From Pioneer Paths to Superhighways - The Texas Highway Department Blazes Texas Trails 1917-1968

Table of ContentsIntroductionThe King's HighwaysBy Raft, Oxcart, Horseback, and CanoeGood Roads for TexasGet the Farmer Out of the MudCreation of the Highway DepartmentThe Highway Department in Depression and WarThe Great Age of BuildingThe Third GodOnline Finding AidsFor Further ReadingMore Exhibits

Creation of the Highway Department - Page 1  | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 |

Early Struggles

Detail, Bankhead Highway Map, 1922
The Bankhead Highway, named for the well-known U.S. senator and "father of good roads," John Hollis Bankhead, was a cross-continental route from Washington, D.C. to San Diego. It encompassed all of Texas State Highway 1 from Texarkana to El Paso, though as the directions illustrate, it was hardly a straight shot. Nonetheless, the Bankhead was a catalyst for major economic development in the 1920s and 1930s, and gave rise to numerous automobile-related local businesses, including auto dealerships, garages, supply stores, restaurants, and service stations. Larger version of map detail, with directions

If good roads supporters thought that the creation of the highway department meant that meaningful road projects would soon be underway in Texas, they were bitterly disappointed. For one thing, the promised federal funds were diverted for two years due to the U.S. entry into the world war. But even after federal money began to flow again, critics charged that the commissioners were more interested in finding jobs for their friends than in building a system of roads.

By 1923, only 100 miles of paved road had been completed, though more projects were under construction. In addition, the decision to leave primary responsibility in the hands of counties meant that many projects simply ended at the county line or even short of it. A federal review determined that every county had its own organization, and that the highway department provided no central planning, organization, or economies of scale.

Car being towed by mules in Brooks County, 1920
This automobile is being towed by mules over an ungraded, unsurfaced road in Brooks County. Photograph by J.D. Fauntleroy, March 23, 1920. Courtesy Texas Department of Transportation.

Because of the lack of progress and the problems with county control, the federal government declared Texas ineligible to participate in a federal project to begin planning and construction of interstate highways. The government also threatened to withdraw all federal funding from Texas until the state could demonstrate it was serious about building roads.

Realizing the danger, the 1923 legislature raised registration fees and imposed a penny-a-gallon gas tax to raise more money for highway spending. (They also raised the speed limit to 35 mph while they were at it.) They also passed a law providing that the state would take over responsibility for maintenance of the state highways. Several counties mounted a legal challenge to this law, but an appeals court ruled in favor of the state, clearing the way for the true beginning of the Texas Highway Department.

State Engineer Profile: Rollin Joe Windrow (1919-1922)

The son of a carpenter, Windrow was born in San Saba in 1885. He obtained an engineering degree from Texas A&M in 1906 and began a varied career in public engineering, contributing to levee, railroad, and road projects and serving as engineer for Waco and McLennan County. As Texas state engineer, Windrow’s most lasting legacy was the hiring of the legendary Gibb Gilchrist as a district engineer. Windrow left Texas to organize the Missouri Highway Department, then returned to open a general contracting business in Dallas. He died in 1933 at the age of 48.

Rollin J. Windrow to D.W. Cunningham, July 1921

In this letter, Windrow gives a Palo Pinto supporter ideas on how to counter the argument that road costs were excessive due to "too much engineering."

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Page last modified: July 11, 2019