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 Great Age of Building - Page 1  | 1 | 2 | 3 |

"A Civilization Geared to Motor Vehicles"

A river bottom farm house near Utley, 1957
A river bottom farm house near Utley, Texas, was photographed in 1957 as part of a report detailing proposed routes for a farm-to-market road in Bastrop County. Such roads ended the isolation experienced by generations of rural Texans. More views of the Bastrop farm-to-market route.  Bastrop County project files, Texas Highway Department Records, Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives.

Because of the planning done by Greer and his staff, the Texas Highway Department hit the ground running in the years following World War II. In 1947, Texas accounted for 25 percent of the highway construction in the entire United States. Taken as a whole, these projects began the glory days of the Texas Highway Department. Over the next three decades, the department would win a reputation as one of the best in the nation.

By the early 1950s, all 22,000 miles of the system Greer had inherited in 1940 was now paved, and the highway system had been expanded to take in 24,000 miles of rural road. To better serve long-neglected farmers and ranchers, the Highway Department began to experiment with improvements such as hot topping, a process of improving gravel or dirt roads to withstand wet weather and heavy traffic. Eventually, the paving of farm and ranch roads would revolutionize country life in Texas, making school attendance much easier, connecting farms and ranches with town life, and eventually blurring the lines between the country and the suburbs.

Origin and Destination Survey of Alice, 1948

Origin and destination surveys, such as this one created in 1948 for Alice in Jim Wells County, allowed engineers to obtain data on vehicular traffic and then make recommendations.

Suburban life was something new for Texas, created in large part by the “civilization geared to motor vehicles” that Greer celebrated and that the Highway Department served. New superhighways, such as U.S. 77 near Gainesville and the Gulf Freeway between Houston and Galveston were regarded as engineering marvels that carried more traffic within months of opening than they were projected to carry in a decade.

In preparation for the long-delayed interstate construction, the Highway Department began to purchase rights-of-way and plan the construction of hub-and-spoke expressways to connect to the city centers of Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio. To make way for these highways and the parking garages needed by thousands of new commuters, large numbers of old buildings were torn down, transforming the downtown areas of these cities forever.

The Genesis of Interstate Highways

Cartoon of future Dallas highways, 1953
This cartoon of future Dallas highways was presented to the Texas State Highway Commission by the Dallas Chamber of Commerce in 1953. At the time, the Chamber was pushing for a loop from the downtown industrial district north to the Dallas-Denton county lines. View before-and-after images of the Dallas Central Expressway.  Requested Alternate Route of U.S. 77, Dallas County, Texas Highway Department Records, Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives.

In 1919, in the wake of World War I, the U.S. Army staged a demonstration trip from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco using the Lincoln Highway, the first cross-country road in America. Less a highway than a hodgepodge of cobbled-together local roads, the route had long stretches of unimproved road, and it took the trucks and tanks a whopping six weeks to reach their destination. The experiment was designed to show the national security risk associated with the nation’s bad roads and convince Congress to fund a planned network of large-scale paved highways.

One of the participants in the Army adventure was a young lieutenant colonel named Dwight Eisenhower, who would later have a little something to do with the creation of that network. In the meantime, there was widespread agreement that real highways were needed, but no funding behind the good wishes. In 1940, with another world war raging, the Army staged war games that once again demonstrated the poor condition of the nation’s roads and their inability to bear the traffic of heavy military vehicles.

In response, the Highway Act of 1940 designated 78,000 miles of road, including 6375 miles in Texas, as having “prime military importance.” After the United States entered World War II, there was no money or manpower for highway construction, but for the first time the government undertook serious planning for a system of roads. In 1944, the Interregional Highway Committee released a 20-year plan for a system of routes that would connect all U.S. cities with a population greater than 300,000, plus 59 of the 62 cities with a population over 100,000. The entire route would encompass more than 39,000 miles of road. The state highway departments were asked to submit their ideas for interstate routes to federal planners by the following year.

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Page last modified: July 11, 2019