Wednesday, February 22, 2012

BANKHEAD HIGHWAY, BROADWAY OF AMERICA

By Caroline Clemmons

On this blog we talk about all the things that opened the West for settlement and expansion. I have a new method to add to those mentioned before -- the first intercontinental highway.



 The American obsession with the automobile began shortly before the turn of the 20th century and mushroomed thereafter. In Texas where I live, the first auto excursion is widely believed to have been that run in October 1899 by Edward H. R. Green and George P. Dorris over a rutted dirt road between Terrell and Dallas. This is not a great distance, but I wouldn’t want to race it on a dirt road! By 1902, auto races were a featured attraction of the State Fair of Texas. In 1903 the first coast-to-coast auto excursion was run between San Francisco and New York City.

1905 Ford Model F
In 1905 the Ford Motor Company produced 1,599 autos; two years later it built 14,887. And Garland, Texas, was as much a victim of the auto fascination as any other population in America. In August 1911, the Garland News named at least 21 Garland (a small town near Dallas) men who were proud owners of new automobiles.

America’s roads were not prepared to accommodate the automobile. Most were rutted wagon trails at best, alternately muddy or dusty. Even before the advent of the automobile, bicycle enthusiasts as early as the 1880s had begun to campaign for road improvement. By the turn of the 20th century, automobile clubs began taking the lead in the so-called Good Roads Movement. Eventually state and local entities grew increasingly supportive of the improvement of rural roads in an effort to boost rural economies and to help stem the migration of the farm population to the cities.

Since I live in Texas, I first became aware of the portion of the Bankhead Highway that runs through my area. Embarrassing as it is to admit, I didn’t realize it was a nationwide highway until a man was featured on the news because he was documenting in photos all the remaining sites along the highway, one of which was in the town nearest me. I decided to look up the details.

In 1911 and 1912 the Texas legislature voted some $5 million in bonds for rural road improvement. Early in 1913 the state legislature passed a bill providing for counties and cities to issue their own road bonds. Soon thereafter Texas governor O. B. Colquitt proclaimed November 5 and 6, 1913, to be "Good Roads Days," acknowledging that the Good Roads Movement promised great progress for the state. Local authorities across the state complained that short of the proclamation, the state was not coming forth with much help in building better roads. Not everyone thought a program of road improvement was a good idea. A group of farmers insisted that it would primarily benefit the "automobilists" and bring about increases in property taxes and farm rents.

The Good Roads Movement was increasingly successful in gaining support. Groups were organized to lobby lawmakers and local leaders, holding road conventions and disseminating published materials on the economic benefits of better roads. In 1913 the first coast-to-coast improved route, the Lincoln Highway, was pieced together by a Good Roads organization successfully convincing counties and cities to improve linked existing routes with their jurisdictions. Because the cooperation of these independent authorities was in most cases purely voluntary and their funding inconsistent, the quality of the improvements and maintenance could be piecemeal and undependable.

The John H. Bankhead National Highway was one of the earliest American auto trails. It connects the nation's capital, Washington, D.C., and San Diego, California on the Pacific. The Bankhead Highway was an important transcontinental route, and its name still appears on many roads to this day.

The Bankhead Highway was named for Good Roads promoter John Hollis Bankhead. John Hollis Bankhead (1842-1920) was a Confederate war hero, an Alabama state representative, a state senator, a ten-term member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and finally a U.S. Senator. While still a U.S. Representative, he introduced legislation to improve roads and other public works projects. Eventually, with his support as head of the Senate Committee on Post Offices and Post Roads, the Congress passed the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916. Senator Bankhead died in office, and the transcontinental highway through the South that he envisioned was named in his honor. He is buried near the Bankhead Highway, in the Bankhead family plot, Oak Hill Cemetery, Jasper, Alabama. Other famous Bankheads in the plot include the Senator's sons, Senator John Hollis Bankhead II and Speaker of the House of Representatives William Brockman Bankhead, as well as his grandson Representative Walter Will Bankhead.

Talulah Bankhead
By the way, for any old enough to remember hearing of sultry actress Talulah Bankhead, she was the niece of John Hollis Bankhead.

Marker depicting
Bankhead Highway

Many early auto trails had multiple routes, but the Bankhead Highway had several. It can be a bit confusing, A long highway with a famous past remains hidden in the Lone Star State. Although it has changed names many times, it is remembered as the "Route 66 of the South." It was originally designated the Bankhead Highway, and carried travelers from Washington, DC to San Diego, California. After the Lincoln Highway, it was the second largest highway project undertaken in the early twentieth century.

Once nicknamed the "Broadway of America," it was the first true interstate highway in the United States. It is the main street of many cities and towns, and to this day retains its original name in some areas. More famous roadways such as Route 66 have come and gone, and have been replaced by modern interstates. Yet it is still possible to traverse most of the original route of the Bankhead Highway in Texas.


This coast-to-coast highway idea began through a group of citizens and politicians, known as the Good Roads Movement. Officials in the automotive industry also were active in the movement, lobbying for a means to make their products more usable. Due to the poor condition of roads in most rural areas, long-distance travel across the U.S. was difficult, if not impossible for most Americans. Trains were always reliable, but did not have routes to every location where people did business. As automobiles became more affordable, the need for better roads came to the forefront of public awareness. The Good Roads Movement was embraced by most, especially farmers, who needed reliable roads to transport their goods to market.

It is generally accepted that the economic benefits deriving from the Bankhead and other such highway projects during the 1930s provided for many a buffer against the hardships of the Great Depression.

The effort spearheaded by Senator John Hollis Bankhead of Alabama brought the highway into reality when his bill was approved by the Senate and House of Representatives, then signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson as the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916. Although slowed by the country's involvement in World War I, the project gained momentum and sections of the highway began to appear across the states. Hundreds of miles of roadway were built in the 1920's, and many people were rescued from devastating poverty during the Depression by working on the Bankhead Highway. In North Central Texa, bricks manufactured in Thurber were used to pave parts of the highway. In fact, portions of those brick paved roads still survive in some area.

On the Texas segment, going from east to west, travelers would pass through Texarkana, Mt. Vernon, Terrell, Dallas, Fort Worth, Mineral Wells, Abilene, Midland, and El Paso. Commerce developed at all points in between, thanks to easy access provided by the highway. Businesses sprang up overnight to cater to the needs of millions of people who passed through on their way to somewhere. By the 1940's along the Bankhead, every town's main street stretched from sea to sea. The Bankhead Highway sign was the black letters "BH" on a white background with wide yellow stripes across the sign’s top and bottom.

Capacity issues eventually doomed the famous highway. Two-lane roads were not designed to handle the increased traffic in postwar America of the 1940's and 50's. With passage of the Interstate Highway Act of 1956, older highways soon became less traveled. As traffic decreased, so did the commerce it brought to many towns across the country. Businesses closed, and people moved to more populated areas with greater opportunities for careers and success. Such is progress.

The Bankhead Highway lives on, at least in many parts of the South. Recent interest in travel and roadside nostalgia has partly revived some thoroughfares, such as the Dixie Highway and Route 66. People gather to reminisce about times when things didn't move quite so fast. Others gaze at transportation museum exhibits and remember things as they once were. For the Bankhead Highway, it is business as usual. Renamed Highway 80 then U.S. 180 in most areas of Texas, it is still a thriving and necessary part of life, still a "Broadway" for many Texas towns.

Thanks to
Joe Defazio, http://freepages.history.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~unclejoe/tx/bankhead.html,
http://www.garlandhistorical.org/bankhead_narrative.html and Wikipedia.

Caroline Clemmons writes contemporary, historical and time travel romance set primarily in Texas. Contact her at caroline@carolineclemmons.com or check her personal blog at http://carolineclemmons.blogspot.com/

7 comments:

  1. Carolyn,
    Fun post on the highway! I have a few photos of my grandmother and grandfather in Texas and also in National Parks in those old old cars. They used to drive to California and stay near the beach in the early 1900s, and to get there they drove along the railroad tracks. They had lots of flat tires along the way.

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  2. Caroline,
    Don't be embarrassed because you didn't know it was a national highway...I never even heard of it until your post! LOL HOW INTERESTING! I feel really ignorant now, but also very enlightened by your post. Fascinating. I'm going to go back and re-read this a time or two.
    Cheryl

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  3. I'd never heard of this. Great story!

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  4. What a wonderful informative post, Caroline! It's always so fun to learn about some great historical place or tidbit in one's own backyard.

    The only "famous" road I ever really heard of is Route 66. I can't even imagine driving without power steering, AC, and power brakes...thinking of doing NONE of that on a rutted dirt road has my teeth clanking!

    Awesome post. oxox

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  5. How interesting how certain landmarks are created. This highway has certainly lived on and on. How cool it's been for all of us travelers. Am I dating myself too much if I say I remember Tallula Bankhead? Don't know why, but the name has been around for as long as I can remember.

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  6. Caroline--this is a new one on me. I've never heard of the Bankhead Highway, and Mineral Wells is "home" to our family. I love the 1930 photo you have in the post. You learn something new every day.

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  7. Caroline, I found this post fascinating. We have a few 'Roman roads' still in existance here in the UK, but very people people would recognise them as part of the original anymore.
    I loved the pics you included, too.

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