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History of the US Highway System


In this book, we will follow the history of US roads from the Horse and Wagon Trails to Private Toll Roads, Named Highways, State and US Highways and the Interstate Highway System. We will also look at the impact that the US Highway System had on America, both good and bad.

We will compare three highways, one that remained a US Highway, one where an Interstate Highway replaced a US Highway, bypassing most of the small towns along the US Highway and one that changed from a US Highway to a State Highway.

We will also look at the history of two of the most famous highways in America, The Lincoln Highway and Route 66.

Below is just a small part of what the book will cover. This book has over 130 pages with dozens of pictures and maps.


Evolution of the Highway:

The earliest trails between towns started turning into Horse and Wagon Trails in the middle 1800’s, some would become Toll Roads. The bicycle movement of the 1890’s brought a lot of attention to the movement for better roads. By the early 1930’s, many new roads were built connecting the small towns and cities across America.

In 1926, The US Numbered Highway System was established and there would soon be a consistent highway numbering system across the US, and in 1956, the Interstate Highway System was started. To understand how the Interstate Highway System came about, you must understand where roads began. Below you will find details of the progress.


Horse and Wagon Trails, pre 1910:

The earliest roads were horse and wagon trails that connected the large and small towns across America. In 1884, Thomas Stevens rode a Highwheel Bicycle from San Francisco, CA to Boston, MA in 105 days. In 1903, Horatio Nelson Jackson became the first documented person to drive an automobile from San Francisco, CA to New York City, NY following existing dirt roads, trails and railroad beds. His trip was documented by the press and a video exists today of parts of his trip.


Horatio Jackson in 1903

Photo Credit: Wikimedia


Private Toll Roads, 1800’s - 1920:

In the early days of roads, it was common for enterprising individuals to form a company, build a road, usually dirt and charge people and wagons a toll to use the road. The first major toll road, called a turnpike was the Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike in Pennsylvania that had a layer of crushed stone for the road surface. However most of the early toll roads were local dirt roads.

A good example of this was Lake County in Northern California where prior to the early 1890’s every road into the county was a private toll road. Between the 1890’s and the 1920’s all of the toll roads were either closed or taken over by the county or state of California.


The Bicycle Movemen​t and How Helped Roads in the 1890’s:

Today we think roads were built for vehicles, but that was not always the case. Bicycles started making an appearance in the US in the 1880 as the Highwheel or Ordinary Bicycle (large front wheel/small rear wheel) became popular with young men.

On April 22, 1884 Thomas Stevens started a cross country ride from San Francisco, CA heading for Boston MA on August 4, 1884 after riding approximately 3,700 miles over wagon trails, railroads, cannel pathways and public roads. He became the first person to ride a bicycle across America.

In the 1890’s, the Safety Bicycle (two wheel the same size, similar to modern bicycles) became popular with both men and women. At that time, most roads, even in cities were still dirt and rutted and made for horses and wagons, not for bicycles.

This created a movement for better roads and soon the rides started forming an organization called the League of American Wheelmen or LAW. The idea was to make roads benefit all users including farmers, working people and city residents and get politicians on board with the idea for better roads. This was very successful and legislatures in the eastern states started providing money for better roads. This eventually led to the passage of the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916, where congress provided funds to states for road building for the first time.


Thomas Stevens


Named Highways, 1912 – early 1930’s:

Prior to 1912, many roads had unofficial names, often being called the name of the towns that it connected. In 1912, that changed with the idea to build a cross country “highway” between San Francisco, CA and New York City, NY. This new highway would be called the Lincoln Highway.

The Lincoln Highway was one of the earliest transcontinental highways for automobiles across the United States of America. Conceived in 1912 by Indiana entrepreneur Carl G. Fisher, and formally dedicated October 31, 1913. Most of the construction was finished in the late 1920’s and the Lincoln Highway ran coast-to-coast from Times Square in New York City west to Lincoln Park in San Francisco, originally through 13 states New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California.

In 1915, the "Colorado Loop" was removed, and in 1928, a realignment relocated the Lincoln Highway through the northern tip of West Virginia. The first officially recorded length of the entire Lincoln Highway in 1913 was 3,389 miles. Over the years, the road was improved and numerous realignments were made and by 1924 the highway had been shortened to 3,142 miles.

The Lincoln Highway was gradually replaced with numbered designations after the establishment of the U.S. Numbered Highway System in 1926, with most of the route becoming part of U.S. Route 30 from Pennsylvania to Wyoming, and US Routes 40 and 50 in the west. After the Interstate Highway System was formed in the 1950s, the former alignments of the Lincoln Highway were largely superseded by Interstate 80 as the primary coast-to-coast route from the New York City area to San Francisco.

West of Fallon NV, the Lincoln Highway split into 2 different routes to San Francisco. The southern route roughly followed what is now US Route 50 through Carson City, NV, Sacramento, CA and on to San Francisco. The northern route from Fallon NV, mostly followed what is now Interstate 80 and US Route 40 through Reno, NV, Sacramento, CA, Oakland, CA and San Francisco.

After the Lincoln Highway, many other named highways came along, such as the Yellowstone Trail, The River Road, the Ukiah-Tahoe Highway and many others.


Donner Summit/Rainbow Bridge

on the Lincoln Highway in California


The Plank Road, 1915 – 1926:

A “Plank Road” is simply a road made out of wooden planks or heavy timbers. This idea in the United States goes back to the 1840’s when wagon trails were built. Plank roads were used in areas of mud or soft soils where normal dirt roads would not hold up for use by heavy wagons.

In 1912 a road was proposed from San Diego, CA to Phoenix, AZ across the Algodones Dunes in Southern California. This was an area of shifting sand dunes where a standard road would not work. In 1915, Ed Fletcher, a highway builder came up with the idea to use a plank road for vehicles across the dunes.

In February 1915, the first planks were put in place. This early version of the Plank Road was built with two parallel planks, each about 25 inches wide, one for the left side wheels and another for the right side wheels. The 6.5 mile long plank road was finished in April of 1915. The road was considered a success and in June of 1915 the California State Highway Commission assumed responsibility for the Plank Road.

This new road took a lot of maintenance to keep the planks in alignment and the road passable. In 1916, a new version of the road was commissioned using 8 foot wide prefabricated wooden sections of road with an area 16 feet wide every 1000 feet for passing traffic going the opposite direction. By 1925, the California State Highway Commission learned how to build a paved road through the dunes and in August 1926 a new paved highway across the dunes was opened. This road later became US Highway 80 and is now called Interstate Highway 8.

When the new paved highway opened in 1926, the Plank Road was left abandoned. By the 1970, only fragmented sections of the original road remained and a group of volunteers started collecting remaining pieces and reassembling them into a continuous segment. Today you can see a reconstructed section just south of Interstate Highway 8.


The Original Plank Road

Photo Credit: Southern AZ Guide


US Highway Numbering System – Starting in 1926:

The U.S. Numbered Highway System was established in 1926. The numbering system followed a grid by generally using even numbered routes running east to west with low numbers starting in the north and odd numbered routes running north to south with low numbers starting in the east.

In 1956, the Interstate Highway System was formed and followed a similar numbering system except low odd numbered routes started in the west and low even numbered routes started in the south.


Modern Toll Roads – 1930 to Present Day:

Modern Toll Roads are Turnpikes, Bridges and Tunnels. In 1940, the Pennsylvania Turnpike opened, that was the first “Super Highway Turnpike” to be built. In 1937, the Golden Gate Bridge opened across the Golden Gate entry into San Francisco Bay and started charging 50 cents for toll, each direction.

Today, most toll roads are in the eastern US, but toll bridges and tunnels are everywhere. There are also toll express lanes on some interstate highways in congested areas. Most tolls today use some type of electronic collection system and some do not even have an option to pay cash.


Toll Both

Photo Credit: The Wall Street Journal


Start of the Freeway System – 1940 to 1956:

The first controlled access Freeway in the United States was the Arroyo Seco Freeway between Pasadena, CA and Los Angeles, CA opening in 1940. Shortly after World War 2 ended this new philosophy in design of bypassing cities and towns with controlled access using overpasses with on and off ramps and no at grade crossing start to gain momentum.

The early Freeways were in metropolitan areas and in most cases were by-passes around cities and towns. Up to this point in time, the philosophy was to connect cities and towns and the highway was often the Main Street of the town, with the stores along Main Street and houses along streets each side of Main Street.

By the early 1950’s, this philosophy was starting to change and now have freeways even between towns. Drivers would get on the Freeway and travel at higher speeds only needing to pull off into the towns for gas, food and lodging.

The Interstate Highway System starting in 1956 changed this philosophy even more with the design intent to connect cities and towns, but always by-pass the local roads


The Interstate Highway System – 1956 to Present Day:

How it all Started:

In the summer of 1919, an Army Convoy called the First Transcontinental Motor Convoy left Washington DC for a 3,200 mile road trip to San Francisco. This trip included approximately 80 vehicles. The purpose of this trip was to road test the vehicles and see how difficult it would be to move a military convoy across the US on existing roads. The trip took 62 days, averaging a little over 52 miles per day.

A Lt. Col. Named Dwight Eisenhower was assigned to this convoy as an observer. His report to the Army leaders noted the poor condition of roads and bridges in many areas, mostly the Midwest and Western sections of road. He noted that some sections of the Lincoln Highway in Utah and Nevada were in such poor condition that an investigation should be done before additional government funds should be spent.

The Early Years:

By 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt was president and he understood the importance of good roads and suggested three east-west and six north-south routes. The concept of the Interstate Highway System started from two reports to the US Congress. In 1938, The Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) approved a report suggesting no more than three east-west and three north-south “super highways”. The Toll Roads and Free Roads report of 1939 would be based in the 1938 information.

In 1944, The Interregional Highways Report was published. These reports recommended construction of what the 1939 report called a “system of direct interregional highways, with all necessary connections through and around cities, designed to meet the requirements of the national defense in time of war and the needs of a growing peacetime traffic of long range”. The Public Roads Administration (PRA) in 1946 was responsible for formulating an interstate highway system based on recommendation from the states. A year later, a 37,681 mile system including urban thoroughfares and urban bypasses was approved.

President Roosevelt started the New Deal, a series of programs designed to help put people back to work following the Great Depression. Some of these programs did supply money for highway work, but that was mostly for repair and smaller improvements, not new roads.

In 1944, The Federal-Aid Highway Act was approved. This Act provided $225 million a year for new highways and another $150 million a year for secondary/feeder roads. This money was never actually put into road construction, it was placed into accounts of the US Treasury for Interstate Highways. The money was not spent until passage of The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956.

Major Funding Work Begins:

In 1953, Dwight Eisenhower, the Lt. Col. Observer on the 1919 First Transcontinental Motor Convoy was President of the United States of America and by this time his vision was a network of new highways crossing America north to south and east to west. He would later persuade Congress to enact the 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act creating what we now call the Interstate Highway System. The First Transcontinental Motor Convoy and his years in Germany and seeing the Autobahns during World War II gave him the opportunity to see what needed to be done in the US.

Prior to Eisenhower becoming President, The Public Roads Administration (PRA) along with the American Association of State Highway Officials approved design standards for what would become the Interstate Highway System. These standards were approved in 1945 and did not call for a uniform design for the entire system, but for uniformity for conditions such as traffic, population, topography and other factors. It did not call for four lanes with limited access at all locations.

In July of 1954, Eisenhower’s plan was presented. The plan would involve each level of Government (Federal, State, County and City) to contribute to upgrading the Nation’s entire road network over a 10 year period. In 1955, the estimated cost of the new Interstate highway was $25 billion and in 1956, The Federal-Aid Highway Act was passed by Congress. This Act increased the total miles to 41,000 and authorized $25 billion per year for fiscal years 1957 through 1969. This Act included the money that was not spent from the 1944 The Federal-Aid Highway Act. Also in 1956, The Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) and The American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO) agreed to some additional design standards for the Interstate Highway System. All cross traffic would go over or under the route and consist of divided highways with four or more 12 foot wide lanes. In sparsely settled rural areas where traffic volume would be low, the standard would be relaxed, with at-grade crossings permitted in some cases. Two lane sections with one lane in each direction would be built on one side of the right-of-way so additional lanes could be added when traffic was warranted.

Highways would be designed for speeds of 50 MPH in mountain terrain, 60 MPH in rolling terrain and 70 MPH in flat terrain. Bridges and overpasses would be built with at least 14 feet vertical clearance.

Interstate Highway Construction Begins:

The first two projects started in 1956 on I-70 with 3.1 miles in St. Charles County, MO and 8 miles just outside of Topeka KS.

Also in 1956, construction started on a 7 mile long test section. The pavement and bridge designs largely follow the results of testing by the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO). The test section included 7 miles of two lane pavements and 6 loops. Half was concrete and half was asphalt. The over 800 test sections used a range of sub-base, base and surface thickness and included several short bridge spans. Test traffic started in October of 1958 using both light weight and heavy weight vehicles. Testing ended in November 1960. The AASHO testing is a landmark in highway and bridge design. The straight sections of the test sections were not wasted, as they became part of I-80 in Illinois


By January of 1961 when Eisenhower left office, 10,440 miles on Interstate Highway were open to traffic at a cost of over $10 billion. 75% of the originally planned highway still remained to be built.

On October 14, 1992 the Interstate Highway System was declared finished with the completion of I-70 in Colorado, however it was not really finished. There were still two gaps, one on I-95 in New Jersey that was not completed until 2018 and another on I-70 in Pennsylvania that has still not been completed.

Today the Interstate Highway System is 46,876 miles long and includes all 50 states. It will never be completely finished as new connector routes will be needed as the population increases over the years.


Interstate Highways in Hawaii:

Hawaii has 55 miles of interstate highway all on the island of Oahu. Interstate Highway H-1 built in 1959 is the longest at just over 27 miles, H-2 built in 1976 is 8.3 miles and H-201 built 1989 at 4 miles is a short-cut for H-1. The newest highway is H-3, built in 1997, adding 15.3 miles to the Interstate Highway System in Hawaii. These highways were built to the same standards as those built on the continental United States or as known in Hawaii as the Mainland.

Since highways in Hawaii do not connect to other states, they were named with an “H” in place of “I” as on the mainland. Highway H-3 has a pair of tunnels each just under one mile long.


Interstate Highways in Alaska:

Alaska has 1,082 miles of interstate highway all in the area between Anchorage and Fairbanks. The longest is Interstate Highway A-1 at just under 657 miles long. Unlike Interstate Highways in other locations, much of these were not constructed to the Interstate Highway Standards as they were in other states. Many are small rural two lane undivided highways. This was allowed for Interstate Highways in Alaska and Puerto Rico. Since highways in Alaska do not connect to other states, they were named with an “A” in place of “I” as on the continental United States


Interstate Highways in Puerto Rico:​

Puerto Rico has 250 miles of interstate highway that make a ring around the island. Unlike Interstate highways in other locations, much of these were not constructed to the Interstate Highway Standards as they were in the states. This was allowed for Interstate Highways in Alaska and Puerto Rico. Since Puerto Rico is a US Territory and highways in Puerto Rico do not connect to other states, they were named with “PR” in place of “I” as on the continental United States.

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