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 3   | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 |

Hard Surfaces and Hot Food

Map of proposed road straightening in Bell County, 1928
1928 Map Showing Proposed Straightening of Texas State Highway 36 in Bell County, from Temple to the Milam County Line. Larger version of map

Governor Moody moved immediately to restore the integrity of the Highway Department. He persuaded Gilchrist to return as state engineer and Ross Sterling, a famed oilman, to take over as head of the Highway Commission. Moody insisted on a complete overhaul of the system and the development of a comprehensive and achievable road program. To ensure citizen input and support for the plan, Moody appointed a Citizens’ Advisory Committee to help set the direction for the future highway system.

Ross Sterling to J.W. Blake, July 1928

In this letter, Ross Sterling backs up Highway Department staff in response to a complaint from a contractor.

In 1927, even before the flow of federal funds resumed, the department took an historic step by establishing 20 weigh stations on Texas roads to inspect trucks for weight and safety and collect fees for commercial road use. This modest beginning evolved into the state highway patrol, which was spun off in 1935 as its own agency, the Texas Department of Public Safety.

The years of waste and delay had not diminished the popularity of automobiles in Texas. By 1925, more than 975,000 vehicles were registered in Texas—a 2400% increase from the previous decade. The figure would pass 1.4 million in 1929. With all of this increased traffic, bad Texas roads were only getting worse.

The state now had responsibility for more than 16,000 miles of public highways, of which only about 1000 miles had been paved. Of the rest, about one-third had a gravel or crushed shell surface. The rest were mere dirt paths. When construction resumed in 1928, the obvious priority was to put hard surfaces on as many roads as possible. The department established 70 warehouses around the state to stage equipment for the construction and developed a system for providing tents or bunkhouses and hot food for its road crews, who were working almost entirely in remote rural areas.

Small boy at contractor's camp in Williamson County, early 1920s
This small boy was the son of the cook at a contractor's camp in Williamson County in the early 1920s. An engineer later recalled that the child would start each day with the greeting, "Well, what are you going to do?" Courtesy Texas Department of Transportation.

To fund the new construction and meet Texas’s share of the federal matching funds, the legislature increased the gasoline tax to four cents per gallon. Registration fees were also recalibrated by vehicle weight rather than horsepower. The average auto registration cost $7.87, or about $100 in today’s dollars—a non-trivial family expenditure in Depression-era Texas.

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Page last modified: July 11, 2019