Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


There have been three major road-building movements in the United States. The first good roads movement was for water-bound macadam roads funded by state and local government bonds. This extended from roughly 1880 to 1921 and was confined to the northeastern states and California. The second movement, from 1921 to 1956, saw massive federal funding using taxes raised from gasoline sales to build a nationwide network of bituminous macadam and concrete two-lane roads. This movement had a tremendous effect in the Great Plains. The third movement, which extended nationwide federal funding to high-speed interstate highways, began in 1956 and is essentially now completed.

The first good roads movement had two periods. From 1880 to 1900, farmers granges, the U.S. Post Office, and the organization of bicyclists known by the charming name of the League of American Wheelmen agitated for farm-to-market roads. These were constructed of graded rock bound together with water on the principles laid down in the late eighteenth century by Scottish engineer John Loudon McAdam. Macadam roads lowered the costs of getting farm produce to local railheads, allowed rural free delivery, and made bicycle tourism possible. After 1900 automobilists proved an even more powerful lobby than bicyclists. The first automobiles, imported and expensive, were purchased by wealthy easterners who soon influenced road development, diverting it from farm-to-market roads. As early as 1910, the suburban, intercity, and touring networks of highways funded in states such as Massachusetts and New York were clearly being shaped by elite automobile owners.

During the mid-1910s, automobiles severely damaged the water-bound macadam roads. Trucks, also coming into wide use by the midteens, added to the problem because of their much greater weight and power. A surface was needed that could resist the torque of wheels turned by internal combustion engines. California, which came late to the first good roads movement, proved that concrete and bituminous macadam highways held up far better than the early water-bound macadam, although they were considerably more expensive.

With federal funding the second good roads movement extended to the entire country between 1921 and 1956 the lessons learned during the first. A 1914 map showed that none of the Plains states had any improved highways. In 1921 federal funding of the good roads program provided jobs for World War I veterans returning to rural areas. This movement had a huge and enduring impact on mobility in the Great Plains, especially when combined with the rapid appearance of ever-cheaper automobiles and professional engineering of the road network. Henry Ford was mass-producing his Model T by 1913, prices had fallen below $300 by the early 1920s, and there was a dealer in most county seats in the country by the late 1920s. In 1919 Thomas H. Macdonald, a Colorado native, left his position as chief engineer of the Iowa Highway Commission to become chief of the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads. The bureau embodied the best Progressive Era politics: centralized standards set by professional engineers and experts but localized decision making with regard to the resulting network.

Macdonald's management of public spending during the 1920s and the Great Depression heavily favored rural, less-populated states and renewed the first movement's emphasis on farm-to-market roads. In 1924 Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming only had 12 percent of the country's improved roads by mileage, but by 1939 they had 21 percent. Yet in 1938 these states had only 6.5 percent of the country's registered motor vehicles and generated only 5.5 percent of the fuel tax receipts, which were the major source of funding for good roads. By 1939 these seven states had decent statewide networks of two-lane hardsurfaced roads, thanks to the good roads movement.

Peter J. Hugill Texas A&M University

Hugill, Peter J. "Good Roads and the Automobile in the United States 1880–1929." Geographical Review 72 (1982): 327–49.

Seely, Bruce. Building the American Highway System: Engineers as Policy Makers. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987.

Wixom, Charles W. ARBA Pictorial History of Roadbuilding. Washington DC: American Road Builders Association, 1975.

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