Title Bar: Put the Money Under the Rubber, The Texas Highway Department 1917-1968, from the Texas State Library and Archives Commission
Table of Contents
Introduction
The King's Highways
By Raft, Oxcart, Horseback, and Canoe
Good Roads for Texas
Get the Farmer Out of the Mud
Creation of the Highway Department
The Highway Department in Depression and War
The Great Age of Building
The Third God
Online Finding Aids
For Further Reading
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The Highway Department in
Depression and War

Politics, Progress, and "Pretty"

Official Texas highway map, 1936
The Highway Department pulled out all the stops for the 1936 Centennial highway map, including not only the usual road and geographic information but also historical information, tourist stops, and even the words to the state song, "Texas Our Texas."
Texas State Archives Map Number 6193
More details and full-sized image

To the relief of good-roads advocates, the Fergusons did not seek reelection in 1934. The new governor, James Allred, had a reputation as a reformer and highway supporter. But even Allred could not resist the lure of highway money. An enormously popular and powerful movement was sweeping the country to provide pensions to the elderly (Social Security had not yet been enacted). Allred made a move to grab $3 million in highway money to start an old-age assistance fund in Texas.

The Highway Department and its supporters in the legislature reacted with shock, then speed. Such a move would lead to the layoff of thousands of workers. It would also cause Texas to lose its federal highway aid. Allred’s proposal was turned aside by legislators but at a high cost. Gibb Gilchrist, the highly respected state engineer who had virtually created the department from scratch, was badly mauled in the dispute and resigned in disgust. The departure of Gilchrist led to deep anger among employees and the department’s lowest morale since the 1920s.

 Despite the political setback, road projects continued to advance across Texas in the mid- and late 1930s. By 1937, the department had completed all the 26 highway routes laid out in its original plan two decades earlier. Nearly 75 percent of these state highways were paved. Some of the most noteworthy projects were the epic east-west Highway 1 (now Texas 67/80) from Texarkana to El Paso and the equally impressive Highway 2 (now Texas 81/77) running north-south from Laredo to the Red River.

Fairlie, Texas, in 1940
Travel conditions in rural Texas remained somewhat desperate. The town of Fairlie in Hunt County had received a temporary gravel road to Texas State Highway 11 as a New Deal project from the Works Progress Administration. With a population of just 362 and only 70 cars, their 1940 petition to the Highway Department for a paved replacement was turned down. As the original caption on this photo notes, "Looking south down street in Fairlie - note insufficient right of way and muddy conditions of the so-called white rock pavement. WPA marker extreme right."

Hunt County project files, Texas Highway Department Records, Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives.

By late in the decade, the department was at work on upgrades to improve traffic flow on the new roads, including constructing modern bridges, viaducts, overpasses, and underpasses. More than 4000 new bridges were constructed, and hundreds of old traditional bridges were modernized. In addition, the legislature had implemented the first drivers’ licensing and spun off the highway patrol into a politically independent Department of Public Safety.

These were tremendous achievements that had already transformed life in much of Texas. But much remained to be done. About 14,000 miles of state highway were still unpaved, along with most county roads. All the new roads were heavily traveled, and many of the early roads already needed upgrades to handle heavier vehicles and faster speed limits. The Texas Highway Department was a national pioneer in safety engineering, with road designs that forgave mistakes with features such as wide shoulders, shallow ditches, and gentler curves.

An early attitude among road engineers was to emphasize construction that was “not much for pretty, but hell for strong.” Now, Texas also became a pioneer in highway beautification. The Texas Centennial in 1936 was a huge marketing and outreach project for the state, and the Texas Highway Department was given the responsibility not only for setting up tourist information centers but also for sowing wildflowers and planting trees and shrubs. Despite a massive effort, the idea was one whose time had not yet come: some enterprising citizens dug up and made off with many of the plantings.

State Engineer Profile: Julian Montgomery (1937-1940)

Julian Montgomery

Julian Montgomery. Courtesy Texas Department of Transportation.

It was Julian Montgomery’s fate to be despised by the rank and file employees he supervised at the Highway Department. They deeply resented the circumstances that had forced the resignation of the beloved Gibb Gilchrist. A respected engineer with degrees from the University of Texas and the University of Illinois, Montgomery had years of experience as a city and county engineer. Before joining the Highway Department, he oversaw construction of New Deal projects on the campus of the University of Texas.

In his years at the helm of the Highway Department, Montgomery did manage to implement important safety measures and obtain workers’ compensation insurance coverage for the employees. In his later years, he had continued success as a public engineer. His most notable career achievement was supervising the construction of Bergstrom Air Force Base in Austin (now Bergstrom International Airport).

 

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Page last modified: November 14, 2011