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

By Raft, Oxcart, and Canoe

Goodnight's Turnpike at Battle Creek in the Panhandle

"Goodnight's Turnpike" at Battle Creek in the Panhandle. Often called "the father of the Texas Panhandle," Charlie Goodnight, along with Oliver Loving, established the cattle trail from West Texas north to Wyoming in the 1860s. Their exploits later became the basis of the classic novel Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. Prints and Photographs Collection, 1975/53-5.

By 1836, the year of the Texas Revolution, more than 35,000 American immigrants had settled in Texas, outnumbering the Hispanic occupants by a ratio of ten to one. Over the next fifteen years, settlers from the United States continued to pour across the border. By 1850, Texas was a U.S. state with a population of 212,000.

By any measure it was a staggering transformation. More than ever, Texas needed highways: to carry mail and freight, to carry stagecoaches and immigrant wagons, to carry the army to wage war on the Indian frontier. But roads in Texas did not keep pace. Instead, Texans remained dependent on old trails that were little more than rutted tracks, dusty in the dry months and impassable when wet. As one historian wrote, a traveler in Texas might have to journey “by raft, oxcart, horseback, canoe, and horseback again” to reach his destination.

Lack of money was only one reason for the lack of progress in road-building. As elsewhere in the United States, maintenance of the trails was delegated to counties. By law, most counties required able-bodied men to contribute up to 10 days a year to road work. But in practice, much of the work was carried out by slaves or convicts and was confined to local roads, not highways. And Texas was too large, wild, and remote to attract private investors who might build turnpikes or bridges.

By any measure, breaking a new road was difficult, back-breaking work. Using only hand tools, a crew first had to cut down trees, pull stumps, and clear brush and overhanging branches. After the road was hacked out, the crew had to remove boulders, grade the road, dig drainage ditches, add retaining walls and bridges to keep the road from washing away, and construct any necessary fords at river crossings. It was little wonder that very little road-building took place in early Texas.

Instead, the new roads simply evolved just as the Indian trails had; from the regular use of travelers, immigrants, teamsters, and wagoners beating down paths. Little by little, Texans began to clear small sections of road, while enterprising locals set up ferries or built toll bridges across rivers and streams. New Orleans had replaced Saltillo as the most important market center for Texas crops, so many of the new roads were oriented to the Gulf Coast. Others pushed north and west towards the frontier army forts. A number of Texas towns, including Sherman and Gainesville, had their roots as stagecoach stops along these early roads.

Road Building in Europe

The Texas practice of delegating road building to the counties was in line with the rest of the United States. In fact, it was a practice inherited from England, which had long relied on a chaotic system of unpaid labor at the parish level to maintain medieval roads.

But in the 19th century, England and France embraced both new practices and new technologies, becoming the pioneers of modern road building. The French engineer Pierre Tresaguet led the first massive road-building effort since the days of ancient Rome, constructing roads with true foundations and graded surfaces. A few years later, the British engineer John Loudon MacAdam developed a formula for building well-drained, hard-surfaced roads that became known as “macadam” in his honor.

American engineers were faced with different challenges than those in Europe, including vast distances and rugged unbroken wilderness. After the failure of several early turnpike projects, American transportation efforts in this era focused on revolutionary solutions such as canals, steamboats, and railroads.

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Page last modified: July 11, 2019