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 2  | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 |

Gibb Gilchrist Takes Command

Bridge across the Trinity River, March 1931
This photograph, taken in March 1931, shows the bridge across the Trinity River on State Highway 19 at the Walker and Trinity county line. Note the patched guard rails and the "kink" in the right guard rail. Steel cables had been added to the bridge to prevent it from bowing out further and breaking in two. Trinity County project files, Texas Highway Department Records, Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives.

In 1924, Governor Pat Neff, a progressive and passionate roads advocate, appointed Gibb Gilchrist as state engineer. Gilchrist moved immediately to organize headquarters in Austin and six districts—centered in Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, Fort Worth, Amarillo, and San Angelo—with their own division engineer and two maintenance superintendents. 

The immediate challenge for Gilchrist and his staff was equipment. Quite simply, all road work had been performed on the county level, and the state owned no construction equipment of any kind. To tide the department over, Gilchrist commandeered old army surplus equipment from Camp Mabry, the National Guard installation in Austin, and issued a stupendously large request for bids on hundreds of trucks, tractors, and road drags. 

World War I Liberty truck converted to pavement breaker, 1943
This World War I "Liberty truck" was still in service in 1943, breaking pavement in Travis County. Courtesy Texas Department of Transportation.

Gilchrist’s leadership infused the revamped department with pride, momentum, and purpose. By the following year, 3500 employees and 5000 contract laborers were at work on road projects throughout the state. In spite of the call for motorized equipment, much of the work was still done by hand. For example, asphalt might be trucked to a construction site, but it was still spread by hand. Wages were low. A skilled tractor operator earned 50 cents an hour (about $6.25 in today’s dollars); most workers, armed with picks, shovels, and axes, earned less than half that.

Dan Moody to Hal Moseley, March 1926

In very plainspoken prose, Attorney General Dan Moody outlines to Highway Commissioner Hal Moseley the circumstances under which he will intervene to stop contracts that are fraudulent and "out of all reason."

H.P. Stockton to Gibb Gilchrist, February 1936

Well into the 1930s, highway engineers were wrestling with the problem of fixing the "invisible tread" between Temple and Belton. The highway was eventually replaced by the construction of U.S. Highway 81.

Unfortunately, the work of Gilchrist and the department came to a halt almost as soon as it had begun. In the 1924 election, voters had elected a new governor, Miriam A. “Ma” Ferguson, the wife of impeached former governor James A. Ferguson. Historians agree that Mrs. Ferguson was little more than a puppet of her husband, who soon began awarding highway contracts not on merit or value to the state, but based on who placed expensive “advertisements” in a so-called newspaper he called “The Ferguson Forum.”

Gilchrist resigned in disgust along with a number of other skilled administrators and engineers, and within the year, the federal government had cut off all matching highway money to Texas, effectively ending work on the road system. The projects that continued made a farce of the work Gilchrist and his staff had worked to plan. One example was an “invisible tread” road laid between Temple and Belton. This path of brick tracks laid on a bed of gravel cost the state $243,000 (over $3 million in today’s dollars). For many years, its crumbling remains bore silent witness to the corruption of the Ferguson era.

Attorney General Dan Moody opened an investigation into Ferguson’s practices and filed suits against several road contractors. Moody’s investigation revealed that contractors were being paid taxpayer dollars for work that was never performed. Contracts were being awarded without competitive bids and without any incentive to hold down costs.

The resulting scandal prompted the resignations of all three commissioners. Asked about a successor, chairman Frank Lanham told reporters, “I don’t know, but either Jack Dempsey or Red Grange is needed, for the job demands a man who can either fight or run.” Dan Moody intended to name that successor, for he soon challenged Mrs. Ferguson as a candidate in the 1926 governor’s race. Jim Ferguson attempted to ridicule Moody as a do-gooder, calling him a “young Moses [who] has outgrown his britches and is now jumping on Jesus.” But public outrage was too great, and Moody swept to victory on a program of progressive reform.

State Engineer Profile: Gibb Gilchrist (1924-1925; 1928-1937)

Gibb Gilchrist

Gibb Gilchrist. Bulletin of the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas, October 1938. Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives.

Gibb Gilchrist was born in Wills Point in 1887, the son of a Confederate veteran who died when Gilchrist was just three weeks old. Gilchrist obtained an engineering degree from the University of Texas in 1909 and began working as a railroad engineer. During World War I, he commanded the 540th Engineers (African American), a unit that built roads and railroads to move American troops in Europe.

Gilchrist joined the highway department shortly after returning home and served as district engineer in both San Antonio and San Angelo. Gilchrist played an indispensable role in establishing the Texas Highway Department as a professional organization whose work stood above politics to benefit Texans. As a leader, Gilchrist involved himself in every aspect of the department’s work, even going so far as to write a song, “Texas Over All,” for use in the 1936 Texas Centennial road map.

In spite of his efforts to rise above politics, Gilchrist became involved in a pitched public battle with Governor James Allred when the governor attempted to raid the highway fund to pay for a politically popular old-age assistance program (such schemes were common in the days before the passage of the Social Security Act). Gilchrist won the debate but resigned when he realized he could not continue to serve under Allred.

Gilchrist joined the faculty of Texas A&M, where he eventually became president, then chancellor, of the university. Gilchrist was noted for developing the school’s national reputation in the engineering field, as well as helping to end many of the school’s most notorious hazing practices. He died in 1972.

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Page last modified: July 11, 2019