A brief history of the American highway

Few Americans alive today remember a time before the extensive highway system we enjoy. We just get into our cars, and off we go.

But just 100 years ago, the nation didn’t have any kind of a road network. Existing roads were crude; it ranged from difficult to impossible to drive long distances. A book I own called Overland by Auto in 1913 transcribes a family’s diary as they journeyed from California to Indiana in their 1910 Mitchell automobile. In some Western states, they simply couldn’t find any roads and had to drive their car over whatever terrain they encountered!

Abandoned National Road
My car on abandoned US 40/National Road in Illinois

Humans have always wanted to follow the blazed trail. They started by walking the paths that animals had trodden. In the fledgling United States of the early 1800s, these were often the only roads. But as the United States grew, such roads became insufficient, especially to move people and goods into the West. Some better roads were built before 1850, notably the National Road, which stretched from Cumberland, Maryland, to Vandalia, Illinois. Most of it later became US 40. In its eastern states, The National Road was a rare hard-surfaced road, paved in macadam. But most roads were dirt, and some were filled with tree stumps. As long as the wagons could clear them, it was all good. But by 1850 the railroad came to prominence and the nation’s major roads were mostly left to rot.

Gravel National Road segment, Putnam Co, Indiana
Original gravel alignment of the National Road near Reelsville, Indiana

After the modern bicycle came along in the 1880s, bicyclists found it difficult to ride out into the country because the existing roads were so poor. They especially couldn’t ride after it rained, as the available roads became impassable mud bogs. Shortly, riders organized to form the Good Roads Movement and pressed for well-maintained, all-weather roads.

On the Dixie
Bicyclists on what was once the Dixie Highway near Bloomington, Indiana

The automobile’s growing popularity in the early 20th century really made the Good Roads Movement take off. At first, private groups stitched together existing roads into highways of sorts known as auto trails and sought improvements to them. The Lincoln Highway, the first coast-to-coast highway, is arguably the best known auto trail. Thanks to Good Roads lobbying, states soon got into the road-building game. They took over most of the old auto trails and built new highways. That’s how our modern highway network got its start.

Roads were first improved with gravel and crushed stone, but states also experimented with hard surfacing. They tried brick and concrete first. Sometimes these early hard-surfaced roads were left behind by later improvements, such as this brick highway that was once US 66 in Illinois. Brick roads were very labor intensive to build – each brick had to be placed by hand. As a result, brick fell out of favor by about 1930.

Brick Route 66
Original alignment of US 66 near Auburn, Illinois

Road builders even experimented a little with road width. This is a now-famous section of the “sidewalk highway,” an original alignment of US 66 in Oklahoma that’s just nine feet wide. Oncoming cars each had to drive partway off the road to pass each other.

Ribbon Road
Original alignment of US 66 near Miami, Oklahoma

Illinois tried nine-foot-wide roads too when it first paved some of its portion of the National Road. By the late 1920s it was clear that roads needed to be wide enough for two opposing streams of traffic. So Illinois added three-foot-wide concrete strips on either side of this narrow road; the original nine-foot section is in the middle. This road has been abandoned for about 60 years. This portion of it provides access to a basketball-loving family’s home.

Basketball on the road
Old US 40/National Road, near Martinsville, Illinois

The earliest concrete roads featured no expansion joints, so naturally they cracked. My research dates this concrete to about 1923.

Concrete road
Old State Road 37, formerly the Dixie Highway, near Martinsville, Indiana

It didn’t take long for road builders to figure out that expansion joints were necessary. This concrete is from about 1926, I think, and features a center joint and regular lateral joints.

Former NR/US 40 alignment
Old US 40/National Road, near Reelsville, Indiana

It was common in our highway network’s early days for even major routes to feature several different road surfaces along its length. This is a page from a 1922 road guide that gave turn-by-turn directions between cities. Notice how the National Road, later US 40, between Terre Haute and Indianapolis was at turns concrete, gravel, stone, and vaguely “pavement.” Today, of course, the vast majority of highways are paved in asphalt, although concrete is still used here and there.

Page from the 1922 Automobile Blue Book, Vol. 4.

But by the late 1920s one could drive between most American cities on highways that were at least graded gravel and more likely paved in some hard surface. The kinds of cars being built in America reflected this change. Early cars such as the Ford Model T were meant to go anywhere. Ford’s next car, the Model A, was a less like a mountain goat, with lower ground clearance and a more refined ride – just right for America’s emerging road network.

World War II is roughly a dividing line in our nation’s road history. Before then, states were busy hard-surfacing their highways wherever they happened to lie. Steep hills and sharp curves were simply part of the American highway experience. It was simply too expensive, and sometimes physically impossible, for states to significantly shape the terrain for straighter and flatter roads.

Blind hill
Blind hill on narrow, abandoned old US 40 near Gratiot, Ohio

But after World War II, our nation had shifted from an agrarian to an urban lifestyle, and through the 1950s we increasingly moved out of cities into suburbs. More and more cars filled America’s roads, and they became ever more powerful. This created the next problem America’s road builders had to solve. Blind hills and sharp curves created very dangerous conditions on what had become very congested highways. Impatient drivers would get behind trucks struggling with a steep grade and try to pass without good line of sight, often with disastrous results. And as large trucks increasingly moved goods around the nation, narrow highways only 16 to 18 feet wide made encountering an oncoming truck a frightening experience. Fortunately, road-building technology had improved and it became within states’ financial reach to build wider, flatter, and straighter roads.

And so after World War II, road builders got busy cutting deeply into the earth and filling in valleys to create more level road surfaces. They blasted away rock so the road could go straight through rather than around. And as they laid new roads, lanes grew ever wider.

Brick Road isn't brick anymore
Blind hill on old US 40 next to US 40 near Old Washington, Ohio

Soon, multi-lane highways started to be built. Some roads got this treatment before World War II; Indiana’s US 40 was among them. I understand that this was part of a larger national initiative to create roads that would allow easier military troop and equipment movement should it become necessary. Military uses were an important driver behind the Interstate Highway system that started to be built in the 1950s. But also, traffic was just terrible in many places, and more lanes meant swifter travel.

Four-laning of existing highways picked up speed after World War II. Soon, Interstate highways were built, often in the same corridors as existing US highways. I-70, for example, parallels US 40 across Indiana. When I lived in Terre Haute many years ago, the local paper ran a story on the effect Interstate 70 had on the area. Longtime business owners on US 40 were interviewed, and one of them said something like, “The morning I-70 was opened, it was as if someone turned off the spigot on US 40. One minute the traffic was bumper to bumper, and the next it slowed to a trickle, and it’s been that way ever since. Now it’s just local traffic on US 40.” In rural counties, it’s common to find US 40 to be empty, as in this photo.

US 40 in Putnam County, Indiana
Modern US 40 in western Indiana

Road geeks like me like it that way. The old roads are ours for the driving, and we can do silly things like pose right in the middle of a once-busy highway for a photograph. Let the cars rush by on the nearby Interstate.

Oklahoma Concrete Route 66
Me on old US 66 in Oklahoma

I’ve written extensively about the old roads on this blog. My Road Trips category captures it all.


Interested in finding the old roads
yourself? Click here for some tips.


11 responses to “A brief history of the American highway”

  1. davidvanilla Avatar

    Nice little historical tour. I was blessed to live in a day in which cross-country highways were paved, but yet one did not have to drive along with three or five lanes of heavy traffic headed the same direction. (I just got in from a hurried trip in which I was more or less forced to use I-highways most of the way.)

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Of course, were it not for the three-to-five-lane higjways, those two-laners would be backed up to Kingdom come.

      1. davidvanilla Avatar

        That is true, and commerce would be stymied. But it is a whole different driving experience.

  2. pesoto74 Avatar

    Interesting stuff. Considering how important roads have been in our recent history they don’t seem to get as much attention as they deserve. I lived through the transition to the interstate highways and I think for that reason changes in our road system have always been interesting to me.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks Ted. I don’t remember a time before the Interstate, so for me this is about exploring history.

  3. Mark Avatar

    Welcome to my daily commute (I’m not kidding):


    Long before terrestrial roads were ever contemplated, rivers were the highways. If you’re a fan of such history or interested in settlement patterns of North America, you realize how important those waterways were. And they’re the reason why very early settlements are much further inland than one might think. Places like upstate NY (Hudson), W. Virginia (Potomac) or Wethersfield, Conn. (Connecticut River) developed b/c they were navigable.

    What’s funny about some roads is how humble their beginnings were. Some literally started out as footpaths, or as single lane paths for carts.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’ve driven the 401! It’s a modern marvel.

      My town, Indianapolis, is on a non-navigable river. It was put here because it was to be the state capitol and was located in the center of the state. That made roads very important, as reaching Indy was difficult at best without them. The Michigan Road was a very early Indiana state-funded road and it was meant to connect Indianapolis with the Ohio River and Lake Michigan. Before that, existing roads were largely buffalo paths. Abraham Lincoln’s family migrated from Indiana to Illinois on one of them, the Buffalo Trace. It has largely become US 150 and US 50 in southeastern Indiana today.

      Point is: here’s evidence for the thesis of your comment!

      1. Mark Avatar

        Modern marvel ? Jim, you’re a true gentleman. I wouldn’t put it in those terms…LOL. The funny thing is, its not big enough, and routinely chokes up.

        Even as an avid historian, I sometimes wonder about the future of travel, and what our “roads” will look like in the future ???

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          Well, I’ve only ever driven the 401 on the weekend!

  4. Michael Avatar

    There are a lot of old concrete roads from the 1920s and early 1930s on the eastern end of long island. I will post some to my flickr account https://www.flickr.com/photos/130624547@N05/

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      What wonderful photographs! I love how the concrete has endured, and how the roads have been widened by just adding strips of asphalt on either side. Thank you for sharing these pictures!

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