Roads have been an instrumental part of human history for thousands of years. From the first paved Roman roads that crisscrossed Europe, to the modern-day interstate, the history of the road is crucial to our own stories. That is certainly the case for Tennessee as we take a deep dive into the history of our state’s roadways. From the earliest wagon roads that connected the frontier's newest towns, to the essential highways of today upon which Tennessee’s infrastructure, economy, and transportation system depend.
For this episode of Highway See, we’re going to cover the history of our roads from covered wagons and stagecoach to the modern interstate system. Tune in as Chris interviews a wide spectrum of Tennesseans whose insight and historical knowledge pave the way for our journey!
Chris: Welcome to Highway See, the podcast where we talk about the history of Tennessee’s infrastructure, and why building better roads benefits us all. In this episode of Highway See, we’re going to dig deeper into the history of travel in Tennessee by wagon and stagecoach, and we’ll explore the roads they traveled on, all the way to our present-day interstate system.
Chris: From our perspective today, it’s hard to imagine the significant role such primitive vehicles played in transportation, but they were the primary transition between travel by foot and the railroads and continued connecting locations that were not served by rail until the automobile took their place. Horse-drawn wagons and stagecoaches were integral for knitting the continent together, transforming independent towns scattered in the wilderness into regional communities, state, and county governments. As you may already know, early settlements then towns and cities began where a means of transportation made it possible. First, those were communities along the coast at the mouth of navigable rivers, and the means of travel and transport of goods was by water. Eventually, paths that allowed goods to be transported by horse and wagon were found or blazed.
Then, as the stagecoach began transporting people, the consistent necessary stops planted the seeds for new commerce and communities. The stagecoach was the earliest widespread form of consistent public transportation over land. It was an enclosed carriage or coach pulled by a team of mules or horses that traveled in stages between predetermined stops over established routes. The stagecoaches operated on a set schedule and carried several passengers with much greater safety than traveling alone. At the end of each stage of the journey, approximately 10 to 20 miles depending on the location, passengers, and animals would have a needed break.
Here, the draft animals—and often the driver—would be changed for a fresh team and the previous team would return home. This allowed the passenger to keep moving and the driver and animals to become very familiar with their stage of the trip. Tennessee’s first stagecoach road connected Abingdon, Virginia, to Knoxville, Tennessee, traveling through Blountville, Kingsport, Rogersville, and Rutledge. If you know where to look, you can actually still see traces of it all these years later. We were lucky enough to visit this road, affectionately known to old-timers as Old Stage Road. Randy Jeffers, a native of Rogersville, farms property the Old Stage Road once passed by in Hawkins County, Tennessee. He took us on a tour and explained some of the history.
Randy: Some people call it Stagecoach Road and some call it Old Stage Road. Old Stage is what I’ve always known today as.
Chris: Old Stage Road, as Randy explains next, connected early American cities and towns to Knoxville, and it was a pivotal means of networking everything from postal delivery and newspaper circulation to places to rest for those on longer journeys.
Randy: I would imagine about anybody that went from the north to the south came through here. And I think it was actually a mail route. If I understand right, this was a mail route through here, so there was a lot of traffic that came through here. So, there was a mill here, Amis Mill. So, that was part of the [draw 00:03:42] through here, you know, you could go to the mill.
I think actually across the Big Creek there was a blacksmith's shop over there, so you can get wagons repaired, horses shod, or whatever you might need. This was a very highly traveled place.
Chris: In the early days of settlement, town centers would often begin with a mill where farmers could have their grain ground, and it quickly became the place to interact with others. Soon, other merchants and commerce would gravitate to the area around the mill. So, Amis Mill became a place the locals and travelers could buy and trade goods, have a meal, get a room for the night, or have their horses shod. That’s replacing of their iron horseshoes. It’s actually not uncommon for horses to throw shoes or lose their horseshoes, especially on the rough paths they had to travel in those days.
The Old Stage Road passed directly by Amis Mill and homestead near present-day Rogersville, Tennessee, Rogersville, now a charming historic town, was a young significant waypoint when people traveled by horse, wagon, and later the stagecoach. As Thomas Amis’s fifth great-granddaughter, Wendy Jacobs, wrote:
Wendy: In the latter part of the 1700s the Amis family crossed the Appalachians and settled on Big Creek, where Tom had been granted a thousand acres for his service in the revolutionary war. Having served as captain of a commissary outfit during the war, he was determined to make use of his experiences by opening a frontier inn, and a [stone 00:05:10] tavern in East Tennessee, at that time, North Carolina. The captain himself often greeted dusty travelers who rode on horseback or walked up the hill to the Amis Inn. Once inside, visitors found themselves in a bustling community, the clang of iron on iron at the blacksmith’s shop, and the twang of ax on grindstone greeted their ears inside the big stone house on the knoll, they might refresh themselves with a glass of grog and eat food prepared in the outdoor kitchen. Here they could rest overnight, buy bacon, cheese, and all manner of clothing to fit them for their journey.
Known house guests included William Blount, signer of the US Constitution; Andrew Jackson; Dr. Thomas Walker, surveyor, explore; Bishop Francis Asbury, founder of the Methodist religion in America; Governor John Sevier; Daniel Boone; botanist André Michaux, who wrote of the Amis home in his diary in 1790 and spoke of its beauty; Captain William Walton, who would construct a road from East Tennessee to Nashville, and a myriad of Revolutionary War soldiers headed west to collect their land grants, in Kaintuck. The Amie home became a stopping point for nearly every traveler who pass through this part of the country.
Randy: The Old Stage Road out in here and then it goes down in front of the property down to Big Creek. Big Creek goes into Holston River. That was another reason that this was pretty important. Most of those old roads, they’d follow Rivers. They forded the creek down here. So, you can still see—here’s the old roadbed. The erosion, you have all the rock, and then it followed the creek to Amis Mill, and then it worked its way back out to the river.
Chris: Next we’ll hear the official Hawkins County Historian, George Webb. Randy describes him as:
Randy: Very knowledgeable about history, especially in Tennessee. Because, you know, anybody that you start to talk about, they always refer you to Mr. Webb. There’s not many people like him left.
Chris: George Webb told us a little more about himself.
George: I’ve been president of the Rogersville Heritage Association. I was on the board for ten years, and president, I think, for four years. And at least 12 years, the president of the Genealogical Historical Society. I’ve collected Hawkins county material for my entire life, books, pamphlets, photographs, manuscript items, letterheads, matchbook covers, everything. And I’ve also sold books on the side for over 50 years, specializing in Tennessee history, printed books, manuscripts, graphic items.
Chris: Naturally, George was the perfect person to talk about the settlement, early road construction, and travel in East Tennessee.
George: One of the earliest settlers here was Thomas Amis, who was a revolutionary war veteran. His house is still standing. Joseph Rogers came here and fell in love with Amis’s daughter and asked for marriage. Thomas Amis didn’t particularly like it to start with but he gave it his blessings, and as part of a wedding gift, I guess, he gave him this parcel of land where Rogersville now is located. And of course, the town was named after him for that, I think, 1775.
What’s now 11W was the main stage road. And you got to remember that back then, being on the road was an important factor in a town to growing, just like later on, when the railroad came if your town was on the railroad, it flourished. Modern-day times, the interstate, if your town is on the interstate then you can drive from here to Memphis, and Lebanon, Cookeville, Jackson, have grown immensely.
Chris: Mr. Webb continues about the benefits of the community being on the road.
George: Well, the equivalent of tourism today because Rogersville was on this stagecoach route, these three inns were there, and the that people stayed there had to eat somewhere, and so there were a number of businesses that profited from that, which helped Rogersville survive and thrive, and other communities that were not on this main thoroughfare didn’t do so well.
Chris: Why did Rogersville become a waypoint on the Stagecoach Road in what was then the frontier? Why was it necessary for there to be inn and stables and places to buy new goods scattered along these stagecoach roads? Well, for the same reason we see places to eat or hotels and motels at many interest aid exits today. People need places to stop and rest. But wherever they traveling to or coming from?
George: It was a main thoroughfare, obviously, for Tennessee from Nashville all the way to Washington DC. And you can look at this map and see the easiest way to get into East Tennessee was coming down through the Shenandoah Valley, so we have a lot of people come here from Virginia and Pennsylvania.
Chris: Today, traveling 30 miles might be considered an easy commute or a quick trip to run errands, but in the days of the stagecoach, it will be an exhausting day’s journey.
George: I don’t know that many of those old stagecoaches have survived, but the inns probably had kept a corral of horses because halfway through a 20-mile run and they gave out, they would swap them out for fresh horses. [during 00:10:50] the stagecoach days, if you went 20, 25 miles, that was about the limit of it. And for that reason, coming up—just from Knoxville to Rogersville to Kingsport, about every 20 miles, you’ll find an inn. Shields Station is still—that’s in the middle of nowhere, but it’s there because it was about 20 miles out of Knoxville. Same thing in Rutledge; there were three inns in Rogersville, the old Andrew Jackson Inn was just torn down when they expanded 11W—or built a new road, but we still have the Hale Springs Inn and the Joseph Rogers Tavern. And Joseph Rogers had a tavern and an inn, and both of those buildings are still here. That’s probably the oldest structure in Rogersville.
Chris: There’s certainly no end to the stories that can be told concerning these historic inns and the many guests who traveled the Stagecoach Road. It wasn’t just local or regional travel, but this stagecoach route through Rogersville was the way to Washington DC and other points north. Some of the most well-known travelers on the route were the three Tennesseans who served as president of the United States. Andrew Jackson was the seventh president, James K. Polk the 11th, and Andrew Johnson was the 17th.
Easily the most colorful and well-known was Andrew Jackson. He participated in the drafting of Tennessee’s constitution and served as Tennessee’s first representative and the US House of Representatives. And George Webb tells us more about Jackson.
George: He was an attorney in Jonesborough for a while, then he was Judge. He was a US senator, of course, a military hero and President of the United States, controversial because he was not part of the New England, and more traditional presidents all came from New York, Virginia, and he was in the backwoods. He stayed in the Hale Springs Inn also, and the Rogers Tavern. There was an article in the Kingsport paper that refers to that. In fact, all three of the Tennessee presidents, Jackson, Polk and Johnson, stayed in the Hale Springs Inn at one time. There’s a portico balcony over the front and they would stand there and speak. There are rooms named after those three. I think they’re all three suites now. In the inn, the Jackson, Johnson, and Polk rooms.
Chris: George went on to explain that in addition to transporting people, the stagecoach served other very important roles in the community.
George: One of the things I know, there was no postal system in the 1790s to speak of, and newspapers, in particular, would utilize stagecoach traffic to have papers delivered. The same thing was true on mail. They say “Well, since you’re going from Knoxville to Rogersville, how about taking these papers up to Rutledge and Rogersville? And by the way, here’s some letters that need to go to Rogersville.” Before we had a postal system, and before we had public transportation as such.
I also have an envelope that was sent in, I think, 1793, and it’s famous in the postal history [collecting 00:14:01], it’s called a cover. And before you had envelopes to put letters in, you would just write a letter, fold it over, seal with wax, address it, and take it to the post office, and they would mark the point of origin. This cover first surfaced at a postal auction in Florida. It’s a letter from William Blount to the governor of Kentucky.
Chris: William Blount was a signer of the US Constitution and was later appointed by George Washington as the governor of the Southwest Territory, containing what we now know is Tennessee. In that role in 1795, William Blount called a constitutional convention for statehood, and Tennessee became a state in 1796. Blount then served as one of the state’s first two senators. While governor of the Southwest Territory around 1793, William Blount mailed a letter from Rogersville. When George Webb was asked to view the letter cover to authenticate it, he had studied the documents from the era so extensively that he recognized the handwriting.
George: And it has Hawkins. And I recognize the Hawkins as being Joseph Rogers’ handwriting because he was the first postmaster in Rogersville, which was the first post office in the state. And this is important because this is the earliest known territorial letter sent through the mail. And it’s the only territorial letter from the Southwest Territory. Tennessee was a Southwest Territory from 1790 to 1796 when we became a state, so it’s a historically significant piece of mail.
Chris: That historical letter George Webb was able to authenticate had been mailed from the first post office in Tennessee, and was likely carried on these very roads we’re exploring. Randy explains how some records of the old roads the stagecoaches and early mail traveled on can be found.
Randy: You can find some of the old maps from years ago, old TVA maps. Railroad maps are really good to get a lot of that old information because they were here long before TVA ever came in. So, when the railroad came through, they mapped it, of course, so you can find some of those old railroad maps.
Chris: As the 1800s came to a close, the growing population and greater number of travelers would need more than the existing roads and routes could provide to find homes, settle new areas, farmland, and conduct commerce. Here are the words of a Nashville newspaper journalist from that time.
“Just how or when the people of Tennessee awoke to the consciousness that their roads are inferior to the progress of their state in other particulars, that they are a disgrace to her pretensions, and a perpetual hindrance to her prosperity is not known, but once the idea was sprung, every paper in the state took it up and every thinking mind acknowledged the truth of it. It has gained in favor until the road congress was a natural and inevitable consequence.”
In episode two, we covered the details of the Tennessee Road Congress of 1890. You can listen to that episode and find more information about it at highwaysee.com. The road-making bees and muddy stagecoach roads were not meeting the rapidly growing population’s needs. Getting out of the mud was a common goal for all Tennessee roads. As a state, we’d fallen a bit behind other places on road development and it was time to catch up. George Webb tells us of some remarkable historic photographs from this era that illustrate the early methods used to get out of the mud.
George: There are some photographs and they’ve been published, there lots of photographs in that collection I had before paved roads. There’s one that’s got something called Macadamizer, M-C-A-D-A-M-I-Z-E-R, and I thought “What in the heck is that?” And I looked it up, and the roads through downtown Rogersville were mud for a long time, and they would put planks down, and when it would rain, they’d get muddy–called plank roads. This Macadamizer, it was basically a crude way of paving roads. They would put down sand and gravel and they drive over it to flatten it out.
And there’s a postcard showing Main Street being macadamized, and I thought it was curious. One of the groups of photographs I got was from a family here; the father came here from Jonesborough in 1907, operated the only photographic studio. And it was where everybody had their portraits made, and they were very conscious of things going on in Rogersville. It’s a tremendous record of what was going on here. Dozens of photographs and virtually all of them show some kind of road construction. And there’s a picture in there of the road, they’re putting down some kind of preliminary surface and then I guess gravel on top of that, and maybe macadamizing it.
Chris: In episode two, we took a more in-depth look at macadamizing roads, the breakthrough road building method developed by John McAdam of Scotland, and first used in America in 1831. There is a link with those details in the [show notes 00:19:08] and the transcript, you’ll find at highwaysee.com that’s highway S-E-E dot com.
Chris: In the early-1900s, the collective vision was shifting from localized road travel to longer-distance highway travel. The need for and significance of a high-quality road that would cross the entire breadth of Tennessee became so apparent that businessmen across the state formed the Memphis to Bristol Highway Association in 1911 to promote the development of just such a road.
Chris: What we now know as the Tennessee Department of Transportation, commonly called TDOT sprang from this push for better roads. Formed in 1915, the State Highway Commission was a six-person government authority tasked with overseeing road construction and maintenance. It was Tennessee’s first government authority formed for this purpose, and it has since evolved into the TDOT we have today. The first two major roads connecting Tennessee to other regions that we might consider highways today were the Broadway of America, eventually connecting the east and west from the North Carolina coast to Los Angeles, and the Dixie Highway running north/south. One of the Tennessee State Highway Commission’s first acts was to designate the Memphis to Bristol road as State Route 1, making it a top road priority.
By 1926, the state designated about two-thirds of it as US-70, and it became the major corridor in the region. In fact, the entire route became part of the Broadway of America highway in the late-1920s and remained the main west/east route for the state until the completion of Interstate 40 in the late-1960s. The state Commission’s second priority was Tennessee’s portion of the Dixie Highway, which stretched from Michigan to Miami, Florida, and quickly became the most influential highway in Tennessee. It was so important in fact, that it’s the only highway to have its national headquarters right here in Tennessee. Businessmen and elected officials formed the Dixie Highway Association in April 1915 at a meeting in Chattanooga, the city that would be its national headquarters throughout its existence.
Although an independent association, it functioned as an outgrowth of the Chattanooga Automobile Association, and members of that group played a pivotal role throughout the association’s history. Judge M.M. Allison served as president of the Dixie Highway Association from 1915 until the association ceased active operation in 1927. In 1924, in honor of his work, the association erected a monument in a roadside park in Marion County, the highest point of the route and roughly its midpoint.
In 1916 Congress and then-President Woodrow Wilson signed the Federal Aid Road Act. This act marked the first time federal government sent states funding to build highways. President Woodrow Wilson, who was an ardent advocate of good roads, made road improvements part of his platform during his reelection campaign in 1916. President Wilson explained his emphasis on highways by saying “The happiness, comfort, and prosperity of rural life and the development of the city are alike conserved by the construction of public highways. We, therefore, favor national aid in the construction of post roads and roads for military purposes.”
Under the act, federal funding was provided for rural postal roads on the condition that they be open to the public at no charge, a marked difference from the company-created pikes and toll roads common before. Funding was to be distributed to the states based on a formula incorporating each of the state’s geographic area, population, and existing road network. With federal funding coming in, the state highway commission was able to direct money into separate counties for road construction and maintenance. Of course, with money coming in and more projects underway, the scope of the road system eventually outgrew the State Highway Commission, which had previously been an entirely volunteer committee. That’s why in 1919, a three-person salaried commission was appointed. The basic structure of the salaried Highway Department was formed by separating the state into four divisions: Jackson, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Knoxville.
Now, we’ll consult with Ed Wasserman. Ed had a 45-year career at TDOT, the last 25 of which he was Civil Engineering Director in the division of structures. In addition, he served 28 years in the US Army Reserve Corps of Engineers, retiring as Lieutenant Colonel.
Ed: That start in 1916, things were very slow. The actual first construction project done on roads in Tennessee was in 1919. And the reason for the delay was of course World War I. Plus the department had need to organize, hire people, began to produce plans.
Chris: The Federal Aid Road Act of 1916 had begun to increase funding, and the Memphis to Bristol highway and the Dixie Highway were significant projects for Tennessee’s new State Highway Department. However, extensive road-building of the highways we know of today didn’t start making progress until the end of World War II. As Ed Wasserman explains:
Ed: Through the end of World War II, only an additional 1680 miles of road were added to that system, but after World War II, then things began to take off.
Chris: Cecil Cook seconded Ed’s assessment, adding details about the impact that came from the manufacturing and trucking industries. Cook is a legend in Tennessee road building. For his instinctive understanding of how best to lay a road, Mr. Cook has been bestowed the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Tennessee Road Builders Association. He worked for TDOT straight out of college in 1958, in surveying and inspection.
Cecil: I think it was the commercial and the trucking industry. You had to get a way to get goods from point A to point B. Manufacturing geared up for the production of tanks and ships and cars and trucks for the war. And after he came back then Ford Motors and Chevrolet and Studebaker and Hudson, now the manufacturing grew because they had already geared up for the war and they didn’t shut down; they just produced another product.
Chris: Ed continues explaining the relationship of better roads to economic growth.
Ed: Obviously, in order for commerce to flow to any given point, you got to have a good road system, and you got to have good bridges on that road system. It brings tourism, it brings industry depending on the situation at hand, it allows the people access out of their hometown. The better access you have for people traveling through a given area, then the more likely they’re going to take a route that comes through your hometown, or allows a manufacturing plant to be constructed nearby because the labor is less expensive, but you’re able to take that product to market. It’s just overall commerce is the main benefit to a good road system.
Chris: That’s a perfect summation. Commerce fuels road construction, and more roads fuel tourism, travel, and development, which is what keeps the economy across Tennessee growing. Cecil Cook remembers a time before roads easily connected towns and describes the difficulty of traveling on the old dirt and gravel roads.
Cecil: Most of the time, you didn’t go 40 miles from home, in your lifetime. You just didn’t do it. The dust on a gravel road, you couldn’t get 100 feet of a car in front of you because his dust was going too much you couldn’t see, and the dust blowed in the windows because you didn’t have air conditioning. So, you went out there and took your garden hose and wet the road down in front of your house so that it wouldn’t be dust blowing in it. And then a farmer changing the oil his tractor, he wouldn’t pour it out on waste can, he take it out and pour it out on the road to keep the dust down.
Chris: The idea of pouring oil outside now is considered quite the ecological faux pas, but back when roads were nothing but dust and gravel, you wanted to keep the dust down. After all, opening your window on a hot day in Tennessee now only blast you with our infamous humidity and the serenade of insects or traffic. Now, imagine catching a faceful of dust on top of that. To put it plainly
Cecil: People wanted paved roads.
Chris: Cecil recounts that progression.
Cecil: From dirt road they had to come up with something to get out of the mud, so they got gravel out of the creek banks. And then the crushing business, stone crushing limestone came in, so you had gravel roads. And then they migrated to hard surface like asphalt. In certain areas of the country, they didn’t have stone, so they use concrete. And concrete lasts longer than asphalt, but when it wears out, it costs more to fix it. So, you get a 10, 12-year life out of asphalt and you get a 30-year life out of concrete, or thereabouts.
Chris: The demand for better, smooth roads was tremendous. In fact, it even became part of political campaigns. Cecil remembers one in particular.
Cecil: And the county road superintendent came out and tarred it which shot liquid asphalt then put hot mix on it. It was tar and gravel, so he could run on a campaign that he paved every road in the county when he was running for reelection.
Chris: Every new smooth road was exciting for Americans. They meant safer, faster travel with better visibility and areas to pull off if you had problems. The dirt and gravel roads they had were narrow and crooked. As Cecil explains:
Cecil: They were just barely 12 feet wide. No shoulders with a ditch dropoff, and because the crookedness of it, you couldn’t drive very fast.
Chris: Back before cars were mass-produced and widely available, this wouldn’t have been much of a problem. After all, horses and bicycles can traverse narrow, winding areas much easier than a car. But that all changed with the growing popularity of cars.
Cecil: Well, you bought a car. Everybody got a car. And gas was 15, 20 cents a gallon, and people wanted to get [more 00:30:04] faster, and so they didn’t think nothing about building roads.
Chris: Cook remembers his brother and the kids in town driving fast on those new roads as a young man, just for the novelty.
Cecil: You liked to drive fast. You tried to drive fast, so you’d go back in school Monday morning and say, “Well, we went to Nashville and we made it an hour and ten minutes,” or “We made it an hour and twenty minutes,” type thing. “No, you couldn’t have made it that quick. There’s no way you get [that 00:30:34].” “Oh yes, we can. We’ll prove it. We’ll go next weekend, we’ll show you.”
Chris: A whole new generation was getting on the road and the nation was growing like never before. Dwight D. Eisenhower focused much of his energy and the presidential platform on the development of a national interstate system, a new concept that would completely transform the United States. Here’s an excerpt from President Eisenhower’s 1955 State of the Union address:
Eisenhower: A modern highway system is essential to meet the needs of our growing population, our expanding economy, and our national security. We are accelerating our highway improvement program under existing state and federal laws and authorizations.
Chris: From county and state officials to presidents of the United States, the focus on better roads was building and would crescendo in 1956. The Federal Highway Act of 1956 injected $26 billion to create 41,000 miles of paved roads across the US into what would become America’s interstate system. Yep. $26 billion with a B. Under the terms of the act, states had to pay 10% of the project costs, and the federal government would cover the rest, so it was a huge incentive for state transportation agencies to design road projects and apply for funding.
Cecil: President Eisenhower said “We going to have this,” and Congress appropriated the money and funded it. And started. Then they had to lay out and then drawing it on a map. They were used to having a project that was small. [In here 00:32:09], you got a four-lane interstate projects, [mass 00:32:13] grade and [mass 00:32:13] bridges. And so, it was exciting and kept you busy.
Chris: As we talked about in episode one, the interstate system was the primary point of focus for the Federal Highway Act. And in Tennessee, it all began with I-65, the state’s first interstate of record. We found just the right person to talk to about the development of interstates in Tennessee, David Donoho. He hadn’t been born when it was started, but he’s made it his life’s work, beginning with a summer job at TDOT right after graduating high school. That summer job led to choosing civil engineering as his major, and that led to summer internships at TDOT, which led to a long career there, ultimately serving as the director of construction for nearly ten years, concluding in 2008.
He’s worked in the private sector since. David credits his summer internship in college as the reason he was hired by the Tennessee Department of Transportation right after he graduated. So, David will take us through the history of Tennessee’s interstates from the first one to the latest.
David: The first section of I-65 the section of Tennessee, near the Tennessee-Alabama line was completed in 1958. It went for 1.8 miles; it went for $1.3 million. And that would be about the cost of a resurfacing job today.
Chris: Cecil talks about the interstate’s importance at that location.
Cecil: It was because Alabama was coming up to the state line and they didn’t have an exit there to get back to [an old 00:33:41] road. So, it’s about a mile and eight, two miles up to where they could get off at first intersection there, back onto the existing road. So, in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, as they were building the interstates in sections, they had to get you on and off. So, there may be a ten-mile section and they have an interchange at each end to get you on it and get it off.
Chris: David goes on to explain that Interstate 65 was completed in stages.
David: The next section that was actually in Brentwood, 1967, and the last section of I-65 was actually up north of Nashville near Bethel road or State Route 255, and the section of 65 was actually complete then in 1973. There can be some controversy about which is the first section of completed I-40 or I-65, but they say the first section of I-40 is a one-mile section between [Unica 00:34:36] and Gay Street in Knoxville, and like I say, it ended up becoming grandfathered into the interstate system. It was originally known as Magnolia Avenue and then actually later renamed to Frank Regas Expressway. If anybody has been to the Regas restaurant you’ll know a little bit history behind that. And this was completed in 1952.
Chris: While a section of what would become I-40 may have been completed in the 1950s, I-65 is the first interstate of record. It’s important to remember that these interstates were completed in sections, sections that took quite a while in some cases. As any Tennesseean knows, road construction takes time. Before the highly-developed road system we often take for granted now, getting around wasn’t so easy. When infrastructure was not as connected and reliable as it is now travel can be difficult. Cecil remembers the days before the interstate was completed and the challenges of getting where you want it to be.
Cecil: For instance, my older brother graduated from high school and went to college at UT Knoxville. And it was an all-day trip to go from McMinnville or Viola to Knoxville. And just because of two-lane roads and the traffic on it. Well, after the interstate started getting built and you could get from point A to point B in half the time, then the cars were coming, and all of the people came back out of the World War II because that time period there where it was starting, and they was on the move.
Chris: Luckily, the interstates were at least in progress, if not mostly completed by the time most of us today had to worry about travel. David explains when each of these roads we now consider Tennessee staples were completed.
David: 65 was actually complete in 1973. Moving on to our 40, there’s more lane miles of our 40 in Tennessee than any other state. There’s 450-some-odd miles in Tennessee, and they were constructed in multiple segments across the 1960s and early-70s. The final segment of I-40 was a section on the east side of Knoxville, out near Dandridge. There’s 21.5 miles that was completed in 1975 to complete the I-40 section across Tennessee.
Chris: I-75 in East Tennessee was the next focus after these two, and it completely opened the year before I-40 did.
David: I-75 started in 1958 with these short segments between Chattanooga and Knoxville. The current segment of I-40 are from Lenoir City where the split where the I-40 and the I-75 come together. That was built and opened in December of ’61. The last segment of I-75, which is about 32 miles, is between Athens and Lenoir City, and that was opened in 1974 at a ceremony that Winfield Dunn commemorated.
Chris: Winfield Dunn from Memphis was Tennessee’s governor from 1971 to 1975. It was a big year for road openings in 1975 because Interstate 81 was completed and opened in the same year.
David: The final section of 81 was a section between Hamblen County near Morristown up to State Route 126 near Blountville. It was 43 miles and it was opened in August of 1975.
Chris: Next came I-24.
David: I-24, the first two sections of I-24—and this is a weird route in a way; it’s supposed to be an eastern route, but it actually goes from the southeastern direction from Kentucky to Georgia, but it was started in 1958. Most of the area in Chattanooga, which was the terminus of it, was done in around 1963, and other parts of that was done in 1965. The last section of I-24 was built between State Route 49 and I-65. That’s up on the northwest side of Nashville, and it was completed in 1978.
Chris: There’s one more completed interstate left to mention before we move on to the loops, and that’s I-55.
David: I-55 in Memphis, it is the shortest segment of Interstate in Tennessee, it’s about 12 miles. The best information I could find, it was mostly all done in the 1960s. Then you have the loops in the areas: 240 in Memphis, you have 440 in Nashville that was recently redone, which is the largest construction project TDOT undertaken recently, for $153 million.
Chris: Yes, 440 in Nashville was redone completely and reopened in July of 2020, much to the relief and joy of numerous drivers and passengers who use this route. There’s also Interstate 640 in Knoxville. Now, David picks back up with the details of the 840 Bypass, south of Nashville.
David: A little information about 840. 840 was actually initiated in 1986 with part of the Better Roads Program, and really started to be an interstate route, and then it actually got changed to be a State Route due to some differences in the funding mechanism. So, the state of Tennessee actually funded that. The first [segment 00:39:23] started in 1991. It was the section from Lebanon come around to Stewarts Ferry Pike, started in ’91. It was opened in 1995.
The final—there’s two segments: Williamson County, 14.2 miles, opened in November of 2012. In 2015, TDOT submitted request to [unintelligible 00:39:42] to re-designate State Route 840 as I-840, and FHWA approved that change in 2015, and officially became Interstate 840 at that time. So, it’s now eligible for federal funding for anything they do on it.
Chris: And there’s one final interstate still in progress at this time.
David: There is one other segment of interstate that’s being built is I-69. And I-69 is on the west side of the state. It’ll run from north of Memphis, up existing US-51 route up there near the Dyersburg, and terminate up at the Kentucky line near Fulton in Kentucky. So, its segments are under construction, some are under design, and some are yet to be designed. So, that’s one that is under construction today and not complete.
Chris: And there you have it: All of Tennessee’s interstates in order of completion. They have become so intrinsic to the fabric of Tennessee that it’s difficult to imagine life without them.
Chris: As we wrap up this episode, we’ll take a moment for a Highway See tradition of honoring an American tradition, the great American road trip, which began closer to home when the advent of the automobile and the early paved roads made it possible. It has continued into the age of our modern interstates, allowing the American road trip to go anywhere in the country. Cecil Cook remembers travel in both eras, the three generations after Cecil can’t remember a time the family road trip wasn’t their annual event.
Cecil: Mother always wanted the family to get together, so we’d get together in the summer, go to the Charleston, Isle of Palms, because Mother always took us to Isle of Palms when we was kids growing up. And then as my generation, we married, and then we started having kids, so in ’73 timeframe, there was a lot of–because five of us all had kids at about the same ages.
Chris: It’s a tradition that grew to include five generations of Cecil’s family, but it started before any of the interstates they now travel were built.
Cecil: Mother took us five kids and in an old 30-something car—after I got out of school, it was a 50-something car—and go to South Carolina to visit her mother and brothers and cousins and aunts there for a week or two weeks every summer. And so, you’d go across two-lane roads, going across North Georgia, going to Charleston, South Carolina, and then think nothing about it. Old car may break down on road, but there’s somebody would help you get it fixed and get it back running. Where you wouldn’t even think about doing that now.
Chris: Next time on Highway See, we’ll explore how geology, topography, and water impact roads in Tennessee.
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 with more history and more reasons why building better roads benefits us all. For details on Tennessee’s road and bridge infrastructure and to keep up with the latest on the podcast, visit highwaysee.com. That’s highway S-E-E dot com. And be sure to follow the podcasts on Apple or Google Podcasts, Spotify, Audible, or wherever you get your podcasts.
I’ve been your host Chris Hill, and we hope you’ll see the highway when you’re on the road. 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 writers are Darrin Kirkus and Nikki Sneed. Our audio engineer is Ashley Lehmann, production assistant is January Beeler, and our guests for this episode were Randy Jeffers, George Webb, Ed Wasserman, Cecil Cook, and David Donoho, with select quotes read by Wendy Jacobs. We hope you’ll see the highway when you’re on the road.