Long before the modern convenience of many miles of well maintained asphalt roads, a “road” was a different thing altogether. So far on Highway See, we’ve covered a big picture of the history of Tennessee’s road system. With that in mind, now it is time to start diving into the answers to one crucial question. How did these roads come about? In this episode, we’re going to step back into time to get a glimpse, through some invigorating historical documents and commentary, of the earliest days of road building and the communities involved across the state of Tennessee.
In this episode host Chris Hill guides us through these fascinating early days of roads:
Chris: Welcome to Highway See, the podcast that explores the history of Tennessee’s road infrastructure and why building better roads benefits us all.
Chris: In our last episode, we talked about how the roads of Tennessee came to be what they are today. With this episode, we’re going to go deeper into that story. We’re going back to a time before automobiles existed, before Tennessee was a state, to a time when traveling was by foot, horseback, or boat. We’ll then follow Tennessee’s journey from a nearly impassible landscape of mud, trees, and mountains to the early roads that created the insatiable appetite to drive and go. Susie Alcorn is the creator and executive producer of Highway See.
In her quest to create this podcast, she took us to Rogersville—unofficially the second oldest town in Tennessee—where we were given historical resources far greater than we could have ever expected. Those resources were two historic books given to us by the Hawkins County Historian, George Webb. For decades, he has amassed an unrivaled private collection of historical books, documents, and images related to Tennessee, and especially the area in and around Hawkins County, his native homeplace. These books, along with a third we uncovered, give us a unique historical view of Tennessee’s roads as they first began. Susie takes the story from here.
Susie: We visited with George Webb, who has been a book and rare antiquities dealer of Tennessee collectibles for 50 years or more, and what we ended up coming away with was just this treasure trove of written history on Tennessee’s roads. He kind of had forecast the possibility that we might leave with something because he said, “I looked for this book earlier that I didn’t find, and if after we talk, I do find it, I’ll give it to you.” So, I did kind of have my eye peeled toward the bookshelves as we finished, but in truth, it did lead to us walking out with two books.
Chris: When the enlightening visit was over, Susie had two historical books in hand, and they became two of the three book sources we used for this episode.
Susie: One, Mr. Webb had referred to as a ‘common book’, and it was published in 1959. It’s a green book with gold letters that’s very similar to many other state publications that I’ve had the opportunity to see over many years. The common book, as Mr. Webb had described it, is called The History of Tennessee Highway Department and is published in 1959.
It’s compiled by the State Highway Department in cooperation with the US Department of Commerce Bureau of Public Roads. It was the precursor to US DOT. In this book, it covers quite a bit beginning around 1900, but it also does go back in time and gives us glimpses of things back into the late 1700s even, and the end of the 1800s.
Chris: The second book, a more rare find in fragile condition and protected in a plastic sleeve, is what Susie describes next.
Susie: So, this delicate book, as I’ve called it, is titled Report of the State Highway Commissioner of Tennessee. And inside the front cover, it says, “For the biennium ending June 30th, 1932.” So, we looked first inside the book and there were several interesting things about it and it was clear there were going to be interesting pieces that we could use for Highway See. We returned to that map, pulled it out of the pocket, and unfurled the map. It’s a long Tennessee on one side of this map that was published from 1932.
The inspection of this map truly was taking us back though, illustrating a far more primitive road system from today’s that gave a glimpse of what the Tennessee State Highway Commissioner and his team envisioned that system to become in the upcoming years. And they have several categories of roads listed in the legend. So, the legend shows paved roads, then it says ‘good stone or gravel maintained,’ ‘poor stone or gravel,’ ‘dirt maintained,’ ‘unimproved’ and ‘under construction.’ And it gives us a sense of, truly, the construction that was going on in that timeframe in 1932 when this was published.
Chris: Wow, did you catch that? In the era of 1932, there were state-maintained roads that were gravel and even dirt roads, and the poor stone or gravel roads that were maintained were listed on the map too. A maintained road is one that is periodically inspected and repaired when needed by the state or county.
Susie: When folding up this map, it was really interesting because I read everything on the front, but one of the notable things for me was that the commissioner’s name was on the map. And in this case, it said, “R.H. Baker, State Highway Commissioner.”
As I closed the book, we saw the embossed name on the cover of the book was R.H. Baker. So, I’ll just say, goosebumps appeared; I was so excited. George Webb, who was—dealt in these books and rare antiquities, for me, had given me something very, very special. George Webb had not only given me a historical and delicate old book, it was actually the commissioner’s copy of the Commissioner’s Report of the State Highway Commission. It was just a really, really cool moment.
Chris: How exciting to have Tennessee Highway Commissioner R.H. Baker’s own copy of his report from 1932. In addition to the 1932 and 1959 books we received from George Webb, there is a third book that we use in this episode, titled The Walton Road: A Nineteenth Century Wilderness Highway in Tennessee. All three of these books span many years of Tennessee road construction, and we’ll be using excerpts from each of them in chronological order.
So, let’s start by talking about the very first roads in existence. The History of the Tennessee Highway Department in 1959—which will be voiced by Sevier County native Darrin Kirkus who has worked with Tennessee Infrastructure Alliance for more than a decade—has this to say.
Darrin: “The very first roads to be built, the construction of which anything definite is known, are those military roads of ancient Rome. One of the oldest of these roads, and the most celebrated for grandeur and significance—the Appian Way—was commenced in 312 B.C. When not in use by the army, farmers and merchants could use this road to transport their produce and wares to market. We look into history and see this road used as an avenue for the spread of religion—Saint Paul walked on this way—law, government, and all facets of Roman culture. Thus safety, business, and culture became, early in history, purposes for which the roads were used.
“Highways are acknowledged to be one of the world’s greatest civilizing agencies. Over them, commerce has expanded, and social and civic intercourse between communities and states exists and thrives. This was true of the primitive by-paths, overland trails, wagon roads, and stagecoach lines; the ways over which a hardy pioneering people traveled in quest of freedom, happiness, and prosperity.”
Chris: Here in Tennessee, those primitive by-paths were typically created by animals and then better worn by the use of native people.
Darrin: “The animals that roamed the fields and woods in search of salt, food, water, and safety made paths beside the placid rivers, over the majestic mountains, and through the fertile plains. The earliest residents of Tennessee were the Mound Dwellers, so-called because of the large earth mounds they built. These early inhabitants made their paths so plain that the very first evidence of traveled ways in the state was furnished by these obscure people, who apparently had attained a considerable cultural development.”
Chris: Still today, any of us can take a road trip to Manchester, Tennessee, and visit those prehistoric earth mounds in Old Stone Fort State Archaeological Park.
Darrin: “It would be impossible to evaluate the aboriginal influence on our present-day highway system, but we may be certain that many of our highways today follow the general location of trails.”
Chris: As early as the 1500s, explorers from Europe began to travel these traces and paths, and sometimes blaze new paths of their own.
Darrin: “De Soto must have made paths in 1540. In 1673, east and middle Tennessee were penetrated by explorers and fur traders. Early in the eighteenth century, the French made paths along their way. The road through Cumberland Gap is of uncertain origin but surely holds a secure place in the list of roads in antiquity. It was at one time known as part of the ‘Great War Path.’
“Dr. Thomas Walker used it in 1750 when he gave Cumberland Gap its name. Daniel Boone traveled through this gap in 1760. He covered the same area again in 1775 when he and thirty-six axemen cut a road that took the name ‘The Wilderness Road.’ The first permanent white settler was William Bean who, in 1768, built a cabin near the Watauga River. He blazed a trail for others and they came in large numbers.”
Chris: The Watauga River winds for about 78 miles in Upper East Tennessee through Elizabethton and Watauga, several miles east of Johnson City. ‘Watauga’ often refers to this general area before the modern-day cities arose.
Darrin: “Additionally, there was a wagon road constructed in 1778 from Burke County, North Carolina, to Jonesborough, the county seat of Washington County and Tennessee’s oldest town. It was to serve as the capital of the State of Franklin from 1784 to 1788. People needed roads over which they could travel to this important place. They opened them. In 1780, the Government of Nobles, a kind of court elected by the people of the new settlement at Nashborough, decreed that a path be cleared to a width of ten feet on each side, showing others the way from Watauga to Nashborough. It is certain that the path was never cleared along the entire route, but part of it was most surely opened.”
Chris: Haven’t heard of Nashborough? Founded on the bank of the Cumberland River by James Robertson in 1780, we call it Nashville today. This clear path decreed in 1780, though not achieved until many years later, hoped to connect the present-day areas of Johnson City, Tennessee, and Nashville, Tennessee, a journey of nearly 300 miles.
Now, let’s look deeper into some of the early significant roads of this era we’re visiting. You may remember that a trace is technically a path created by animals. In the times before 1800, when buffalo were roaming Tennessee, those traces could become quite substantial. Later, some roads that generally followed these traces kept that term in their name. Avery Trace was one of the first constructed roads, connecting East and Middle Tennessee, but it was built before the State of Tennessee existed and at that time, the region was part of North Carolina. We learn more about it from our second book today, The Walton Road: A Nineteenth Century Wilderness Highway in Tennessee—as voiced by Raymon White former TDOT official from 1996 to 2000.
Raymon: “The Avery Trace was the first major road through the region. Commissioned by the North Carolina General Assembly in 1786, the trace was essentially a wagon road ten feet wide, cut through the forest from Fort Southwest Point in Kingston to the Mero District in Davidson County.”
Chris: Davidson County is the county where Nashville, Tennessee is located. Back in the 1700s, before most of the city and county names we’re familiar with were used, practically the entire area of northern Middle Tennessee was designated as the Mero District, and generally centered around the settlement of the Cumberland River that would become Nashville. Here, The Walton Road book describes the path of the Avery Trace using some current places and roads to indicate its location.
Raymon: “The trace passed through Roane County and ascended the plateau via Emory Gap near the town of Harriman. Moving through Morgan County, it entered Putnam County at Standing Stone in Monterey, and then descended the western escarpment of the plateau. Passing White Plains in what would become Cookeville, the road paralleled highway U.S. 70 in western Putnam County.
“In Jackson County, it descended into the Cumberland River valley along Flynn’s Creek, crossed the river at Fort Blount in Williamsburg. Passing through Smith Bend, it remained north of the river, entering the Mero District from the north. This road, completed in 1788, served as the only east-west passageway through the region for about fifteen years.”
Chris: Here we learn from the Tennessee State Library and Archives, quote, “On May 26, 1790, President George Washington signed into law an act of Congress that established the Territory of the United States south of the River Ohio, also known as the Southwest Territory, embracing the western lands ceded by the state of North Carolina on December 22, 1789.” The new territory would have a general assembly of legislators and a governor. Quote, “The extent of the new territory was well defined. Containing about 43,000 square miles of land, it was restricted to North Carolina’s western district bounded on the north, by the boundary of North Carolina and Virginia; on the west, by a line in the middle of the Mississippi River; on the south, by the parallel 35 degrees north, and on the east by a jagged line running from the northeast to southwest connecting some dominant mountain peaks. It was this territory that in 1796 would become the state of Tennessee.” “It was believed that road-building was essential for the territory in order to gain statehood.”
Darrin: “The need of and desire for better roads was expressed by the session of the General Assembly in 1794, by authorizing the raising of a fund for cutting and clearing a wagon road from southwest point to the settlement on the Cumberland River in the Mero District, by lottery.”
Chris: Raising funds for a road with a lottery, while not uncommon for that time, may be surprising today. This act passed by the General Assembly of the Southwest Territory and signed by the territory governor, William Blount, quote, “Created a lottery to pay for a wagon road from the Southwest Point to the settlements on the Cumberland River in the Mero District.” You can find the link to more details and see an image of the original act in the show notes. It further prescribed how and by whom lottery tickets would be sold to build this wagon road which, in present-day terms, would go from the region of Kingston, Tennessee, to the region of Nashville, Tennessee. In 1796, John Sevier became the governor as the Southwest Territory was becoming the State of Tennessee, and served as Tennessee’s first governor.
Darrin: “In Governor John Sevier’s message to the Tennessee Legislature on April 1st, 1796, he submitted a letter from the Governor of South Carolina relative to making a wagon road over the western mountains, and recommended some action by the legislature. This request by the first governor to the first legislature regarding the first road program was denied.
“Surely these freshmen in state government were as aware of the condition of the roads as the one who wrote, ‘There were no real roads connecting Tennessee with older states or the settlements with each other. Along a few trails, the trees had been cut out and rocks thrown into the deepest mud holes. Wagons bumping along on these roads often got hung up on high stumps or overturned in deep ruts. Most travelers went on foot, or horseback, or by boat.’”
Chris: There’s a suspicion that the low enthusiasm on the part of the first Tennessee Legislature could have been more because of the lack of funds than a lack of interest in the project. Tennessee officially became a state on June 1, 1796. About 3 years later, they would begin to take action.
Darrin: “Perhaps the first state highway commission, consisting of three men, were appointed to supervise the building and maintenance of the road and administer the expenditure of probably the first appropriation for road purposes.”
Chris: This first Tennessee road project would be the Cumberland Turnpike but most folks would call it the Walton Road. Preceded by the Avery Trace, it would follow its path at some points and improve upon it at others. We learn more of the Walton Road’s origin from the book of the same name.
Raymon: “In 1799, the General Assembly of the new state-appointed William Walton along with William Martin and Robert Kyle to establish a new east-west road. October 26, 1799, Captain Walton contracted to open and build the road. This he did, and subsequently became the owner of it and established along the route stands at which he kept supplies, derived mainly from the Cumberland river farm for the accommodation of immigrants.”
Chris: These stands that Captain William Walton built along the road were something like the rest stops or markets and motels we find at exits along our interstates today. People traveling on horseback or in horse-drawn wagons needed food, water, and rest for their animals and themselves along the way. Walton’s stands were a safe and convenient facility to provide those needs at a reasonable cost, as they made their journey on this new route west.
Raymon: “The first of these stands going east from Carthage, was located near Pekin Putnam County, the second at White Plains at the foot of the mountains, the third at Crab Orchard on the plateau of the mountains in Cumberland County, and the fourth at Kimbrough’s at the eastern foot of the mountains in Roane County. The highway was completed and thrown open to travel in 1801, being nearer than the Kentucky route by one-half or more resulted in turning to this route a large number of immigrants from Virginia and the Carolinas, seeking homes in Middle and West Tennessee and beyond the Mississippi and Ohio, hence greatly expedited populating Tennessee.”
Chris: This new much faster route west via Tennessee meant more people chose to travel through Tennessee and as they did, many chose to settle here.
Raymon: “Walton Road, from its origins through its later improvements, seems almost organic in the way that it uniquely influenced the settlement of the area between Cumberland Plateau and the Cumberland River. Although it was not the first road through the area, and although it followed older paths at several points, its place in Tennessee history remains significant. Fortuitously built at the time when settlers stood ready to move into and across the heretofore wild and largely unsettled area. It granted access to the settlements in Davidson County from the more populated areas around Knoxville. A sufficiently secure and passable roadway, the Walton Road enticed settlers to make the journey. A superhighway over one hundred miles long through the wilderness, it was officially named Cumberland Turnpike, but it was always called Walton Road.”
Chris: Turnpike. That’s a curious word, isn’t it? We all think of a turnpike as some type of well-traveled road, but why is the term turnpike used? Here’s a hint: a pike is a long, thick spear, something you certainly would NOT want to run into. The 1959 book The History of the Tennessee Highway Department has the full answer.
Darrin: “In 1801, Sevier County was authorized to open a road and fix a turnpike thereon. This idea of a turnpike arrived with the early settlers from England where toll gates were constructed with long spears or pikes directed toward the vehicles. When the toll was paid, the gate turned parallel to the road, allowing the vehicle or animal to pass. From this device came the name turnpike, which almost immediately came to mean a road on which toll gates or turnpikes were erected. No fewer than eighteen roads were authorized to be cut from 1801 to 1811. Most of these were to have turnpikes erected on them.”
Chris: So, a turnpike was not originally a road, but a rotating gate of pikes that controlled access to the road because often in those days, you had to pay to enter it.
Darrin: “The Legislature, in the extra session, enacted a law authorizing Governor Sevier to appoint commissioners to supervise the opening of a road between the States of Georgia and Tennessee. It was approved on first day of November, 1804, and the only specifications concerning the road were that it must be fifteen feet wide and quote, ‘So, cleared as to admit a load of wagons running with convenience.’”
Chris: Of course, the need for and importance of something as far-reaching and impactful as roads was not going to be static. The demand grew as people traveled more and continued moving west in ever-increasing numbers. Increased travel meant increased wear, and an improvement to the Walton Road was identified.
Darrin: “The need of improving transportation facilities was emphasized by Governor McMinn in 1815. A Commissioner was named for the road from Kingston to Carthage with authority to mark out the route over which the road could be better laid out. A suitable person was to be elected to a ten-year term to keep the road in repair. Two roads, one from Knoxville and one from Nashville, both to Alabama, were recommended. This recommendation fell on deaf ears. No adequate action was taken.
“Tennessee was developing, and the general development of the state and the roads were each dependent on the other. About this time, the Great National Road from Washington to New Orleans claimed the attention of the Lawmakers of Tennessee. They, by resolution, suggested a route through the center of the state to a point on the Mississippi River near Memphis.”
Chris: The demand for and building of roads continued to grow as projects were taken on by public and private interests.
Darrin: “Private companies, sometimes assisted by the state, built a considerable mileage of turnpikes. At one time, nine hundred such private companies were operating in Tennessee. Generally, the turnpikes were built on reasonably good grades to accommodate horse-drawn vehicles, but the alignment often left much to be desired.”
Chris: This means the roads could be traveled, but not without some difficulty. That the ‘alignment left much to be desired’ meant that the curves could be too sharp, or the road was unlevel, or may not provide a clear view of the road ahead. It was certainly progress, but there was plenty of room for improvement and that’s just what they set out to do with a new method of building roads.
One of the most significant developments in road construction during these early days of building roads in the United States was imported from Scotland, courtesy of an engineer named John McAdam. As his method of building roads was adapted and translated through at least 2 languages and a myriad of distinct regional dialects, it got pronounced various ways. Most commonly, it was called the macadam [mac-uh-DAM] plan or a macadamized [mac-ADAM-ized] road.
Darrin: Quote, “The State of Tennessee has in it’s contemplation to make a state turnpike road on the macadam plan, from the Virginia line to the Mississippi River, providing she can obtain the adequate funds.” Close quote. It is an interesting fact that one hundred years were to pass before a paved road, 537 miles long with the necessary bridges, would be opened along this route, fulfilling the desire expressed in this resolution. The macadam plan mentioned in the resolution was a type of road construction conceived by a Scottish engineer named John McAdam who, early in the nineteenth century, exerted a tremendous influence on road building, first abroad and later here in America. His small stone method had met with an enthusiastic reception in Europe; and even earlier, Telford’s large stone method was widely acclaimed.
“Both arrived in America about the same time, and although the Telford Base was extensively used, the method of McAdam became so popular that a macadamized road was almost synonymous with ‘a good road.’ The first macadam road in Tennessee was built in 1831. The influence of McAdam was keenly felt from that time on and added needed impetus to the attempts to improve the transportation facilities in the state.”
Chris: So, a macadam road was built with compacted, small or crushed stones, thick enough to lift the road above the mud and features of the terrain so it could be smooth and level, and water would drain away well. This is generally how roads are still built today. It seems like common sense now, but in the early 1800s, it was a technological breakthrough. At the same time, simpler methods were still being used where the available resources or knowledge dictated.
Darrin: “There were parts of Tennessee, however, where corduroy and plank roads were much in demand because of the nature of the terrain. Plank road construction companies were formed. The Pigeon Roost Road in Memphis was a plank road, as was the Hales Point Turnpike, which was sixteen feet wide at the top.”
Chris: In case you’re wondering what corduroy or plank roads are, plank roads are probably self-explanatory: they are built when planks are laid end-to-end to cover the road and to provide a flat surface. Corduroy roads, or log roads, use a similar method. Logs would be laid next to each other, covering swampy or muddy areas in the road to provide stability and substance for the wagons to cross over. It was by no means smooth to wheel across logs, but it was much better than getting stuck in the mud. Individuals and private companies had been the original builders of the first roads, usually at their own expense, and often those roads remained private allowing whoever built it to charge a toll, recoup their cost, and even make a profit. It wasn’t until the late 1800s that a law about public roads was officially put into place.
Darrin: “In 1889, the General Assembly designated a system of public roads stating, quote, ‘That all the roads now laid out according to law, or shall be laid out, shall be deemed Public Roads.’” close quote.
Chris: Across the country, Americans experiencing the poor condition of roads were speaking up about it. In many places, they banded together to be sure the need was addressed. In Tennessee, a grassroots movement successfully organized the State Road Congress of 1890. It was made up of citizens from every county who would meet in the state capitol to make sure the next session of the legislature had the issue before them.
Darrin: “They convened at noon on August 26th, 1890, and adjourned in the evening of the following day. As a result of this convention, a carefully drawn instrument was prepared requesting the immediate attention to this vital question.”
Chris: The 46th General Assembly of Tennessee met the demand of the State Road Congress of 1890 with the Tennessee Road Law of 1891.
Darrin: “When the lawmakers met in 1891, they were confronted with this insistent demand for action on the public roads question, and the Tennessee Road Law of 1891 resulted.”
Chris: Following the passage of the Tennessee Road Law of 1891, the office of the United States Secretary of Agriculture, while investigating the condition of public roads in America, reported that, “The new road law of Tennessee—1891—is an admirable example of county control. Giving the county courts full power and direct control over roads should eliminate the evil influences of local politics and the easy methods that prevail.” The process works very differently today, but putting the central authority over roads with the county courts was a good solution for that time. All this growth was unprecedented, but one of the greatest changes ever to our roads and our very way of life in America was only about a decade away. The gears were already turning for the creation and soon to follow mass production of the automobile.
Darrin: “The first automobile was built in 1893, and by 1895 there were four registered in the United States. This new instrument of transportation which was to have such a profound influence on our economy and way of life created a new and more persuasive demand for better roads. In 1899, a law was enacted permitting the counties to buy the turnpikes with county warrants from the companies and stipulating that after all expenses and debts were paid, the road was to become a free public road and to be maintained as such. In 1902, the American Road Makers—to be incorporated in 1910 as the American Road Builders Association—was organized and carried forward the movement started by the League of American Wheelmen. Also in 1902, the American Automobile Association was organized to represent the ever-growing number of automobile owners.
“These and other organizations added their voice to the individual voices in Tennessee, sowing the seeds of discontent which were to germinate and bring forth fruit in a few years. Although there were only 8,000 motor vehicles in 1900 in the entire United States, by 1913 there were 14,830 in Tennessee alone; 14,830 motor vehicles and an indeterminable number of horse-drawn vehicles proved to be more than the existing roads could accommodate.”
Chris: Continued advancement in road construction methods and the daily increase of automobiles meant building roads in Tennessee was booming. That third book we mentioned, The Report of the State Highway Commissioner of Tennessee from 1932 describes Tennessee in the midst of the most far-reaching industrial readjustment ever known at the time of its writing. Excerpts of that report are read today by Kent Starwalt, the longest-serving head of the Tennessee Road Builders Association in the organization’s history.
Kent: “Prior to 1909, the highway activity of the state was conducted by several counties. A state highway commission was appointed in 1909 to study the highway problem and to make recommendations. The greatest demand, however, came from the people of Tennessee. They were insistent that a connected highway system be improved at the earliest possible moment. The counties became active and there was a demand for more local funds to build roads to the main thoroughfares.”
Chris: The most significant road project in Tennessee up to that time was State Route 1, known as the Memphis to Bristol Highway. This highway that connected the far-flung ends of the state opened up a whole new world of transportation for all who traveled in Tennessee and ushered in a new era where the automobile became a central means of transportation. The Tennessee Virtual Archive, an online resource, chronicles the uniting of people from all walks of life to support the creation of a road that would cross the entire length of Tennessee: The Memphis to Bristol Highway. This excerpt from their website is read by Smith County native, Auburn Swann, who in May 2019 placed first at the 4H District Competition with her demonstration entitled, “How Tennessee’s Roads are Built.”
Auburn: “The construction of the Memphis to Bristol Highway offered citizens, businesses, and tourists a means to effectively cross the state and offered the opportunity to unify more closely the three grand divisions. The Good Roads Improvement Movement had arisen in the 1890s with the support of the railroads, the farm alliances, and the bicyclists, and it had widespread public approval across the state. When motorized vehicles came onto the scene at the turn of the 19th century, they provided travel competition to railroads and steamboats and spawned the creation of local auto clubs and the Tennessee Good Roads Association. The association threw its support behind the construction of an all-weather Memphis to Bristol highway. The building of the Memphis to Bristol Highway encouraged the undertaking of additional state road-building projects and encouraged Virginia and Mississippi to extend the highway.
“Local businessmen had formed the Memphis to Bristol Highway Association in 1911 to promote this 500-mile long highway. In 1926, two-thirds of the route was designated as U.S. 70, the major east-west corridor in the region. In the late 1920s, the entire route became part of the Broadway of America Highway from California to New York.”
Chris: You can see this map and links to all the other maps and sources from this podcast in the show notes and at highwaysee.com.
Chris: For Tennessee, the next several years were a busy period of creating various laws, bills, and programs to keep the roadways safe, dependable, and paid for. As the 1959 book History of the Tennessee Highway Department puts it:
Darrin: “The state legislature of 1915 passed a bill creating the first State Administrative Agency for the control of highway construction and maintenance. The bill provided for the establishment of a State Highway Department and a State Highway Commission. It prescribed the powers and duties of the State Highway Department and authorized the formulation of a highway plan for the state. This fund was to be placed in the State Treasury to the credit of the State Department of Highways for the maintenance of such department and for the payment of all the costs to the department for the collection of such fund. The remainder of the fund was to be expended in the county from which collected, under the supervision and direction of the State Highway Department, in cooperation with the regular legally constituted road authorities of the county, in the maintenance of highways.”
Chris: So, that’s how the State Highway Department and State Highway Commission came to be.
Darrin: “The federal aid received thus far was not very much. The allotment for Tennessee in 1917 was $114,153.48. However, in 1918 it had increased to $228,306.96. Some few projects had been started, one of which was to be the first concrete road built in Tennessee, under the jurisdiction of the Highway Department, consisting of two miles in Hamilton and Marion Counties.”
Chris: In just one year, the allotment of federal aid Tennessee received for road-building projects actually doubled. The next year—1919—it would increase by six times as Tennessee approached 80,000 registered vehicles on the road.
Darrin: “The demand for better roads could not be ignored, the desire could not be suppressed. There were 79,189 motor vehicles in Tennessee demanding attention. They received consideration from the General Assembly. The 1921 Legislature showed its interest in public roads by passing sundry laws dealing with the appointment of commissioners for the supervision of turnpikes and toll roads. One significant law passed by the 1921 General Assembly was an act to protect the streets, roads, highways or other public thoroughfares in Tennessee, including bridges on such highways, from unnecessary injury or damage.”
Chris: This made it a matter of law how roads and bridges were to be used and what types of vehicles could travel on them, including related penalties should there be damage caused or those laws be broken.
Darrin: “A number of forces, dedicated to the improvement of roads were at work in Tennessee, but the demanding force all the way has been the motor vehicle. The situation has been likened to a game of leapfrog between the highway and the vehicle, and it seems that the vehicle has always been one jump ahead. By the time that alignment and surface had reached the current demand, new vehicles—faster, heavier, and more powerful—were coming off the assembly line. At this time, 1922, there were 174,248 motor vehicles in Tennessee and this figure was growing by leaps and bounds, creating new problems, new demands.
“These overpowering problems and demands had to be dealt with as 1923 ushered in what was for a long time the greatest road-building era in Tennessee. Realizing the inadequacy of the existing departments to administer a stepped-up progressive program, the legislature, under the leadership of Governor Austin Peay, passed a sweeping reorganization bill entitled, quote ‘An Act to reorganize the administration of the state in order to secure better service and through coordination and consolidation to promote economy and efficiency in the work of the government; creating and establishing certain departments and offices, and prescribing their powers and duties; fixing certain salaries; abolishing certain offices, boards, commissions, and other agencies, and repealing conflicting acts and parts of acts.’”
Chris: Basically this law was to shape up the road, transportation, and public work departments that had been established. It was an attempt to consolidate any redundancies and also help the different agencies and departments work together more smoothly.
Darrin: “In section one of this act, the Department of Highways and Public Works was created and established. In 1923, the state system consisted of 4,644 miles of road. In selecting the routes for the highway system after connecting the county seats, consideration was given to the following roads. One, those that attract other than local traffic; two, those connecting the roads of adjoining states; three, those that are necessary links in long-distance travel; four, those that afford access to national parks or state parks. The benefits ensuing from improved highways were so comprehensive that it would have been like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack to have searched for a man who had not benefited from better transportation facilities. The increase in social and recreational opportunities, and business and educational advantages are benefits that defy ledger treatment, but without them, the people would be poor indeed.”
Chris: You might chuckle as you listen to this next section of Commissioner Baker’s report. It seems not even the highway professionals could imagine how big or busy the future of road-building would be.
Kent: “It is probable that Tennessee will not pass through another period of highway activity that will be as extensive as that of 1928, 1929, and 1930, but there will be a need for a modest construction program for many years to come. Many states passed through the period of great activity before Tennessee, and still have need for highway construction. Roads constructed ten or fifteen years ago are already showing wear, and even with the best of maintenance, they must be reconstructed in the near future. As travel increases, the present highway must be widened and surface types improved to meet new needs. These activities will require a modest construction program for at least another decade.
“Maintenance will always be with us. As the construction program is carried to a more advanced stage, the need of efficient maintenance will be increased. Hard surfaced construction may decrease the expenditure, but it will not decrease the need of skill and the more improved equipment.”
Chris: Let’s go back to the 1959 book The History of the Tennessee Highway Department to learn more about this unprecedented era of road expansion.
Darrin: “The peak in highway work was reached in 1930 when the expenditures amounted to $33,105,234. This was an increase of more than $8 million over 1929. Many roads were built that year, and the future looked bright indeed. Never before had the hopes of Tennesseans risen to such great heights. Never before had the fulfillment of dreams of good roads been so imminent.”
Chris: But as big as the dreams and demands were, the spending on roads could not go unbridled.
Darrin: “This revived principle by which the department was forced to abide was that no highway should be improved by the expenditure of public funds in excess of its immediate, or in special cases, its prospective earning capacity.”
Chris: This means that the public money invested on any particular road project was limited to the amount of economic benefit it would bring the area it served. This is still the criteria today.
Darrin: “The ever-increasing traffic had to move. The roads were entirely inadequate for the weight and density of the traffic they were required to accommodate, so they had to be reworked. Motor vehicle designs would change and road features must be altered to conform. ‘Excuse our dust, but watch us grow. There ain’t no stopping us,’ seemed to be the message as the motor vehicle registration curve pointed restlessly upward.”
Chris: But things wouldn’t always be on the upswing. The Stock Market crash of 1929 and the Dust Bowl of 1930 led to the Great Depression. The sales of motor vehicles and even road work would hit the brakes for a time.
Darrin: “There had to be a time for planning; so during this depression-induced leveling off period, the Statewide Highway Planning Survey was organized.”
Chris: This created an office dedicated to making plans for better days to come and into Tennessee’s long-term future of building roads. America would struggle through the difficulties brought on by the depression. The gears of industry would be slowed and then be retooled for fighting World War II a decade later. But as the war ended and soldiers returned home, American industry and people would retool again and begin making plans for even greater roadways connecting every state from coast to coast. And we’ll take you there soon on Highway See.
Chris: But before we close this episode let’s take one more trip back in time; our Great American Road Trip. As we all know, sometimes trips don’t go just as we planned. Well, that brings us full circle to the source of the intriguing history we’ve been discovering today–historian and antiquities dealer George Webb and his Great American Road Trip that didn’t go so great…
George: I went to Tennessee Tech and I ended up with a degree in mathematics and a secondary school certificate. Of course, I didn’t have a car in college. There was another guy, an upperclassman from Rogersville, and I would always catch a ride with him. And one Thanksgiving he did something else. And at that time there were Greyhound and Trailway bus services.
One came through Bull’s Gap, and so I’m going to catch a bus. I catch the bus early in the morning in Cookeville, and my mother and dad are going to come over to meet me. And the schedule was posted and they gave, like, eight hours for the bus to get there. So, they came over to pick me up. I wasn’t there; they go back home. It’s about 15-mile drive to Bull’s Gap.
Next one came in two hours, they went back a second time. I wasn’t there; they came back home. Next one was two hours later. They went back over there. The problem was, this bus stopped at every little town from Cookeville to Rogersville. I got here about, I think, two o’clock in the morning and got off the bus and of course, they’d been asleep for a long time. Didn’t have cell phones back then.
My mother’s from Bull’s Gap and I walked about a half a block and saw this house with the light on, so I go over and knock on the door. And this was in, probably, 1968, and people would come to the door at nighttime. And I told her who I was and who my mother was. She said, “Oh, yeah I know Elizabeth.” Said, “Come on in here.”
And [laugh] she called my mother and daddy who got up out of bed and finally came over to get me. Needless to say, that was a double event. That was the first and last time I rode a bus back here, you know? I’d just—I’d skip Christmas before I’m going to do that again. [laugh].
Chris: And there you have it. That’s the real, in-depth history of Tennessee’s roads. I’ve been your host, Chris Hill, and we hope you’ll see the highway when you’re on the road.
Chris: Thanks for listening to Highway See. We hope you’ve enjoyed the sights and sounds of Tennessee’s highway history. We’ll be back next time to see more history, more highways, and more reasons why building better roads benefits us all. For more details on Tennessee’s road and bridge infrastructure and more details and resources about what you’ve heard on this podcast, visit highwaysee.com. That’s highway-S-E-E dot com. And be sure to follow the podcast on Apple, or Google Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you choose to listen to podcasts.
Highway See is presented by Tennessee Infrastructure Alliance and was recorded and produced in association with HumblePod. The creator and executive producer is Susie Alcorn. Our producer and host is Chris Hill. Our writer is Nikki Sneed. Our audio engineer is Allan Carlisle. Our editor of this episode is Darrin Kirkus. Our production assistant is January Beeler, and our guests for this episode are Raymon White, Kent Starwalt, Auburn Swann, George Webb, Darrin Kirkus, and Susie Alcorn. We hope you’ll see the highway when you’re on the road.