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From Hearst to Pancho Villa --- Seeing the Need for National Roads

Can it be that the Interstate Highway System was conceived, as legend has it, by President Franklin D. Roosevelt doodling three lines east and west and three lines north and south on a U.S. map? Whether or not this doodle was the beginning of cross-country motoring as we know it, most historians agree that when the Federal Highway Act of 1938 authorized a feasibility study of three east-west and three north-south national highways, the idea of superhighways crisscrossing the country was not new. A federally-funded, national road system had been proposed as early as 1906 by Senator William Randolph Hearst.

A century before Hearst’s time, the National Road from Cumberland, Md. to Wheeling, W.Va. (then Virginia), began construction in 1803 as part of the legislation admitting Ohio to the Union. Funds amounting to 2 percent of the revenues derived from the sale of federal lands in Ohio were to be set aside for roads, part of it specifically for the National Road.

The first segment was opened to Wheeling in 1818. Plans to expand it to Jefferson City, Mo. and Vandalia, Ill. were developed, but nothing more than rough grading was accomplished and the road was never put into service. Issues surrounding the ability to raise revenue to maintain the road were its downfall. When a proposal to place toll booths on the section were deemed clearly unconstitutional, the federal government ceded the road back to the states beginning in 1836. For many decades, the federal government avoided building roads through or within a state except on federally owned land, although the topic was hot conversation for those connected to the Department of Agriculture’s Office of Road Inquiry (precursor to the Bureau of Public Roads). In 1897 the Yearbook of the Department of Agriculture stated “...It would greatly increase the value of the interstate roads and stimulate a general public interest in road building if some of these lines (object lesson roads) could be so connected or combined as to form in a measure, a national system, such as was planned and partly built by the Government in the early days of this century. The most effective lines that could be adopted for this purpose would be an Atlantic and a Pacific Coast line, joined by a continental highway extending from Washington to San Francisco.”

The public and majority of legislators were yet to be swayed on the necessity of such a road system, and even more so, who would pay for it if it were to be built. The Post Roads Act of 1912 was the forerunner of the first federal-aid to the states in 1916. An effort to avoid fights over pork-barrel funds was thwarted when the Federal Aid Act of 1916 was passed with no provision for a system of roads, no definite standards of design and construction and was virtually wide open at both ends (adapted from comments by E.W. James, employee of the Office of Road Inquiry).

Meanwhile in the western U.S., the need to get roads out of the mud became perfectly clear to General Pershing as he chased Pancho Villa back to Mexico. This 1916 excursion was the first use of motorized equipment in actual battle conditions. While the success of the 2,000 vehicles deployed for the campaign lay strewn along 200 miles of mud roads in various states of breakdown was underwhelming, military planners saw the solution to questions about logistics in transporting American troops overseas to World War 1.

Previously, all U.S. forces had traveled either on foot or horseback. Transporting horses and their fodder overseas was not seen as logistically possible, so a radical decision was made to motorize. Detroit produced thousands of trucks, but embarrassment set in when there were no adequate roads to get those trucks to harbors where ships were waiting to carry them to our boys in Europe. Trains of flat cars had to be brought in and the trucks loaded on them just to get around the segments where roads were impassable. It became obvious that a systems of roads had to be built.

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