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

Good Roads for Texas - Page 1  | 1 | 2 | 3 |

A Revolution in Transportation

Waco suspension bridge, illustration from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, 1871

In 1871, the popular journal Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper spotlighted the Waco Suspension Bridge with these words: "Waco, an old Indian village on the right bank of the Brazos River, Texas, has treated itself to an ornamental and substantial wire suspension bridge, which speaks well of the enterprise of her business men. The builder of the bridge was Thomas M. Griffith, engineer, of New York, whose practical judgment was put to a severe strain. The work was construced in a town where there were no machine shops ... He was obliged to improvise much of the machinery used in the construction." By all accounts the bridge was vital in the transformation of Waco into a major commercial center of Texas. It still stands and is used today as a pedestrian bridge and gathering spot for the city of Waco. Prints and Photographs Collection, 1993/202-8.

With its enormous size and rugged terrain, Texas seemed a natural for railroads, and by 1860 nine railroad companies were operating in Texas, most of them fanning out from the seaports on the Gulf Coasts. The Civil War was ruinous for these efforts; in fact, it would be 20 years before railroad construction roared back to life. But when it finally did occur, the Texas railroad boom had a revolutionary impact, ending the frontier era in Texas forever and leading to the growth of Texas cities and industry.

But this revolution in transportation did nothing for Texas highways (though it strongly influenced where they would eventually be built). Roads were still the responsibility of counties, most of which were strapped for cash and limited their efforts to, at most, filling potholes and removing stumps and rocks from the right-of-way. The most notable construction of the era came in bridge-building, particularly the spectacular Waco suspension bridge across the Brazos (1870) and the Congress Avenue Bridge across the Colorado at Austin (built 1884; replaced by the present bridge in 1910). Both bridges helped their cities become major commercial centers. Aside from these projects, Texas roads remained essentially dirt wagon tracks without so much as gravel or grading, no better than they had been in the Spanish era.

Come to Texas if you want to see good roads. Good and rough, good and muddy. – Bell County farmer

But support for better roads was growing nationwide, spurred by the political influence of farmers, who wanted better roads to haul their crops to railheads. Beginning in the 1890s, the farm-oriented Good Roads movement joined forces with the League of American Wheelmen, an association promoting yet another popular new transportation phenomenon, the bicycle. By 1893, these two groups had developed enough clout to prompt Congress to fund a new Office of Road Inquiry (part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture) and authorize the first nationwide survey of the state of American roads.

Austin's Congress Avenue Bridge

Austin's Congress Avenue Bridge. Prints and Photographs Collection, 1/5-6.

In 1895, the commission’s report stated, among other conclusions, that Texas had made less progress towards good roads than any other state. The Texas legislature was spurred to action, funding the first use of tax dollars to improve Texas roads, including the first maps, drainage ditches, and mile markers.

Young couple with bicycles in front of the Pease Mansion, circa 1900
A young couple posing with their bicycles in front of "Woodlawn" (also known as the Pease Mansion) in Austin, circa 1900. Richard Niles Graham Collection, Prints and Photographs Collection, 1964/306-1668.

By the late 1890s, many of the bicycle “wheelmen” were on to a new and experimental European technology known as the automobile. In 1899, Colonel Ned Green, son of the wealthy heiress Hetty Green, imported the first car to Texas. Green raced the car through the streets of Terrell at a terrifying 15 miles per hour, but outside of town he wasn’t so lucky: the 30-mile trip from Terrell to Dallas took five hours.

The Texas Railroad Boom

Map detail, Railroad map of Texas, 1893
Detail, Railroad and County Map of Texas, December 1893
Texas State Archives Map Number 1688
More details and full-sized image

The cattle drives are without a doubt one of the most potent symbols of the Texas legend. Between 1869 and 1871, Texas ranchers rounded up, branded, and drove millions of head of cattle north to the railhead in Kansas. At one point, the massively successful Chisholm Trail was beaten into a path 50 miles wide from the immensity of the traffic.

Profits to be made in cattle and cotton finally brought Texas into the age of railroad construction, an era of engineering prowess not seen since the days of the Roman Empire. The construction of the railroad network in the United States is all the more remarkable considering that almost every aspect—from surveying to constructing the roadbed and laying track to cutting wood for ties and stone for piers—was still done largely by hand. At the peak of construction in the 1880s, some 8,000-10,000 men were laboring on the construction of railroads in Texas alone, supported by thousands of horses hauling untold tons of supplies.

The railroads spelled the end of cattle drives, stage coach lines, and ox-cart freighting. The routes chosen had a profound and permanent effect on the development of Texas cities, leading to explosive growth for Dallas (cotton), Fort Worth (cattle), San Antonio (military troops), and Laredo (coal). The railroads also catapulted the Texas economy into the modern age, bringing with them electricity, the telegraph, and the telephone.

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Page last modified: July 11, 2019