Good Roads for Texas
"Road Hogs and Speed Cranks"
Returning from the hunt in Orange, Texas, circa 1910.
Prints and Photographs Collection, 1975/70-1755
It would be another three years before the second car arrived in Texas, purchased as a company vehicle for the Texas & Pacific Railroad. By 1903, there were enough cars in Texas to stage the first road race, in which enthusiasts raced the 45 miles from Fort Worth to Dallas with a rather impressive winning time of one hour and 35 minutes.
The early vehicles required patience, tinkering, and a high level of mechanical skill. Automobile buffs were regarded by most Texans as wealthy eccentrics, or, as one official in Grayson County put it, “road hogs and speed cranks.” But rapidly evolving technology was soon to change that. In 1904, Olds Motors Works produced the first successful American car, and in 1908, Henry Ford made one of industry’s great breakthroughs, producing a car that combined European quality with the breathtaking cost savings achieved by mass production.
Ford’s car, called simply the Model T, cost under $600 (about $13,000 in today’s dollars)—well within the reach of a huge swath of the American public. Moreover, Ford had designed the car specifically for bad roads. Ford’s innovation sparked explosive growth in automobile ownership. By 1910, there were about 14,000 cars in Texas. By 1917, there were more than 200,000.
All across the country, roads did not keep pace. The first edition of the American Automobile Association’s “blue book” of auto routes, published in 1910, recommended that members setting out on a road trip take along a shovel, crowbar, and axe; rope, chains, and mud hooks; cement; a flash light and compass; spare parts; and a gun. Texas members were advised to add a pick and a barbed-wire cutter to the kit.
Increasingly, the old county system of road building was seen as antiquated and wasteful, and across the board in Texas, the call for good roads grew louder. It seemed roads were something everyone could agree on: Democrats and Republicans, progressives and populists, the press, a string of governors, even farmers and their traditional enemies, the railroads (who clearly did not foresee the development of long-haul trucking and commercial bus lines). Beginning in 1903, every legislative session saw a bill introduced to hire a state engineer to plan for a highway system, set road building standards, and make maps.
Yet in spite of the public clamor for roads, these bills repeatedly failed. One overriding issue was funding, but memories of Reconstruction also played a role. Many legislators and county officials had bitter memories of the central control that the state had been forced to endure in the aftermath of the Civil War. The idea of the state removing such a major responsibility as road-building from county control was politically unacceptable to an entire generation of leadership.