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How the Wheels Got Turning
A Historical Perspective on American Roads

Return to the "History of Cars"
The history of the automobile covers over one hundred years -- learn about the inventors and famous car models, view time lines or read about the first gasoline powered car.



Photo: horse drawn cartJust over a century ago, steamships, canals, railroads, and the telegraph were up and running. They were the technological marvels of the 19th century-- setting the stage for the 20th century. Yet the invention that would spark a revolution in transportation was a simple two-wheeler. The bicycle. Its popularity in the 1880s and 1890s spurred interest in the nation's roads.

On October 3, 1893, General Roy Stone, a Civil War hero and good roads advocate, was appointed Special Agent in charge of the new Office of Road Inquiry (ORI) within the Department of Agriculture. With a budget of $10,000, ORI promoted new rural road development to serve the wagons, coaches, and bicycles on America's dirt roads.

At this same time, two bicycle mechanics in Springfield, Massachusetts, the Duryea Brothers, built the first gasoline-powered "motor wagon" to be operated in the United States. Lacking any brakes on its historic first run in September 1893, the vehicle was brought to a stop by simply driving it into a curb. The Duryea Brothers' success was little noted at the time, but it got the wheels turning for the introduction of the automobile, which would literally change the landscape of America. (Two other bicycle mechanics, brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright, would launch the aviation revolution at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in December 1903.)

In 1908, Henry Ford introduced his low-priced, highly efficient Model T. Its widespread popularity created pressure for the federal government to become more directly involved in road development. With rural interests adding to the battle cry of "Get the farmers out of the mud!" Congress passed the Federal- Aid Road Act of 1916. It created the Federal-Aid Highway Program under which funds were made available on a continuous basis to state highway agencies to assist in road improvements. But before the program could get off the ground, the United States entered World War I.

Things took off again in the Roaring 20s when the Bureau of Public Roads (BPR), as ORI was then called, was authorized by the Federal Highway Act of 1921 to provide funding to help state highway agencies construct a paved system of two-lane interstate highways. During the 1930s, BPR helped state and local governments create Depression-era road projects that would employ as many workers as possible. When America entered World War II in 1941, the focus turned toward providing roads that the military needed. After the war, the nation's roads were in disrepair, and congestion had become a problem in major cities. In 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had signed legislation authorizing a network of rural and urban express highways called the "National System of Interstate Highways." Unfortunately, the legislation lacked funding. It was only after President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 that the Interstate program got under way.

From the start, the Interstate System was hailed as the "Greatest Public Works Project in History"--a challenge embraced by several generations of highway engineers. But even more challenges were forthcoming. In the 1960s, BPR began to focus increasingly on environmental concerns and on creating urban road networks that tied into other land-use plans and transportation options, including mass transit. By 1966, the changing times prompted legislation to establish the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). When the new department opened in April 1967, BPR, renamed the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), was one of the original components.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, FHWA worked with the states to open 99 percent of the designated 42,800-mile Interstate System--now officially called the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.

Roads
The history of roads and asphalt.
 


Photo: early road constructionPhoto: road construction
Photo: suspension bridgePhoto: early highway
Information and Photos provided by the United States Department of Transportation - Federal Highway Administration
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