The Old San Antonio Road near Bastrop, July 1941
Bastrop County project files, Texas Highway Department Records, Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives.
In 1854, journalist Frederick Law Olmsted was dispatched by the New York Times on an extensive research journey through the American South. Olmsted’s purpose was to discover the effects of slavery on the land and culture of the South. The young observer recorded his trip in fascinating detail, which he later published in a series of popular books. In A Journey Through Texas (1857), he was struck by the sheer difficulty of travel in the Lone Star State:
Steamboats land their coffee and salt on the Sabine and the Trinity, but no wheeled vehicles traverse the region. In two weeks’ ride we met with but one specimen, the “mud-cart” of a grocery peddler, whose wheels were broad blocks sawn from a log. … A traveler, other than a beef-speculator, was a thing unknown, and our object [purpose] was usually an incomprehensible mystery. Hardly once did we see a newspaper or a book …
After a journey in which he experienced everything from the water moccasins and alligators in East Texas to the thousand-foot canyons of the Llano Estacado to the quicksand of the Rio Grande Valley, Olmsted concluded acerbically that Texas roads were:
A mere collection of straggling wagon-ruts, extending for more than a quarter of a mile in width, from outside to outside, it being desirable, in this part of the country, rather to avoid the road than follow it.
Olmsted went on to transform himself from an observer of the landscape to the first great American landscape architect, designing Central Park in New York and countless other parks and public campuses. Likewise, Texas roads would be transformed from the frontier trails that were the bane of early travelers to a system of super-highways that won the Texas Highway Department a reputation as one of the best road-building organizations in the world.
Like any good road trip, the journey of Texas highways would be filled with setbacks and struggles, surprising sights, and unexpected detours. Along the way, Texas travelers would battle villains, discover heroes, and confront unexpected consequences that continue to play themselves out in our own times.