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The Good Roads Movement

Four people on bikes
The Durant family from Durant, Oklahoma on their bicycles in downtown Durant. (Triple-rant!) (OHS)

The Good Roads Movement was the brainchild of two inventions: the Safety Bicycle and the Automobile.

The Good, the Bad and the Muddy

In today's landmine of culture wars, one that generates little attention - but lots of passion for those who DO pay attention - is the animosity between car drivers and cyclists. On many forums and blogs devoted to transportation, riders deride the automobile drivers who do not share the road, harass the cyclist, or worse. Drivers then argue that cyclists do not obey traffic laws, and should ride on the sidewalk. Man, can it get ugly.

I am on both sides of this debate. I ride my bicycle both for recreational and to actually get somewhere, like the library or the grocery store. But I also love to drive my car, whether to work (I actually look forward to the commute) or to whatever place on the map suits my fancy. And this middle ground philosophy is a good one to have — considering that it was the cycling movement that brought together the national road system.

The Beginnings of a Movement

During the Gilded Age (1877 to 1920), the safety bicycle, with its equal wheels, rubber tires, and rear wheel chain, replaced the suicidal penny-farthings and other nervous-looking contraptions that made bicycling a dangerous sport. This new design created a bicycle craze throughout the modern world, especially because women could get in on the fun now, too. But the roads that crossed the nation were meant for horses, carriages, coaches, and foot traffic, not vulcanized rubber. To make a trip between two towns, a bicycle rider might end up having her teeth knocked loose from the ruts and sand bars that had accumulated on the ill-maintained trails. Thus, by 1891, cyclists in Boston formed the League of American Wheelmen, which advocated the building of better roads. Soon, chapters sprung up in all parts of the US, including the Red River Valley.

The movement to build "Good Roads" coincided with another world-changing invention: the automobile. While in its infancy, many farmers and traditionalists saw the car as just another plaything for the rich - some cities going as far as to ban automobile traffic because it scared the horses - enthusiasm for this fast, personalized transportation began to gain traction (pun kind of intended). Those with a yen for adventure and movement naturally turned from bicycling to automobiles, and the Good Roads Movement began to advocate for governmental funding of road construction and/or improvements. Effective public relations helped, too: the Good Roads Associations convinced farmers that they could bring their crops to market much quicker if they used gasoline-powered trucks, thus associating the burgeoning automobile industry with economic prosperity. The loud and noxious "horseless carriage" was becoming publicly acceptable, and by 1920, building roads suitable for motorized traffic had become a pressing governmental concern.

Military Need

Why did road building become such a governmental concern in 1920? The end of the Great War in 1918 had plenty to do with that. The threat of German invasion - coupled with the growing fear of the "red menace" of Bolshevism - stirred the Commander General of the U.S. Army, Jack Pershing, to sponsor a fleet of military vehicles to drive across the country to ascertain if U.S. roads were ready for troop and gear movements. He placed Denison's native son, Dwight D. Eisenhower, at the helm of the 1919 Transcontinental Motor Convoy. Eisenhower and his men rode across the nation's mid-section along the Lincoln Highway (today's U.S. 50). Like all highways at the time, the Lincoln was both a privately funded and a locally-funded thorough fare, with some stretches more developed than others. Because of the heavy military equipment, which broke bridges, slid off embankments, and sunk in the mud, it took the Motor Transport Corps almost seven weeks to complete its mission. Under Captain J.D. Fauntleroy, a 1920 military convoy took the Bankhead Highway route through the Red River Valley on a similar quest, and the result was just as dismal - American roads needed consistent maintenance and constant improvements that did not rely solely on state funding.


The question of who should be in charge of constructing roads has lingered in American politics since the beginning of the country. The constitution mandates a postal system - which, by definition, requires a network of roads - so the federal government built many interstate traces, the first one being the Cumberland Road between Maryland and Ohio. Likewise, federal and state governments funded the construction of military roads to link forts to one another, with many of the soldiers pulling duty not in defense, but in road construction. In the Red River Valley, military roads also served as the routes used for Indian removal in the 1830s, the most prominent one being the Southwest Trail that linked Little Rock to Washington in Hempstead County and then to Fort Towson in Indian Territory. Local roads, however, were more of a private concern.

Early trails either mimicked ancient trading paths - like Preston Road/Texas Trail or the Trammel Trace - or cut thorough the landscape across private land, where owners charged toll to allow travelers to pass. The owners of ferries or bridges across the Red River charged tolls as well. Private clubs built the first roadways specifically for the enjoyment of automobile driving, such as the Bankhead and Ozark Trails, and prominent citizens established Good Roads Committees in their cities to foster commerce and advocate for road improvements. With more and more people buying cars and demanding better roads, it became obvious that the previous rag-tag system of construction was no longer going to cut it, and Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Arkansas each founded their own departments of transportation by the late teens and early twenties.

Routing the Routes

New road construction and the improvement of existing roads became the big concerns for these agencies. The first order of business was to find funding, which came in the form of automobile registrations, gasoline taxes, and a yearly road tax. If citizens could not afford (or didn't want to pay) the road tax, they would have to commit to a stint of road building for one week out of the year. This arrangement was none too popular and instead, the states relied on prisoners to man their road building crews.

Not all of the authorized highway roads mimicked the old ways of traveling, though. The railroads had already determined with towns within a state would be economically viable. Towns that did not receive the coveted railroad depot - even if they had once been situated on stage coach lines, emigrant trails, or steamboat landing - were also bypassed by the new highways.

The state highway departments published magazines to gain support for their missions, which highlighted new legislation and advocated continued road building to encourage tourism. Tourism, opined the Arkansas Highways magazine in the 1920s, would bring prosperity to the state... and the roads would soon pay for themselves. A number of federal highway aide acts were passed in the 1920s and 1930s to fund highway building in each state. One of the main reasons for this proved to be World War One. Supreme Commander Jack Pershing recognized the need for better roads to move military equipment, and urged the creation of an integrated, paved interstate system. The Federal Highway Aide Act of 1925 did just that, as it numbered interstate routes and provided building and maintenance incentives.

Now you drivers and cyclists stop yelling at each other and play nice… at least nicer than your ancestors did.

Autos on a bridge
Businessmen from Childress and Collingworth, Texas built this bridge over the Red River to induce trade (Collingworth Museum).
Men grading a road
Instead of paying a road tax, citizens could participate in a week's worth of road construction to assist improvements. Many hired others to do this work for them, which birthed the modern highway construction professional. On the flipside, states would utilize prisoners to build roads, which led to a condition of the state needing labor, hence more prisoners. Roads hide visible and invisible dangers!
Pittsburg in Camp County, Texas was right proud of its locaton at the intersection of two named highways in 1917.
When the federal government proposed paving the Robert E. Lee Highway in Oklahoma, over 2000 people turned out a 1922 convention to voice their support... this was the era that saw a resurgence of KKK membership and resulting terrorism, growing prison populations, and increased automobile ownership. This highwas was actually the "old military road" that linked Arkansas to Fort Towson and Fort Washita, aka today's US 70.

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