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Many Marvels of Today Were Only Hopes and Dreams In The Past

Many products, services and conveniences of modern American life today – the cellular phone, “cruise control” on automobiles, the microwave oven, the personal computer, overnight delivery services – just to name a few examples, simply did not exist in the early 1950s; were early developmental stages; or were too impractical or expensive for many Americans to have or enjoy.

Likewise, non-existent at the time was the Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways, or the interstate highway system, as it more commonly known today.

Put it this way, if you were to tell an automobile owner in 1912, or even 1952, that he or she could travel by car, non-stop, from Downtown Chicago to Springfield, Illinois in 4 to 5 hours, the car owner would have laughed at you and said, “in your dreams!” This section will describe the national interstate highway system of today, how those dreams of the past became reality and how the system has affected life in America.

The Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways

Click on image for larger view.

Today, making that Chicago to Springfield trip of about 200 miles is possible by driving down Interstate Highway 55, one segment of the nation’s Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways.

Interstate 55 and the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System did not exist in 1912 or in 1952. Nor did the relatively safe and fast-paced interstate highway travel Americans take for granted now.

The interstate system we know today was created on June 29, 1956. It was on that day that then President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal Highway Act of 1956. No photo exists of the Act’s signing as Eisenhower was recovering from surgery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

The enactment of the 1956 Highway Act into law ended a decades long debate over how to build and finance a new, modern national highway system. PHOTO: Interstate 57 bridge under construction, 12 miles East of Anna, Union County, Illinois, 4-26-1960.  IDOT Aerial Surveys Section Art Kisler Collection Photo 15086.

It also began the largest public construction project in U. S. history aimed at creating and linking a system of over 41,000 miles of “Interstate and Defense Highways.”

The mammoth engineering and construction effort was also on a “fast track” since many states, including Illinois, had already begun planning (or actual construction) of parts of the system long before the 1956 interstate legislation ended the debate over revamping federal highway policy. By 1961, five years after construction began, 10,597 miles of the system was open to traffic. In 1966, that figure had surpassed the half-way mark, reaching 21,452 miles. Over 75% (31,900 miles) of the network was open in 1971. Ten years later in 1981, the job was nearly completed, with 40,498 miles of the then slightly expanded 42,500-mile system open to travel.

Over the years, various additions were made to the original 41,000 mile system. Today’s interstate highway system is composed of an interconnected network of 46,726 miles of controlled-access, divided “superhighways.”

The interstates are the backbone of the network of highways, roads and streets that make up the body of our non-railroad, ground transportation system. It is the part that does the “heavy lifting.” While the interstate system comprises less than 1 percent of all the country’s roads, it carries over 20 percent of all traffic and over 40% of all truck traffic. PHOTO: Interstate commerce via the Interstate.  Illinois Department of Transportation Slide Collection.

Illinois, with 2,169.53 miles of interstate highways, ranks third in the nation in interstate miles. Only Texas (3,233,45 miles) and California (2,455.74) miles rank ahead of the Land of Lincoln. In Illinois, over 29% of all travel is done on the interstates and over 60% of all truck travel.

The Interstate System's Impacts on American Life

Beyond the numbers, establishment of the interstate highway system had significant consequences for the American economy and our society.

Volumes have and will be written about the profound impacts of the interstate highway system on our society and our day-to-day lives. However, one of the best was written in 2000, by Mr. Seppo Sillan. At the time, Mr. Sillan was Director of the Office of Program Administration for the Federal Highway Administration. He was writing a reply to a letter from a middle school student inquiring about the interstate system. One of the four questions the student posed was, “How do you feel that the Interstate System impacted the U. S.?

Excerpts from Mr. Sillan’s reply include the following:

President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the legislation authorizing the Interstate Highway Program in 1956. A few years later, looking back on his accomplishments as President, he said: More than any single action by the government since the end of the war, this one would change the face of America ... Its impact on the American economy, the jobs it would produce in manufacturing and construction, the rural areas it would open up, was beyond calculation.

Without any doubt, he was correct. The Interstate System has its supporters and its critics, but all agree: it not only changed the face of America, but its impacts are "beyond calculation." It has become so much a part of our lives that we can no longer imagine what life was like before the Interstate highways were built, or what life would be like today without them.

The most obvious impact is physical… the program inspired innovations in highway design and construction to meet the physical challenges of the North American continent. The result is a legacy of civil engineering achievements in the form of classic roads … great bridges … and remarkable tunnels … the Interstate System has become a model in engineering, financing, and impact for other countries that are in the process of building an infrastructure to match modern demands.

One of the benefits President Eisenhower and other early supporters foresaw was increased safety. Prior to the 1950's, the main highways were the U.S. numbered routes, such as U.S. Route 66, the historic highway from Chicago, Illinois, to Los Angeles, California … Route 66, which is remembered fondly today, was known as "Bloody 66" in the 1950's because its narrow, two-lane roadway was the scene of so many crashes. By contrast, the Interstate System is the Nation's safest highway network. I have seen one estimate that the System has saved approximately 187,000 lives and avoided nearly 12 million injuries over its first 40 years. In addition, the safety lessons learned from Inter-state design contributed to a decline in traffic fatalities on all roads even as traffic volumes more than doubled-from as many as 55,761 fatalities in 1971 to 41,471 in 1998.

Beyond the engineering and safety accomplishments, the Interstate System's impact can be seen in the way we view ourselves, conduct business, and live our lives. In conjunction with other transportation modes the Interstate System has given us a freedom of mobility that past societies could not have imagined; supported the most efficient, flexible, and productive economy in the world; and allowed for rapid military movements in response to national and world events.

The economic impacts cannot be overestimated. The Interstate System has been called the "conveyer belt" of our society because virtually every product in every American home, from your toothbrush to your favorite CD-has traveled on an Interstate highway at some point. The Interstate System has stimulated development around the country - homes, businesses, shopping malls, hotels, office complexes, and more. The suburban lifestyle that so many Americans enjoy is a result, in part, of the Interstate System.

Have all the impacts been positive? The Interstate System is controversial because it had some negative impacts. By providing a transportation network that supports suburban growth (sometimes referred to as "sprawl" by critics), the Interstate System encouraged a population trend away from our big cities, many of which have declined as a result. Construction of Interstate highways through our cities sometimes separated communities.

In short, as critics have pointed out, the benefits have not been distributed equally, but they have been distributed widely. So we cannot say the impacts were all positive, but we believe that all things considered, the impacts were much more positive than negative. (SILLAN, p. 2-3)

NOTE: The bold text in Mr. Sillan’s reply were highlighted here to underscore the three themes chosen for Illinois’s Anniversary Celebration – freedom, safety and progress. [ SEE: ILLINOIS CELEBRATION THEMES section. ]

The Long Road to Creating The Interstate System

The freedom of mobility, safety and economic progress made possible by today’s interstate system were achieved only after traveling a long road. To truly understand the how the interstate system came to be and the tremendous changes it introduced, one has to turn back the clock to realize what motor vehicle travel and roads were like before the interstate era.

EARLY 20TH CENTURY ROADS: Automobiles, motorcycles and trucks made their debut on American roads in the late 1890s and early 1900s. Notoriously undependable and fragile means of moving people and goods, they were more a novelty than a serious means of transportation. They were usually used for traveling short distances within cities or from farms into nearby towns.

Those who wished to travel long distances by auto were at the mercy of the weather and the vagaries of the “non-system” of roads. For practical reasons, long distance travelers were restricted to trains and their limited schedules. On a train, they could not stop where and when they wanted and adjust their travels or schedules for the pursuit of happiness, commerce or much else for that matter.

However, by 1912, more “motor vehicles” started to “hit the road” to attempt to travel longer distances. In 1912, motorists had some 2.5 million miles of “road” to drive upon, but few roads were marked and few maps existed. Travel directions had to be sought from local citizens who rarely knew much of road routes beyond a fifteen-mile radius. Less than 7 percent of the existing roads were “improved” in any manner. (A gravel road was considered “improved” back then.) Most roads were just plain dirt. They were maddening mud paths in wet or winter weather and potential dust storms when dry.

“A rural road could be defined as the space left between fence rows that a farmer wasn’t allowed to plow and plant.” (LH/MAIN STREET, p. 7)

Furthermore, the roads that existed didn’t really go anywhere with a purpose. There was no “system” of roads. “Instead, most roads extended outward from rail centers where they served to bring the farmer into town with his goods ... spokes of a wheel, radiating from towns of importance with no attempt to connect the roads of one area with another. The farmer did the best he could between the farm and the county seat, but when he wanted to go to the next town down the line, he rode the train.” (LH/MAIN STREET, p. 7)

Road building and maintenance were then strictly the province of local and state government. Federal government funding of roads was non-existent. Twenty states had no road departments of any sort whatsoever.

The Good Roads Movement, "Seedling Miles" And A Convoy

The Federal Aid Road Act of 1916 was forced onto the Congressional agenda by a group of private associations collectively known as the “Good Roads Movement” that were dedicated to widespread road access . Unlike the effort to construct the National Road 100 years earlier, this movement originated in the private sector. Among the nearly two-dozen privately funded organizations calling for more and better roads, the most effective was the Lincoln Highway Association. Henry Moon, Author of The Interstate Highway System, 1994 (INTERSTATE, p. 3)

By 1912, the idea of long distance travel, even traveling across the country, by “motor vehicle” attracted a few “adventurers” and some automotive industry pioneers and executives.

One of those pioneers was a man by the name of Carl Fisher. Fisher was an early automobile entrepreneur, a maker of headlights. He was a man of big ideas who relished the challenge of converting ideas into realities. He was also known as somewhat of a promoter, the “P. T. Barnum of Indiana.” In 1908, he attached an automobile to a helium balloon and floated it across Indianapolis. By 1911, his Indianapolis Motor Speedway became a smashing success after he paved it with brick and inaugurated the Indianapolis 500 motorcar race.

Fisher often restlessly shifted his focus from one idea and one project to another. By 1912 he had seized upon a dream that was indirectly aimed at the “supply” problem of the poor quality and quantity of roads in America. His dream was that of creating an automobile-friendly highway spanning the continental United States from New York to San Francisco. Fisher called his idea the “Coast-to-Coast Rock Highway.”

He went on a speaking tour across the country in 1912 promoting the concept of a transcontinental gravel road and attempting to secure financial backing for its “ball park” estimated construction cost of 10 million dollars.

By July 1, 1913, a core group of auto industry executives formally established an organization to convert Fisher’s “Coast to Coast Rock Highway” idea into a reality. One of Fisher’s auto industry converts, Henry Joy, president of the Packard Motor Car Company, in turn, converted Fisher and the others into re-naming the proposed road in honor of U. S. President Abraham Lincoln. The organization was formally chartered as the “Lincoln Highway Association” (henceforth, the LHA) and adopted as its objective:

“to immediately promote and procure the establishment of a continuous improved highway from the Atlantic to the Pacific, open to lawful traffic of all descriptions without toll charges: such highway to be known, in memory of Abraham Lincoln, as the ‘Lincoln Highway.’”

There followed a fast-paced flurry of promotional activity including state and local jockeying over the as yet unannounced proposed route of the roadway. The 3,389 mile route from Times Square in New York to Lincoln Park in San Francisco was unveiled by the LHA on September 14, 1913. However, instead of actually constructing the road, the promoters simply connected links of existing roads (often no more than dirt paths) together and called it the Lincoln Highway.

Association membership was opened to the public for five dollars in return for which the members were to receive a certificate, a membership card and an enamel car radiator emblem. President Woodrow Wilson sent in his five dollars and received certificate number one.  PHOTO: Lincoln Highway Association Membership Card No. 1, issued to U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, circa 1915.  America on the Move Exhibition, Photo No. 270, Copyright National Museum of American History.  Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Faced with the daunting task of actually building or improving the Lincoln Highway’s designated route, the LHA very soon “shifted gears” toward promoting “Good Roads.” Convinced that road construction and maintenance could only be done by government agencies, the “target” of their promotional efforts was government officialdom at all levels, federal, state and local.

The LHA decided that, to get government action, they first had to create a demand for “Good Roads” from the motoring public. An early highlight of their “public relations” campaign for better roads were a few small-scale road improvement projects made possible by donations of cement from the fledgling concrete paving industry. They arranged for the paving of one-mile stretches of road along the Lincoln Highway route with concrete to point the way to the future. They called these one-mile long paved road segments “seedling miles.” They were also pretty sharp about how they went about planting these “seeds.“ They purposely placed them “out in the boondocks” so that motorists drawn by publicity would have to struggle over unimproved dirt roads in order to reach them. The first such “seedling mile” was completed in Malta, Illinois, just west of DeKalb, in September, 1914. [SEE: ILLINOIS’ HISTORIC LINCOLN HIGHWAY section. ]  PHOTO: The first "Seedling Mile" in the country at Malta, Illinois.  The concrere pavement was ten feet wide. Lincoln Highway Digital Image Collection, Special Collections Library, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Year: n.d. Filing Code: ILL.37 Size: Small, Accession No: lhc1258.

The Lincoln Highway Association was joined in the “Good Roads Movement” lobbying effort by a variety of other national, state and local organizations. Among these were the American Road Makers, originally founded in 1901 as the League of American Wheelmen, and which today is known as the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA). In 1914, state highway officials banded together to form the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO), which is now the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials or AASHTO. In Illinois, the Chicago Motor Club was one of the premier groups promoting better roads.

The “Good Roads Movement” was “put on the back burner” during World War One, but resumed in earnest following war’s end in 1918. The following year, LHA leader Harry Ostermann had persuaded the War Department to conduct a transcontinental motor convoy trip from the East Coast to San Francisco on the marked route of the Lincoln Highway. It was to be training exercise and a test of the feasibility of the long distance movement of military men and supplies by auto and truck. To much hoopla and fanfare, a 76 vehicle combined “public-private” convoy, including 56 military vehicles, 209 officers and enlisted men and dozens of private citizens took off from the White House on July 7, 1919. (LH/MAIN STREET, p. 83).

The Army convoy idea was a two-edged public relations sword. On the one hand, it was meant to produce positive “PR” by demonstrating that long distance motor travel was possible. On the other hand it was meant to generate bad publicity for the poor quality roads that comprised much of the Lincoln Highway and other roads in the Unites States. It succeeded on both counts. The convoy did make it. Battered, but unbowed, the caravan arrived at the gates of Lincoln Park in San Francisco. However, it had taken until September 7, 1919 for it to reach its destination, a grueling sixty-two (62) days! One of the Army officers who was an observer on that journey was a young Lieutenant Colonel by the name of Dwight David Eisenhower. His experiences during that trip would, decades later, play an important role in the history of the interstate highway system. [SEE: EISENHOWER AND THE 1919 ARMY CONVOY SECTION.] PHOTO: 1919 Army Transcontinental Motor Convoy on Review, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1919.  Eisenhower Library Audiovisual Department, photo 81-17-55.

The 1920s Road Building "Boom" and The U.S. Highway System

The “Good Roads Movement” gained traction in the 1920s. Many state and local governments began ambitious road improvement programs. The focus of the 1920s road building “boom” was on paving existing roads to get motorists “out of the mud.” In urbanized areas it also included making improvements in traffic controls, such as installation of stop signs and electric traffic signals, or “stop and go lights.”

Illinois, under the administration of Governor Len Small (1921-1929), was to pave almost 7,000 miles of roadway, making Illinois the number one state in terms of paved highways by the end of his second term. During the prosperity of the “Roaring Twenties,” other states and local governments joined in a massive road construction program.  PHOTO: Typical Illinois two-lane road constructed in 1923, 1000 feet West of Florence Bridge, Pike County, Illinois, 12/7/1953.  IDOT Aerial Surveys Section Art Kisler Collection Photo 13552.

As the road-building boom occurred, so did improvements in automotive technology. Motor vehicles became more reliable and faster. They also became less expensive and thus, more numerous. The idea of long-distance travel was becoming more appealing and more realistic than ever before.

However, “interstate” travel was a “navigational nightmare” since the naming, or numbering system of roads varied from state to state. The route signs along the road also varied in style, size and frequency. Many of the roads crossing state lines were those that had been “named” by local or regional organizations seeking to promote those routes. These “named” roads also had their own signs in addition to whatever signs were posted by the state and local agency roads the “named routes” informally connected together. While foremost among these was the pioneering Lincoln Highway, it was joined by over 250 others. One of these was the Dixie Highway, which in one of its versions, ran from downtown Chicago to Miami, Florida.

By 1924, “systematizing” the confusing array of “interstate” routes became a priority of highway officials. The desire for a more orderly, consistent highway signing scheme among the various states highway officials led to a recommendation by the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO) to the Secretary of Agriculture that he create a “Joint Board” to consider designation and marking of a national system of interstate highways. This “Joint Board” went through a grueling year and a half long series of hearings and meetings before finally producing a map, a rational, national numbering system and a universally recognizable route sign, or shield, in November, 1926. The U. S. numbered highway system thus, was not (initially, anyway) a result of a federal law. It was a consequence of a rather unique Federal-State partnership in its design and was “adopted” or “promulgated” by a not-for-profit association of state highway officials. The actual posting of the signs was left up to the state highway departments. As a result, the days of the “named” highways were “numbered,” as the national highway system was implemented in the late 1920s.”

The “U. S. Highway” system allowed “interstate” travelers and shippers to more easily follow one route across state lines for longer distances. One of the most famous of these routes was U. S. Route 66, which ran from Chicago to the Pacific Ocean in Santa Monica, California. [ SEE: OTHER ILLINOIS HISTORIC ROADS SECTION.]

"Superhighway" Dreams, Plans and Pioneering Projects

By the 1930s, the “interstate” system of U. S. Highways, as well as paved state and local roads, represented a vast improvement over the dirt paths of 1912. However, most were still only two-lane roads where traffic moving in opposite directions was separated only by painted lines drawn between the two lanes. Numerous railroad crossings, stop signs and traffic signals made for frequent interruptions in the smooth flow of traffic. Narrow roads and sharp curves made high speed travel dangerous.

Highway officials in the early thirties began to look for ways to improve traffic flows and reduce the hazards posed by the “intersecting” and obsolete network of existing roads. Many settled on the concept that became known as the “superhighway.” These roads would be designed and constructed exclusively for motorized vehicles. They would be “express” routes with few, or no crossroads, or traffic signals to slow travel. Traffic moving in opposite directions would be “divided” or separated by barriers or medians of open space, or grass parkways. One of the first such roads to be built was the Meadowbrook Parkway, which linked New York City to the Long Island beaches in 1934. It inspired others to follow and by the late 1930s, the idea of express routes, or “superhighways” was gaining momentum.

The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1938 called for the federal Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) to study the feasibility of a transcontinental system of six “superhighway” toll roads. (Three running north-south and three east-west.) The BPR’s final report rejected toll financing and called for a 26,700 mile “interregional” highway network. The BPR report was to be one of the first in a long series of studies, committee / task force reports and legislative initiatives which would try to design a national system of modern “superhighways” while also tackling the highly contentious issue of how to finance the system’s construction and maintenance.

Meanwhile, the motoring public was also being inspired to look forward to a future of higher speed, more easily navigable and safer highways. The most popular exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair was General Motor’s “Futurama.” There, in 322 moving chairs (each with its own sound system) above the largest scale model ever made, over 16 million visitors viewed what GM envisioned the roads of future would be like in the far off year of 1960. Many features of today’s interstate system, such as long distance, limited access superhighways and the “interchange” were depicted in the “Highways and Horizons” part of the exhibit.

As the public dreamed along with GM and the federal government was trying to reach a policy consensus, some State highway agencies and engineers were already engaged in designing and constructing the nation’s first, pioneering “superhighways.” Most notable of these was the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike’s first 160-mile long segment opened on October 1, 1940. It opened to rave reviews by motorists who journeyed miles out of their way to drive on the new “superhighway” toll road.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike of 1940 incorporated many of the features of the interstate highways of today. Indeed, it was a totally new type of roadway. Among these features were the following:

  • There were no cross streets, driveways, traffic signals, crosswalks or railroad grade crossings. All vehicular or pedestrian traffic went over or under the Turnpike. (Along the same distance on the Lincoln Highway and US 11, there were 939 cross streets, 12 railroad crossings and 25 traffic signals.)
  • A four-lane divided configuration, with 12-foot-wide concrete traffic lanes, a ten-foot-wide median strip and ten-foot-wide shoulders.
  • Limited access, with 1,200-foot-long entrance and exit ramps to provide plenty of distance for accelerating and decelerating.
  • A minimum 600 foot sight distance from motorist to traffic ahead.
  • A maximum grade of 3% (three feet of climb for every 100 feet of forward travel), compared to hills as steep as 9% to 12% on the old two lane William Penn (US 22) and Lincoln Highways (US 30).
  • Substantial “super-elevation,” or banking, on curves and a maximum curvature of six degrees but with most curves being only 3% to 4 %.

Other states, including Illinois, were also laying plans for “superhighway systems” in the late 1930s and early 1940s. [ SEE: INTERSTATE STORIES section for details of Illinois’ early superhighway planning efforts.]

World War Two Postpones Superhighway Construction Efforts

The December 7, 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent involvement of the United States in the Second World War postponed most superhighway construction until after the war was concluded in 1945. Some superhighway planning efforts continued, but wartime shortages of labor and materials halted or slowed many highway improvement projects.

Post-World War Two Transportation Problems

Post-World War II era prosperity allowed for increasing numbers of families to afford automobiles for personal transportation and more companies to afford trucks for transporting freight than was the case in the 1930s. In the meantime, technological improvements had made the post-war era “motor vehicles” even bigger, faster and more dependable for long distance travel.

While most vehicles were perfectly capable of speeds of 65 miles per hour or more, there were precious few stretches of open road where such speeds could be safely maintained, especially in developed urban areas. High-speed, long distance travel on the roads of the time was not practical and could be risky and unsafe. Any long distance travel by car or truck was only for those who had plenty of time on their hands (to get where they wanted to go … or to wait for goods to be shipped to where they were located.)

A principal reason for the slow pace of travel was that the American “highway system” of the time was a jumble of intersecting U. S. highways, state, county and local roads. Only a few “superhighways” had been built.

Despite the limitations of the road network of the time, in the late 1940s, more of these vehicles took to the then existing “highway system.” The greater number of vehicles on the road, combined with the need to stop at numerous intersections and railroad crossings, created traffic congestion and slowed travel times. Americans were no longer “stuck in the mud;” they were “stuck in traffic.” In addition, the increased traffic led to an escalating number of fatal and serious injury accidents.  PHOTO: Intersection of Illinois 203 and Johnson Road, Granite City, Madison County, Illinois, 3/24/1966.  IDOT Aerial Surveys Section Art Kisler Collection Photo A-3123.

The basic problem of the post-war era was that the advantages afforded by advancements in automotive technology were severely limited by the inadequate highway system on which that technology was dependent. There was a “gap” between the technology and the infrastructure which supported it.

The Long Debate Over Superhighways and How To Pay For Them

While the various interests involved in formulating highway plans, policies and programs largely agreed upon the nature and scope of the problems and the need for faster, safer highways, they sincerely disagreed on the details of what and where to build them and how to finance their construction and maintenance.

The problems afflicting the American highway system in the late 1940s and early 1950s did not occur “overnight.” It was not as if highway professionals and public officials, all of sudden woke up one morning to discover a “transportation crisis.” Nor was it that there were no ideas on how to solve the problems. As previously stated, from the mid-1930s on, there was a growing awareness of the need for a faster, safer and coordinated national network of highways.

Numerous proposals and federal legislative initiatives were introduced in attempts to create and finance a national “superhighway” system. However, none of them could garner enough Congressional support to become law. Marginal adjustments to federal highway policy were made, but the debate over a new, national “superhighway” system dragged on from the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-45) through that of post-war President Harry S. Truman (1945-53).

Dwight D. Eisenhower's Pivotal Role In Interstate History

The political context of the debate over superhighways was about to take a sharp turn, much like the nation’s increasingly congested twisting, turning two-lane roads.

As America entered the Presidential election year of 1952, after 20 straight years of Democratic Presidents, it became obvious that America was ready for a change. The Republican Party nominated Dwight D. Eisenhower for President.

The Republican nominee was the same Dwight Eisenhower who, as a young Army Lieutenant Colonel, had joined the Transcontinental Army Convoy along the Lincoln Highway in 1919. He continued his Army career and went on to lead Allied Forces in their defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II. During the war, he came to appreciate the role that Germany’s sophisticated “superhighways” (called autobahns) had played in speeding Hitler’s deployment of military men and supplies.  PHOTO: Dwight D. Eisenhower accepting the Presidential Nomination, 1952 Republican National Convention, International Amphitheater, Chicago, Illinois.  Eisenhower Library Audiovisual Department, photo 68-91-3.

On November 4, 1952, Eisenhower defeated Illinois’ Democratic Governor, Adlai E. Stevenson in a sweeping popular and electoral vote landslide. (Eisenhower received 33,778,963 votes and carried 39 states with 442 electoral votes; Stevenson received 27,314,992 votes, carrying only 9 states with 89 electoral votes.) In addition, Republicans won control of both the U. S. House of Representatives and the U. S. Senate.

For the first year after Eisenhower was sworn into office on January 20, 1953, foreign policy issues such as the Korean War and the emerging Cold War pre-occupied the national agenda. However, by 1954, Eisenhower turned his attention and the nation’s toward domestic policy. In his 1954 State of the Union Address, Eisenhower proposed going beyond the existing Federal Aid Highway program and creating a network of new modern roadways. Later that year, he appointed an Advisory Committee on a National Highway Program, and chose Army General Lucius Clay to head the committee, which became known as the “Clay Committee.” The President also reached out and asked the nation’s Governors for their views.

As the Governors and the Clay Committee reports were being finalized, Eisenhower reiterated his desire for action on the nation’s road problems in his January, 1955 State of the Union Address, when he stated that:

“A modern, efficient highway system is essential to meet the needs of our growing population, our expanding economy, and our national security. We are accelerating our highway improvement program as rapidly as possible under existing State and Federal laws and authorizations. However, this effort will not in itself assure our people of an adequate highway system. On my recommendation, this problem has been carefully considered by the Conference of State Governors and by a special Advisory Committee on a National Highway Program, composed of leading private citizens. I have received the recommendations of the Governors' Conference and will shortly receive the views of the special Advisory Committee. Aided by their findings, I shall submit on January 27th detailed recommendations which will meet our most pressing national highway needs.”

By the 1955 session of Congress, there was a general consensus favoring construction of a large scale, new system of “superhighways.” The problem was that no consensus had been reached on how to pay for it. The Clay Committee favored issuing bonds to be paid for by fuel tax receipts. Others in Congress supported a “pay-as-you-go” financing plan relying on increased gasoline taxes and user fees. Still other congressional leaders and Eisenhower supported toll roads as the solution to funding the program. However, the mid-term congressional elections of 1954 had returned Democrats to the majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, so Eisenhower’s leverage was somewhat diminished in 1955. By the end of the 1955 session of Congress, two major financing proposals had failed to pass Congress.

By 1956, the need for action to address the gap between technology and infrastructure had begun to register both in Congress and the Eisenhower administration. 1956 was an election year, in November of which, Eisenhower, all members of the House of Representatives and one-third of the U. S. Senators were up for election. Faced with a Democratic House and Senate, Eisenhower abandoned the toll road policy and told Republican leaders to “yield to Democratic insistence on financing.” In early 1956, he announced his support of a gas tax increase to fund a new “National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.” Eisenhower’s action broke open the legislative “logjam” on Capitol Hill.

Through the spring and the early summer of 1956, various legislative proposals were adopted by the House or the Senate, but not by both legislative bodies. The wrangling and maneuvering were intense. Fiscal conservatives such as Senator Harry F. Byrd insisted that the new system be built on a pay-as-you go basis. They wanted no part of bonds or borrowing and wanted the increased federal fuel taxes and user fees to be kept in a special “Highway Trust Fund,” a concept also backed by the Eisenhower administration. Byrd, however, went one step further and included an amendment. It would reduce highway improvement program spending if there was not enough money in the “Highway Trust Fund” to pay for it.

The House passed a bill on April 27. The Senate passed its own, slightly different bill, including the “Byrd Amendment” provision, on May 29th. The differences between the House and Senate versions were sent to a conference committee to be worked out. Finally, a compromise was reached, and “The Federal Highway Act of 1956” was approved by both the House and the Senate on June 26, 1956.

Three days later, on June 29th, 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had suffered through the summer of 1919 in the Transcontinental Army Convoy along the muddy, dusty and hazardous roads of the time, signed the legislation that created the modern interstate highway system.

Eisenhower had not forgotten the long journey along the Lincoln Highway in that convoy in 1919, nor the autobahns of Germany. According to highway historian, Richard Weingroff:

These experiences shaped Eisenhower’s views on highways. “The old convoy,” he said, “had started me thinking about good, two-lane highways, but Germany had made me see the wisdom of broader ribbons across the land.” (FEDERAL AID HIGHWAY ACT OF 1956)

PHOTO: President Dwight D. Eisenhower photo taken July, 1956 shortly after signing the 1956 Federal Highway Act.  Eisenhower Library Audiovisual Department, photo 62-53-6.


Indeed, it was a long road from the hopes and dreams of the past to the reality of today.

Post-Script: Eisenhower's Interstate Role Honored

On January 10th, 1964, the Chicago City Council voted unanimously to rename the Congress Street Expressway (Interstate 290) the Dwight D. Eisenhower Expressway. Interstate 290 carries traffic from Downtown Chicago to the city western suburbs.

Dwight Eisenhower died in 1969 at he age of 78. He had lived long enough, however, to see his vision of “broad ribbons across the land” become a reality. PHOTO: Congress Expressway showing rapid transit car corridor in median, Chicago, Illinois, circa. 1959.  America on the Move Exhibition, Photo No. 668, Courtesy of the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA).  National Museum of American History.  Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

More than two decades after his passing, in October, 1990, legislation was passed which renamed the interstate highway system the “Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways.”


Interstate 50th Anniversary

Friends of the Interstate
The Eisenhower Interstate System
Illinois Interstates
IL Celebration Theme
Photo Album
The First 50 Years Video Presentation
Illinois' Historic Lincoln Highway
Other Illinois Historic Roads
Eisenhower & The 1919 Convoy
The 2006 Convoy & Special Events
Interstate Stories
References & Resources
The Interstate Quiz
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