From Pioneer Paths to Superhighways - The Texas Highway Department Blazes Texas Trails 1917-1968
Get the Farmer Out of the Mud
Detail, Map Showing Proposed System of Texas State Highways, 1917.
Texas State Archives Map Number 6254
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In 1916, after years of debate, the federal government decided to take an active role in the construction of a coordinated system of highways. A world war was raging in Europe, and in spite of public pledges to keep the nation out of war, both President Woodrow Wilson and Congress were well aware the United States might become involved. If so, the nation’s patchwork system of roads would prove a huge handicap in moving around troops and supplies.
In a 1916 meeting of the Texas Good Roads Association, members discussed legislation and whether owners of "the better class of cars" should pay more than Model T owners.
Expenditures of federal dollars range from 50-foot chains to breakfast for four in this 1920 report.
The Federal Road Act of 1916 provided $75 million over five years for highway construction within each state. The money was allocated using a formula based on the state’s population, geographic size, and number of post roads. (To satisfy constitutional questions, the law technically applied to roads over which the mail, already a federal responsibility, was carried. Conveniently, almost every road in the country qualified.) The formula gave Texas the largest allocation of any state—if it could take advantage of it. To qualify for the money, the state had to pledge a 50% matching portion of funds for highway construction, assume responsibility for maintaining the roads once they were constructed, and create a highway department staffed with qualified road engineers.
The incentive was far too great to pass up. In 1917, the legislature created the Texas Highway Department and charged the new agency with the simple mandate of “getting the farmer out of the mud.” A three-member commission was empowered to hire a state engineer to be paid $5000 a year ($80,000 in today’s dollars), along with three field engineers.
In order that the general public may enjoy the use of the public highways with reasonable safety, I am in favor of a law making it a jail penalty to run an automobile more than ten miles an hour [in town] or more than 24 miles an hour on a county road. There is an imperative demand that the speed maniac be dealt with in some dramatic fashion. –Governor James E. Ferguson, 1917.
Creating a highway system from scratch was a daunting task, but the commission designated 26 routes for the first Texas projects, or about 9000 miles of road (approximately six percent of the eligible roads in Texas). The old role of counties would also be preserved. Counties had the responsibility for proposing new road projects and for maintaining the roads after they were constructed. The state engineer and field engineers would review the plans and inspect the work.
To demonstrate the need for better roads for national security, the Army staged convoys of military vehicles to put the nation's roads to the test. Here engineers from a 1920 convoy inspect a wooden bridge in Bowie County near Blossom that proved inadequate to the task. All in all, the 85-mile trip from Texarkana to Bonham to Dallas took four days. View more images
Memoranda for Captain J.D. Fauntleroy, Report of Observation of Bankhead Highway Transcontinental Survey, August 25, 1920. Bureau of Public Roads, Fort Worth Office, Texas Highway Department Records, Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives.
To come up with the required matching funds, the state levied the first auto registration fees, set at 35 cents per horsepower, or a minimum of $7.50 (an expensive $120 in today’s dollars). To take the registrations, the just-born department set up temporary headquarters in the House chamber of the Texas capitol building, where they issued stickers to show an applicant had paid. License plates would come later: in the meantime, ingenious motorists were expected to make their own out of wood or leather.
State Engineer Profile: George Duren (1917-1919)
The son of a cattleman, George Duren was born in Petty’s Chapel near Coriscana in 1881. After receiving an engineering degree from the University of Texas, he became a railroad engineer and also served as the city engineer of Corsicana. As the first Texas state engineer, Duren oversaw the first vehicle registration and the construction of the first section of paved highway in Texas, a 25-mile stretch through Hays County near the present route of Interstate 35. After being replaced in 1919, Duren became the city engineer of University Park, near Dallas. Duren’s eventual fate is mysterious. He left both the state and his family for Illinois, never to return. He died sometime before 1958.