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The Big Roads Big Review

I decided to set off on my literary journey of The Big Roads with an open mind and my Pennsylvania Turnpike bookmark.  It seemed fitting considering I was reading a book about the Interstate System, and the Turnpike was one of the earliest segments of it that was completed.

When I say “an open mind” it is because I was a bit skeptical approaching reading this book. The reason being is there are many in the Pennsylvania Highways Library on the history of the Interstates.  However, in the Introduction, author Earl Swift hooked me with his description of the trip across the country which he took to research The Big Roads.  As part of that trip, he came through the southern portion of the Commonwealth on the historic Lincoln Highway.  Earl, his daughter, and a friend of hers stayed on the Lincoln through Buckstown to Ligonier and eventually onto Pittsburgh “…crawling from one stoplight to the next…”  Unfortunately, that is a realistic description of travel down US 30 through Westmoreland and Allegheny counties!

The book takes readers on a journey, with a focus on persons who made the transition happen. Starting with Carl Fisher, a businessman in Indianapolis, who began his career selling bicycles. He then moved onto the “horseless carriage.”  To demonstrate the power of the car, he built a racetrack outside Indianapolis. Once it was repaved with brick, the power of the automobile could be exhibited in the way he intended.  He also got into the road-building business by backing the creation of the Lincoln Highway and its north-south counterpart the Dixie Highway.

Along the way, author Swift introduces us to Thomas Harris MacDonald. Mr. MacDonald started his career in roads in Iowa by laying out their system. Then the Feds tapped him to do the same on a national scale.  We also meet Dwight D. Eisenhower, who in 1919 as a young Army officer, got a yearning for good roads after a cross-country trip on the Lincoln Highway and who, just under three decades later, would experience really good roads — just not on this continent.

The one good road, whose idea and planning came from those Ike saw in Germany which were the forerunner of the Interstate System, was our very own Pennsylvania Turnpike. Just as safety was an impetus for the construction of the Interstates, the Turnpike was constructed to provide a safer alternative than the windy, mountainous, and narrow US 30. That was the primary route between Pittsburgh and the Mid-State area at the time.

Once Eisenhower got into the White House, he pushed for the need for high-speed, limited-access highways such as the Autobahn his military used to speed across Germany en route to Berlin.  He did not need to look far for ideas. The Bureau of Public Roads had drawn up plans for such expressways, albeit tolled, while Ike was Supreme Commander in World War II.

“The more things change, the more they stay the same” is a saying that often rings true.  When talking about the debate Congress had over the Federal Aid Highway Act, it rings like Big Ben at high noon.  Some legislators came out in favor of the plan. Others like Senator Albert Gore, the inventor of the Internet’s father, argued that it “…could lead the country to inflationary ruin.”  Senator Harry Byrd said that “…nothing has been proposed during my twenty-two years in the United States Senate that would do more to wreck our fiscal budget system.”  I’d hate to see what the “talking heads” on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News would have said had those channels existed at the time.

The Big Roads is not just a reflection on how the highway system of the country changed, but how the country itself changed.  The Interstates allowed the movement of goods and people in a short amount of time. They did so safely without the worry of cross-streets, traffic signals, stop signs, or rail crossings; and all but eliminated head-on accidents in a uniform, monotonous drive devoid of local flavor.  They also allowed for the growth of cities by pushing the suburbs farther out. This helped in the creation of satellite cities along beltways and bypasses.  However, their paths into and through the cities would be a double-edged sword.

As I said in the beginning, I have other books on the Interstates and wondered how this book would differ.  My answer would come in the final chapters of the book.  The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 came into being just before the tumultuous 1960s. It was this period when the struggle for civil rights would reach its pinnacle.  Urban Interstate routes were once seen as a way to rejuvenate the nation’s cities while at the same time clearing out undesirable sections.  The problem was that those undesirable sections contained people. They did not want to lose their homes just so suburbanites could get downtown quicker.

One such person was a man by the name of Joe Wiles. Mr. Wiles lived in the Rosemont section of Baltimore which was under attack by Interstate 70.  Mr. Wiles led a revolt against construction of I-70, which was both successful and unsuccessful.  His revolt had been initially successful when its planned route through the City of Baltimore cancelled. However, it was also unsuccessful because discussions of the impending expressway doomed Rosemont to neglect. Ironically, it had become the type of area that would be favorable as an Interstate corridor.

Black neighborhoods seemed to be under attack across the country. From Nashville where Interstate 40 was planned to isolate about 100 blocks from the City, to here in Pennsylvania where Interstate 695 in Philadelphia, known as the Crosstown Expressway, was to sequester black neighborhoods from Center City.  These seemed like classic examples of white men’s roads going through black men’s homes.

Interstate 695 through South Philadelphia was one proposed Interstate discussed in "The Big Roads."
Interstate 695 between the Schuylkill Expressway through South Philadelphia to Interstate 95 would have been the Crosstown Expressway. The segment shown on the map was proposed as the Cobbs Creek Expressway.

Those other books in the Library only talk about the positive aspects of the Interstates. They hardly discuss the turmoil they caused as they carved their way across the country.  I admire that Mr. Swift mentioned the issues of the urban routes through Baltimore, for example.  When I write about the history of a route, I, too, mention the negatives in addition to the positives; and I am glad to see a publication which does the same.

In conclusion, I would recommend The Big Roads. It is a well-rounded look at how we have progressed from roads that were narrow, dirt paths to today’s wide, concrete expressways.  It makes for a good read, especially stuck in traffic on one of the Interstates.

If you would like to purchase a copy, drive over to the Pennsylvania Highways Bookstore.

 
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Events News

Happy Birthday Interstate System!

Today I had the honor to be a part of Pennsylvania’s commemoration of the signage of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, which took place at the Eisenhower National Historic Site in Gettysburg. It was a birthday celebration for the Interstate System. It’s so hard to shop for a highway!

Dignitaries, media, and those who were a part of the re-enactment of the 1919 Army convoy, gathered at the Eisenhower farm. As a result, the original convoy showed a young kid by the name of Eisenhower the necessity of good transportation. Not to mention his time in World War II.

The bus ride from Gettysburg Middle School was a nice jaunt through the historic borough.  I sat next to a gentleman from Omaha, Nebraska who was representing Werner Enterprising trucking.  He gave me a foam stress reliever in the shape of the familiar Werner 18-wheeler.  He mentioned that he had never visited anything in Pennsylvania, but had driven through the state many times. Not surprising considering there are only two routes from New England to the rest of the country that bypass the state.

Once at the farm, we toured the main house where the Eisenhowers had entertained dignitaries such as Winston Churchill and Nikita Khrushchev.  It is a very beautiful and sprawling holding. After everyone had finished taking the tour, it was time for the press conference.

First to speak was Pennsylvania Secretary of Transportation, Allen Biehler.  After him were Joe Brimmeir, CEO of the Turnpike Commission, J. Richard Capka from the Federal Highway Administration, and Ted Leonard from the Pennsylvania AAA Federation.

PennDOT Secretary Allen Biehler takes the podium at the Interstate 50th ceremony in Gettysburg.
PennDOT Secretary Allen Biehler takes the podium

After the press conference, I introduced myself to Rich Kirkpatrick, PennDOT’s Press Secretary and who invited me to the event.  He praised the work I have done on the website and said it is a great resource. Specifically, he commended my work on the histories of the highways.  While we were talking, Secretary Biehler came over to speak with Mr. Kirkpatrick.  At that point, I introduced myself and Mr. Kirkpatrick remarked, “This is the guy who does that website.”  He gave me an Interstate 50th pin which is similar to the image below.

Happy 50th Birthday Interstate System

While waiting for our bus back to the school, I overheard a man talking about the weather.  I introduced myself and he did likewise. He mentioned he was a representative from the Associated Pennsylvania Constructors, which by the way own pahighways.org.  I had discovered they owned the .org of my domain once. So, I mentioned that I own the .com. He said, “We know. We tried for the .com only to find you owned it.” Hey, you snooze you lose.

Back at the school we had a lovely catered meal. I had the honor to sit at the Oklahoma Department of Transportation.  While standing in line for lunch, I struck up a conversation with the Director of ODOT, Gary Ridley.  I told him that I liked the new Oklahoma route marker, and we began discussing the states that used their outlines for their markers. I also mentioned having been to Oklahoma while storm chasing, and had talked to Gary England of KWTV-TV while researching a paper in college.  Mr. Ridley said that Gary helps them with winter forecasts to determine where and when ODOT crews will be needed.  The others at the table asked me what organization I was a member.  I said, “I do a website called Pennsylvania Highways,” while Mr. Kirkpatrick happened to be walking behind me. He overheard and said, “It is a great website and resource.”

All in all, I enjoyed the event. I was honored that PennDOT even considered inviting me.  Many thanks to Rich Kirkpatrick and the PennDOT Press Office. It was indeed a happy birthday for the Interstate System.  You know what, it doesn’t look a day over 49! In conclusion, it is ironic to think that President Eisenhower’s farm can not be accessed directly via any Interstate.

Pennsylvania Celebrates 50th Anniversary of Interstate System – PennDOT

 
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