Today marks the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 which established the interstate system. The idea for such a system began when a young Lieutenant Colonel Dwight Eisenhower took part in a grueling 3,251 mile military convoy from Washington, DC to San Francisco in 1919 which took 62 days. His experience with the German autobahn system in WWII convinced him of the need for such a system in the USA.
Less well known is that the National Road, or U. S. 40, turns 200 this year. Long before railroads linked the country, this 700 mile dirt road was the first federally financed interstate, opening up land to settlers west of the Appalachian Mountains. I’ve given probably 10 talks in the past two years in towns like Frederick, MD; Cambridge, OH; Vandalia, IL and others that developed because of being on the National Road. Many are utilizing the historical attributes of the road to enhance their tourism advantages.
I have many fond memories of both the National Road and the building of the interstates. When I was growing up in Teutopolis, IL we lived a half block from the National Road. One of my earliest memories is of going up to the “hard road” on Memorial Day to watch the steady stream of cars driving back from the Indianapolis 500. I was pretty easy to entertain!
We would make trips often to St. Louis when the Interstate 70 was being built in stages. We would speed along on a stretch of the new four lanes for five or ten miles and then have to drag behind a lumbering truck for the next non-interstate stretch. We always stopped in East St. Louis at a new restaurant called McDonalds, which had how many millions of hamburgers they had sold in lights.
My, how times have changed! But, progress is a continuum. Some towns will gain with it and some will lose. And, it will continue to change.