The Good Roads Movement was a broad-based effort to construct and improve the condition of U.S. roads in the late 1800s that lasted until the National Highway System was begun by the federal government in 1926.
Interestingly, the movement was started not by early auto or truck users, but by bicyclists back in the 1870s. However, the effort expanded greatly after automobiles began to proliferate.
League of American Wheelmen
Bicycles were introduced and gained popularity in the United States during two decades after the end of the Civil War in 1865.
The League of American Wheelmen advocated for road improvement so that riding bicycles would be easier and more fun. Good Roads Magazine was started in 1892 to further the organization’s cause and promote road improvement more broadly. By 1895 the publication was reported to have more than one million subscribers.
Farmers propel movement
The league’s booklet, The Gospel of Good Roads: A Letter to the American Farmer (1891), focused on why better roads would serve America’s farmers, making it easier to “get crops to market, families to church and children to schools.”
In 1892, 1000 people met in Chicago to begin the National League of Good Roads. This led the federal government to create an Office of Road Inquiry in 1893. The Office was to investigate opportunities and materials to improve the nation’s roads, which at that time were primarily dirt. Up until then, improvements beyond the simple dirt road went no further than laying wooden planks, bricks or gravel over the dirt, which may or may not have been graded to some degree.
Automobilists add their weight
By the first decade of the 20th century, automobiles were beginning to become popular, particularly in the nation’s major cities. “Automobilists” – those who manufactured, sold, bought and/or rode in automobiles joined the Good Roads Movement. After all, for those who rode bicycles or drove in cars, the poor condition of the nation’s roads meant that their vehicles had difficulty being used.
While many automobiles were used in a rather small area of geography, some drivers attempted to venture into the countryside or to drive from one city to another – not an easy feat at that time…
The Model T
Henry Ford’s Model T was the first mass-market U.S. car. Introduced by Ford in 1908, it caused a huge growth in automobile ownership. Consequently, there was an equally huge demand for roads that would allow those using bicycles or automobiles to use them without constant mishaps and breakdowns caused by road conditions.
Because most roads were dirt, many became quagmires when heavy rainfall occurred. Ruts and other obstacles made riding on the nation’s roads difficult and often perilous.
Interestingly, even many of the nation’s railroads were in favor of better roads, because better roads were perceived as a springboard to additional business opportunities.
Who was the “Father of Good Roads?”
There are two men that are considered to have earned that title. The first was Albert A. Pope, who manufactured bicycles and automobiles. However, most consider Horatio Earle as the man who earned the title.
Earle was a bicycle dealer and salesman in Michigan, who became the state’s first highway commissioner. In 1909 Earle was responsible for the state laying the first mile of concrete pavement in Wayne County (the county in which Detroit is located). While this proved that dirt roads could be paved (and therefore be more durable and of greater use), the cost was generally prohibitive.
Meanwhile, Good Roads organizations continued to expand across the nation. One of these organizations was located in Oklahoma and for a while was led by Cyrus Avery, who was called the “Father of Route 66.”
As the number of automobiles (and early trucks) continued to climb, business owners and their associations joined with civic organizations in support of better roads. Whether the reason to advocate for better roads was to stimulate commerce or to advocate for public safety, the movement grew.
Bicycles (and to a much greater degree autos) led to more travel between nearby towns and cities. This led to businesses that benefited from local road travel between towns, which generated more pressure for “Good Roads.”
By the 1910s, there were about 250 “Good Roads highways.” However, most of these were still dirt roads, or dirt and gravel if travelers were lucky.
The proliferation of vehicles meant that more members of the public began to favor taxes being used for road paving. In some places, political careers began to depend on support for better roads.
The Lincoln Highway
As noted in earlier FreightWaves Classics articles, one of the first and most famous “Good Roads highways,” was the Lincoln Highway, which was the first transcontinental “highway” in the United States. These earlier FreightWaves Classics articles pointed out that the Lincoln Highway was anything but a highway – particularly west of the Mississippi River…
Nonetheless, the Lincoln Highway began in 1912 and was built to promote national tourism and commerce. It also publicized the need for federal involvement in road building.
The Lincoln Highway began in New York’s Times Square and ran westward to San Francisco’s Lincoln Park. The idea for the highway was developed by Carl Fisher, an automobile enthusiast and businessman who manufactured automobile headlamps and owned what many consider the first U.S. automobile dealership. Fisher had gained fame in 1911 with the brick-paved Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indianapolis 500.
The Lincoln Highway was named after President Lincoln, who was one of Fisher’s heroes. As part of the publicity strategy to generate support for better roads, statues of Lincoln were placed along the road in towns along its route. The highway became the nation’s first national memorial to Lincoln. The highway had some high-powered supporters, including President Woodrow Wilson, former president Teddy Roosevelt and Thomas Edison.
Federal Aid Road Act
The Good Roads Movement scored a key success in 1916. The U.S. Congress passed the Federal Aid Road Act, which provided matching funds for road paving in those states with highway departments. President Wilson signed the legislation into law. This was followed by the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1921, which provided funds to pave up to 7% of the roads in a state. Unfortunately, the legislation contained no language about linking highways between cities or states, but it was a start.
The situation led the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture appointed a board of state and federal highway officials in 1925 “to develop a national system of highways out of existing roads and a national system of signage, resulting in the National Highway System of 1926.”
With its objectives largely successful, the Good Roads Movement faded away.