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

The Highway Department in Depression and War - Page 4

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Greer Takes Command

Bridge collapse in Somervell County, 1945
World War II revealed countless shortcomings in the nation's system of transportation. On January 15, 1945, an overloaded army truck took a gamble and lost on the 1908 bridge where Texas Highway 67 crossed the Brazos River in Somervell County. One soldier died and two were seriously injured, and the bridge was destroyed. Due to wartime shortages of materials, the state replaced the span with a concrete low-water bridge at a cost of $130,000 ($1.1 million in current dollars).It took more than three years for the federal government to reimburse Texas for the cost. Thought to be temporary, the low-water bridge proved remarkably enduring; it was finally replaced with a modern structure in 2002. Somervell County project files, Texas Highway Department Records, Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives.

From the beginning, it was clear that Dewitt Greer was going to do great things. Hired by the Texas State Parks Board straight out of Texas A&M in 1923, the young engineer’s first project was to supervise a convict labor force in building a campsite along the Guadalupe River near Boerne. Somehow, Greer executed the project with such tenacity, speed, and competence that all 26 of the convicts received pardons.

Dewitt Greer in 1930

District Engineer Greer in Tyler, 1930, with the brown and white Reo he "inherited" from Highway Commission Member Cone Johnson.  Cars were often handed down in the 1930s rather than sold.  Courtesy Texas Department of Transportation.

Greer joined the Highway Department as the district engineer for Tyler, where he made a name for himself constructing roads to support the incredible East Texas oil boom. In 1936, shortly before his departure, state engineer Gibb Gilchrist promoted Greer to director of construction and design. At age 34, Greer’s appearance was still so youthful that he was often mistaken for an office boy. But while he may have been nicknamed “The Kid,” Greer was increasingly the man to whom the staff turned for leadership during the unhappy tenure of Julian Montgomery as state engineer.

In 1940, Greer was named as Montgomery’s replacement. Years later, a historian described the shock that followed Greer’s first meeting with his district engineers, who were accustomed to ruling their own domains with little interference from headquarters. After all, in those days communication was both difficult and expensive; the engineers had to be empowered to deal with local needs and conditions without waiting for decisions from above. Now the engineers found themselves as flummoxed as “a herd of old mules looking at a new gate.” Greer still expected them to make their own decisions. He also expected them to be accountable to him—personally. Before long, all 25 district chiefs, as well as the heads of all 20 of the agency’s divisions, reported directly to Greer.

World War II had a major impact on the work of the Highway Department. The agency was designated as essential, meaning that its employees were not subject to the military draft. A staunch patriot, Greer actually (and unsuccessfully) protested the designation, and publicly promised that the agency would harbor no draft dodgers. Greer then attempted to volunteer himself, only to be turned away because he was deemed by the state as too essential to be spared.

Military Reservations map with highway progress modifications, 1943

This 1943 map includes the markings and notes of highway engineer J.L. Dickson regarding an access road from Fort Sam Houston to Camp Bullis in San Antonio. Such projects were designated "war highways."

J.L. Dickson to Dewitt Greer, July 1943

San Antonio's Loop 13 was constructed to allow traffic between the city's military facilities to bypass congested city streets. This wartime memo proposes a re-routing to which Greer replies with his trademark decisiveness. Part of the loop still exists while other sections were incorporated into I-410.

In the end, about 1800 Highway Department employees, or about 30 percent of the entire work force of the agency, served in the armed forces during the war. The men and women who served were guaranteed that when they returned, their old jobs would be waiting for them. Twenty-two employees were killed in the war, with two missing in action and three taken prisoner; this number also included Greer’s brother Robert, who was captured in the fall of Corregidor and later died in a Japanese prison camp.

State Engineer Profile: Dewitt Greer (1940-1968)

Dewitt Greer

Dewitt Greer. Courtesy Texas Department of Transportation.

It is impossible to overstate the impact of Dewitt Greer on the Texas Highway Department or on the development of Texas roads in the 20th century. Quite simply, Greer designed and oversaw one of the greatest building projects in the history of the United States, and perhaps the world. In the 1950s, the magazine Texas Parade wrote of Greer without exaggeration, “Not since Cheops erected his great Pyramid in Egypt, perhaps, has so singular a monument as the Texas highway system been engineered to one man’s dream.”

Born in Shreveport in 1902, Greer grew up in Pittsburg, Texas, and received his
engineering degree from Texas A&M in 1923. He joined the Highway Department following stints at the Texas State Parks Board and as city engineer of Athens, Texas. In his early years, Greer had a liking for music: he played the trombone and met his wife Helen at a dance. But soon, Greer found his true calling in the building of roads. He liked to say that his work was his hobby and that the Highway Department was his life.

Greer was practical and tough without bluster. Often mistaken for a student well into his middle years, he impressed colleagues as a “gentle, learned man.” He took over as state engineer with a reputation for competence, integrity, and professionalism. He would mold the Highway Department into his own image, blurring the lines where the man ended and the agency began.

Greer would supervise the expenditure of over $4.5 billion ($35.5 billion in today’s money) without a hint of scandal. As one employee put it, “A contractor couldn’t buy him a cup of coffee.” And as Greer liked to say, the money was “under the rubber” of the motorists’ tires. Before Greer took over, the administrative overhead at the Texas Highway Department was about 30 percent of the budget. At the height of the Greer era, it ran about 1 percent.

But Dewitt Greer was more than a technocrat: he was a visionary who would leave a permanent stamp on the landscape of Texas. As the decades passed, he lectured around the world on constructing modern highways that served “a civilization geared to motor vehicles.” By the time he retired in 1968, Greer presided over a system of more than 68,000 miles of paved highway. He continued to serve as a highway commissioner for another dozen years. He was frequently consulted by state and agency leaders until his death in 1986.

Dallas Metropolitan Highway Plan, 1943
The Highway Department spent much time during the war years preparing for an expansion of the system. For Dallas, master plans included preparations for the expansion of Central Boulevard (now the Central Expressway), plans for an outer loop, and a major street plan. In developing this 1943 map, planners used a ratio of one car for every three Dallas residents, creating a plan to accommodate between 190,000 and 222,000 vehicles by 1970. The actual number proved to be closer to 367,000. Also note the estimated "possible limits of future urbanization."  Larger version of map

Materials such as asphalt, tar, and gasoline were strictly rationed during the war years, so the department performed little actual construction or even maintenance work. Greer carefully invested the revenue from the gas tax and automobile registrations in short-term government securities and put the staff to work on a detailed plan for massive post-war expansion of Texas highways.

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Page last modified: July 11, 2019