Life Is a Highway


I took my kids on a college visit last week. As we drove down the highway, I began wondering about the interstate system. I knew that the first transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869 at a spike-driving ceremony in Promontory Summit, Utah. (Although the railroad would not be a continuous line until 1870 because in 1869 passengers still had to complete one small portion of the journey by stage coach, but I digress!) Nevertheless, by the late 1800s, people could crisscross the country by train, but the train’s heyday was short-lived. The American love affair with the automobile also began around the turn of the century, and the people needed roads to drive on. So when was the first transcontinental interstate completed and where did the construction crews drive the proverbial golden spike for the interstate?

Get Your Kicks

Route 66 (The Mother Road) was one of the original US highways (work completed in 1926), but it only meandered from Chicago, Illinois, to Santa Monica, California. The Lincoln Highway actually was a transcontinental road, and it will celebrate its 100th birthday in October 2013. A motorist could leave New York City, drive over 3,000 miles along its route, and arrive in San Francisco. One traveler did make such a trip in 1919. Dwight D. Eisenhower, then a lieutenant colonel in the army, joined the first Army Transcontinental Motor Convoy. It was supposed to be a reliability test of the road and the army’s vehicles. Eisenhower noted that “Delays sadly were to be the order of the day.” At times the convoy rolled along at less than six miles per hour, equipment broke down, road conditions were in turns dusty or muddy, and many of the bridges were in poor condition, collapsing under the weight of the convoy. The trip took sixty-two days. Eisenhower would later compare that trip to his experiences in World War II Germany, where he witnessed the Nazis (and later the Allies) easily moving troops along the more modern Autobahn.

King of the Road

Convinced that a modern highway system was need for national defense, postwar President Eisenhower championed the law that would create the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. Of course other presidents, notably Franklin Roosevelt, had studied the idea as well, but Eisenhower helped figure out how to finance the project, by using Federal gas taxes and other similar sources of revenue to create the funds needed to actually pay for the US government’s share of the construction costs. The act also set national standards for the road construction, including width of lanes (12 feet) and shoulders (10 feet).

Hit the Road Jack   

So once there was funding, where was the first road built? There are actually three states that make a claim: Missouri was the first to sign contracts ordering work under the new act, and a section of what is now I-70 in St. Charles County was the first to receive the Federal funds.  Kansas, on the other hand, was the first to complete a road (also a section of I-70) with the Federal money (although construction had already started when they received the funding). Pennsylvania, however, claims that their turnpike was the first interstate because a large section of it opened in 1940, well before the 1956 act!

So, which state was first is a matter of interpretation. What about completion? Surprisingly, the first transcontinental east-west interstate was not completed until August 1986—thirty years after Eisenhower signed the act! This was Interstate 80, and fittingly, I-80 was also completed in Utah, but this time near Salt Lake City. Winding from New York City to San Francisco, the odometer of a car making this trek would clock just over 2,900 miles—making I-80, at the time of completion, the world’s longest completed freeway. The completion of I-10, I-90, and I-70 would follow, although critics argue I-70 is still not complete as it is missing exchanges.

The Long and Winding Road

You may have noticed that all of these even-numbered roads run east-west. What about the north-south interstates? These odd-numbered interstates include I-95, the major East Coast north-south route, which is the interstate that traverses the most states (sixteen). Despite that feat, I-95 isn’t scheduled to be complete until at least 2018, as there is a nine-mile gap between Pennsylvania and New Jersey! There is another interstate oddity to mention: Hawaii has three interstates (H-1, H-2, and H-3) all on the island of Oahu. If the roads aren’t even inter-island, how can they be interstates? They get the designation because they were completed with interstate funds.

In all, more than 47,000 miles of roadway make up the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highway today. I think Eisenhower would be pleased to note an east-west cross-country journey can now be completed in less than fifty hours. Road trip, anyone?

Text: © Rebecca Bigelow; Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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