Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Good Roads Movement

The Good Roads Movement
            Dirt paths, rutted country roads, rocky inclines, and railroad right of ways were challenges that faced Horatio Jackson in 1903 on his transcontinental trip and then countless others in the years that followed.6 Initially, these potential obstacles had little appeal for all but the most adventurous; if you wanted to go anywhere beyond the city limits, you faced the possibility of getting stuck in the mud, and to make things more tenuous, automobile tires were simply not very good in those early days.7 For the automobilist, puncture repair was as important a skill as shifting gears.
            The improved highway provided the common person with the unprecedented freedom to move beyond the narrow bounds of life, particularly for those living in the country. Without paved roads, the car would have had a limited impact on everyday activities, and a limited market appeal. The most discernible social impact of the automobile on American life took place along the highway, because it was there that gas stations, restaurants, auto camps, tourist cabins, and eventually motels were erected to serve ever-restless drivers and passengers.
            Complex forces that emerged toward the end of the nineteenth century ultimately forced road construction in the U.S. Key pressure groups consisted of organized bicyclists, farmers, rural postal delivery advocates, and automotive enthusiasts. As mentioned previously, the bicycle created an awareness of how flexible and convenient travel by road could be. The bicycling craze demonstrated just how bad American roads really were. Thoroughfares outside of major cities were almost always dirt paths, unmarked, and rarely maintained. As a result of these difficult conditions, bicyclists spearheaded a campaign for improved roads. Their chief lobby group was the League of American Wheelmen, formed in 1880 in Newport, Rhode Island, “to ascertain, defend, and protect the rights of wheelmen, to encourage and facilitate touring.” As part of this program, a good roads campaign was launched that in the end gained very limited success. In part, the campaign failed because the League of American Wheelmen had no national following, as a majority of its membership came from New York and Massachusetts and only 12% of its members lived in states west of New York. Also, while the bicycle was a boon to urban dwellers residing on flatlands, it had little utility for the farmer, and so initial attempts to create highway legislation were defeated.
            A second stream of activism concerning good roads surfaced by the 1890s, and that involved rural farmers. During the 1890s, there was a wave of agrarian discontent in America, in part fueled by railroad abuses that included high freight rates. Good roads meant more money for farmers transporting produce to the marketplace. Some populist leaders reasoned that perhaps highways could serve as alternatives to railroads, although at least in the south, the railroads recognized that roads fed into their transportation networks. Politicians clearly recognized their eroding population base and sought to arrest rural to urban migration. Furthermore, in southern states, patrician leaders argued that good roads could be constructed at minimal cost by employing convict labor. A booster in Virginia exclaimed that “History teaches that the best and most permanent roads constructed all over the world have been built by convict labor.”8 

As a result of this demand for more equitable transport, the National League of Good Roads was established in 1892. The group held a convention in Washington, D.C. a year later, and subsequently in 1893 the Office of Road Inquiry was established within the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This agency, with little funding to operate adequately given the task at hand, was responsible for collecting factual data on the nation’s highway system. Its 1904 road census was most revealing. The U.S. had 2,151,570 miles of highway, of which 153,662 miles, or 7 percent, could be classified as improved. Of this total, some 38,622 had a small stone surface, 108,233 had a gravel surface, and the rest was covered with sand, shell, and even some plank. Only 141 miles of roads could be considered acceptable for vehicle traffic (particularly in the light of the unreliable and frail autos of that day) – 123 miles of brick and 18 miles of asphalt.9
            Additionally, to placate farmers who felt they were cut off in terms of communications, particularly since the postal system was so well established, the first successful Rural Free Delivery system was established in and around Charleston, West Virginia. Soon many other communities followed.10 In sum, good roads were perceived by the politically astute as potentially slowing down rural to urban migration, possibly saving traditional folkways, and not incidentally, arresting the pace of shifts in voting patterns that this transition was causing.
            Of far more significance than the political pressures of bicyclists or farmers was the appearance of the automobile. The motor vehicle added to the pressure for road improvement, and indeed was an even stronger incentive than the bicycle, since it was a lot harder to extract a car stuck in the mud than a bicycle. And the fact that the automobile was an expensive item initially motivated the most wealthy and politically powerful group of Americans in having a personal interest in the Good Highway Movement.
            As automobile transportation grew rapidly in the decade after 1902, there were clear signs that farmers would embrace the automobile as much as city folk. The American Automobile Association was founded in 1902 to lobby for motorists. This group held a joint Good Roads Convention with the National Grange in 1907. It would be only a year later that the Model T appeared. Perhaps never was there a machine that did more to initiate change, both social and economic. If the automobile boom was to continue to flourish, surely good roads had to be constructed.

            One example of the nature of early roads and road maps can be gleaned by reading the Arizona Good Roads Association Illustrated Road Maps and Tour Book, published in 1913.11 The tour book was a costly and time-consuming endeavor on the part of boosters to depict the new state as a progressive place with considerable economic opportunities. Detailed maps listed mountains and hills, crooked roads, grades, water, bridges, railroad tracks, buildings, telegraph, telephone, and power lines, rivers and washes, and most importantly accurate mileage between points.

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