The book about America’s highway system I’ve been looking for!

Big Roads, by Earl Swift

Whether it be in the Middle West where I lived for half of my career as aggressive cyclist or the West where I am filling out the second half, I love the old roads, the easy-going, paved ribbons that connect the cultures of ordinary Americans.

They follow the terrain along the streams and around mountains, pass by farms and factories, and march straightforwardly through the center of villages and towns. Along these roads cyclists can find the eateries and hostelries that give juice to their travels. They hear the many accents of American speech and see the colors of American people.

For several years I have looked for a book that tells the story of America’s roads, especially those that for the most part are quiet, with little motorized traffic, and pleasing to two-wheeled travelers like me. I’m especially interested in arterials from an earlier era, such as U.S. 40 from St. Clairesville, Ohio, through Indiana, and on to Vandalia, Illinois, or U.S. 60 from Sun City West, Arizona, through Wickenburg and then west almost to the California border.

Finally, unexpectedly, I found the book I’d been looking for in a new book display in the Kenton branch of the Multnomah County Public Library (just around the corner from the statue of Paul Bunyan that fascinated my children during our many car trips between grandmothers’ houses many years ago).

I say unexpectedly, because this book advertises itself as something very different from the book on old roads that I’ve been seeking.

The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways.

Looking inside, you find something far more comprehensive than this blurb on the jacket describes. Author Earl Swift has written exactly what I’ve hoped for, starting with the way that bicyclists pioneered the development of hard surfaced, all weather roads. He describes the process by which enthusiasts worked to create local roads that would serve the needs of small town America.

Then came people with a broader vision who developed routes that traveled longer distances: the Cumberland Road, the Lincoln Highway, the Sunshine Route. The author gives interesting biographical sketches of career bureaucrats, each of them a social visionary and engineer mixed together, who created the system of highways that joined the country together.

I now have some sense of the hard logic and dogged bureaucratic persistence that finally established the numbering system of the old federal highway system, even numbers for east-west roads, with the numbers getting larger from north to south, and odd numbers from east to west, with small numbers in the east. How else could it be, people might be asking today. Swift describes how hard it was for the highway engineers to win the battle.

He also explains how difficult it was to develop a course of action that apportioned decisions and financial responsibilities to the states, the federal government, and independent societies. Looking back on them now, the decisions seem as though nothing else could make sense, but during the decades of decision, passions were hot and decisions were hard to reach.

One of the most interesting aspects of Swift’s story is the way that roads change reality. They are designed to accommodate long-existing social patterns. In short order, however, the new roads allow new patterns of interaction, which often cause the new roads to be overwhelmed. They have a way of destroying communities and creating new ones.

One of the best things about this book is that it gives me facts to fuel my growing sense of alienation from big roads, humongous bridges, and the fossil-fueled way of life that Americans take for granted.

Earl Swift, historian and author, thank you for a fine book.

4 Responses to The book about America’s highway system I’ve been looking for!

  1. Paul Freeman says:

    I have a suggestion. If you haven’t thought much about it, consider doing some trips up in to Montana sometime. There are some maginificant roads to take, and many historical places to visit. Oh, and while I’m thinking of it: “Why is it so hard for a North Dakotan to get accross the state of Montana on a bicycle?” Answer: “Because there’s too many places they have to stop and remove the chains!” (ya know the many mountain ranges and all).

    • Paul, in 1976 I bicycled through a corner of Montana, with Sharon and a friend. We traveled east into Missoula, and then to Hamilton, Wisdom, and West Yellowstone, through the park and then eastward through Wyoming. In more recent years, I have biked around Bozeman and Helena. You are right. There are interesting roads in Montana. Keith

  2. eirenetheou says:

    In the past month, traveling from Indiana to Texas and returning, we encountered for the first time many green signs that announced “Eisenhower Interstate Highway System.” i was reminded that these concrete “superhighways” were funded and constructed in the 1950s as the National Defense Interstate Highways, embracing the idea that weapons (chiefly nuclear) and military personnel could be moved quickly, eluding nuclear attack. In that era many “improvements” and benefits to society were justified and financed as essential for the “national defense.” My good friend earned a PhD in comparative literature with a year’s study in France under a National Defense Education Act fellowship.

    Perhaps we could achieve a truly useful health care system for everybody in the United States if we could persuade the Plutocrats that it is essential for “Homeland Security.”

    May God have mercy.


    • According to Swift, Eisenhower was connected to the development of the interstate system, but probably deserves less credit than he receives. The national defense justification was the cover for pushing through a massive public works project long dreamed of and often set aside. Although your idea about promoting a national health program along similar lines is interesting, I suspect that this will not happen. The long history of our health care industry and the various ideologies of self interest is an interesting parallel to the highway industry.

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