemented the Merritt Parkway built by Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration. This was Eisenhower’s legacy—he’d signed the law that created the U.S. Interstate Highway System (selling it as a military necessity) on June 29, 1956.  

The interstate plan in 1970. Note that they called them "defense highways."

Eisenhower launched the interstate system, and it’s named after him. Not surprisingly, the ambitious road project ran into funding problems early on. Kennedy defeated Nixon in 1960, and by 1961 construction was facing cost overruns—and charges of corruption—in the cities it passed through. It was said you could throw a dart at a highway map, and wherever it landed there’d be graft and dirty doings.

They were always dedicating something in those days. This is on I-89 in Vermont.

The Kennedy administration (which fought for funding, including keeping an expiring federal gas tax) set a 1972 target for finishing the highway (with $27 billion in funding through 1971). By the end of 1963, 16,600 miles of highway were open. Building the roads as fast as they could was “the best means we have to combat the carping critics and mudslingers,” said Rex Whitton, the dynamic Federal Highway Administrator.

Building the interstates took longer than anticipated, and the cost overruns were horrendous. I-80 wasn't done until 1986.

With Lyndon Johnson in office, fighting his “War on Poverty,” there was some focus on the fact that many of the accommodations along the new interstates were segregated. Not only that, but the roads went through inner-city neighborhoods, without much concern for the displaced populations. Dan Nichols’ The Roads That Built America quotes a period critic who called it “white men’s roads through black men’s homes.” For some city fathers, building the highways gave them an opportunity for “slum clearance,” which also happened as part of urban renewal.

This is how they got Americans to swallow high gas taxes, circa 1966.

Meanwhile, Lady Bird Johnson was getting heated up by all the junkyards she was seeing along the highways, and she took the lead at the White House Conference on Natural Beauty in 1965. The “America the Beautiful” initiative also took aim at billboards, but the outdoor advertising lobby fought back big time. Still, some highway billboards came down after new laws went into effect in 1970.

I-94 being built. My dad took me to see the trucks.

The system reached a milestone on August 22, 1986, when I-80 (San Francisco to Teaneck, New Jersey) was finally finished as what was then the longest contiguous freeway in the world. This was 120 years after the “Golden Spike” was laid down to mark the completion of the first transcontinental railroad. The interstates were finally declared complete in 1992, but of course there are always additions being proposed to it.

Bud, the first dog across America by car, in 1903.

It’s interesting to note that Rex Whitton, Eisenhower’s right-hand man in building the Interstates, didn’t like driving on them. He became a consultant and retired in 1975, taking up a hobby of antique collecting—avoiding the highways. Whitton said he and his wife enjoyed “driving on the little back roads, keeping a map of each one we travel.” Blue highways, right?

If all else failed, they got out and pushed.

Whitton aside, most Americans see the Interstates as necessary evils, but we’ve got Whitton’s problem made large. Roads built for traveling 60 mph or more mostly crawl along because they’re carrying more traffic than ever. Perhaps we need another big national mandate—this one to get people off the highways and onto public transportation.

Americans loved to celebrate big infrastructure projects back in the '50s. Here are two highly period films:

And then there's...

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