There was a time in the United States when long distance traveling was an arduous affair. Traveling across the country, for example, could take several weeks. And not only did it take a long time, it could be dangerous. This all changed in the 1950s.
On June 29, 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act. This act mandated the construction of a new 41,000-mile highway system crisscrossing the entire country. According to Eisenhower, this new system eliminated the existing patchwork of poor roads. He believed that the proposed expressway system was “Essential to the national interest.” Here’s the story of our Interstate Highway System.
In 1908, Henry Ford started to ship the first Model Ts. The Model T was a dependable, affordable car and millions of Americans bought them. He would continue to build Ts until 1927, when driving a car had become a part of ordinary life.
But there were issues, most of the roads in the country were dirt and outside cities and towns, there were almost no gas stations, street signs, garages and rest stops. There was no question that a growing nation needed good roads and infrastructure for easy traveling.
Most cities and larger towns didn’t need roads. They had mass transit, elevated trains, subways and streetcars. Urban dwellers just didn’t see the urgency. General Dwight D. Eisenhower saw it differently. During WWII, he had seen the German Autobahnen crisscross over Germany and after he became president (1953), Eisenhower was determined to build the same. In June of 1956, the Federal-Aid Highway Act was passed. This Act authorized the construction of a 41,000-mile network of interstate highways that would span the nation. Under the terms of the law, the federal government would pay 90 percent of the cost of expressway construction with the remainder coming from the States involved.
The Highway Revolt
We spoke to Leckner Ford of Marshall, VA and asked if anyone remembered those days. One of the senior salesmen said he was just a kid but remembered when the Interstate Highway System was being built. It was very exciting. Soon, however, many people came to the conclusion that the highway construction was making a mess of settled areas in their path. The construction displaced people from their homes and, in some cases, sliced communities in half.
Before long, some people began to fight back. Around the country some towns halted construction of the system.
But It Got Built
Despite some areas that objected to the disruption, the National Highway System was built as planned. It took almost a decade, but America now had a wonderful new transportation network that we all know now, allowed the country to grow and prosper.