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 3   | 1 | 2 | 3 |

Roadblocks and Politics

Old Highway 221 in Bell County
Old Highway 221 in Bell County near Heidenheimer in a 1942 photo. The gravel road was originally constructed with county funds in 1913. Bell County project files, Texas Highway Department Records, Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives.

The legislators might have been unwilling to consider creating a state highway authority, but they were not inactive in trying to meet the needs for better roads in other ways. The first speed limit was set in 1907 at 18 miles per hour. And counties were given more authority to build roads, including issuing voter-authorized bonds for road projects and acquiring land for new roads. Several counties seized the initiative and undertook major projects. Bexar County began to gravel every road within 10 miles of San Antonio, Cooke County voted to gravel roads east and west of Gainesville and south to the Denton county line, and Bell County graded and graveled a road to Temple.

By 1912, a macadamized road had been constructed between Dallas and Fort Worth, and a road race was featured as part of the Texas State Fair. Still, paved roads remained the exception. By 1914, 10,527 miles of road in Texas had been graded or graveled for automobile traffic, but only 703 were paved with a hard surface, about six percent of the total (nationwide, the total was about 12%).

H. Berryman Terrell of McLennan County
H. Berryman Terrell of McLennan County went on to serve as Texas state comptroller from 1915-1919. Portrait from Texas -- The Country and Its Men, by L.E. Daniell.

Throughout the nineteen-teens, pressure mounted on legislators to do something to improve Texas roads. In 1913, an innovative bill authored by H.B. Terrell of McLennan County actually passed both houses of the legislature. The bill provided for a state highway fund that would be paid with fees for auto registration and license plates.

The fund would be administered by a three-member commission with the authority to hire a state engineer and staff. The commission’s members would consist of an independent engineer along with the civil engineering professors from the University of Texas and the Agricultural & Mechanical College of Texas (now Texas A&M University). The board’s composition was intended to send a message that the highways would be designed and built according to science, not politics. The message backfired. Governor Oscar Colquitt, long a supporter of good roads, vetoed the bill rather than see such plum positions go to academics who already had positions with the state.

Grading on future U.S. Highway 49 in Wharton County, 1916
A grading project takes place on the future U.S. Highway 59 in Wharton County, 1916. Courtesy Texas Department of Transportation.

To good-roads advocates, it must have seemed that the debate would go on forever. But in 1916, a new federal law would force the state to take action.

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Page last modified: July 11, 2019