The Interstates Turn 50

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Interstate 91, near Brattleboro, Vermont, in 1960

Historian Tom Chaffin is the author, most recently, of Sea of Gray: The Around-the-World Odyssey of the Confederate Raider Shenandoah

From the air, the 46,000 lunging, rolling, curving, tangled miles of America's Interstate Highway System sprawl across the continent like some outsized Rorschach pattern. These multi-laned, guard-rail-clad corridors by now seem timeless, like pre-Cambrian mountains bolted to the landscape. So it's hard to believe that America's freeway system turns 50 this summer — a chronological blip on the tectonic plates too slight for a spectrometer, but in the life of our republic, a golden anniversary.

In truth, the system's true origins do go back at least several more years. As a young lieutenant colonel in 1919, Dwight Eisenhower volunteered to act as an observer on the U.S. Army's first motorized transcontinental convoy. But the 62-day Washington-to-San Francisco trek left him appalled. On the often unpaved, poorly maintained roads that comprised their route, trucks became stuck in mud, disappeared into clouds of dust, and slid on ice; on occasion, they even crashed through the beds of creaky wooden bridges.

Memories of that obstacle course lingered with Eisenhower. And two decades later, as the Supreme Allied Commander in World War II, he noted how easily his armies disrupted German supply-lines by bombing railroads. But he also noticed how, despite Allied pummeling, the country's Autobahn had remained passable. In the 1950s, the general-turned politician, by then elected president, resolved to build a similar system across the United States. "The old convoy," he recalled, "had started me thinking about good, two-lane highways, but Germany had made me see the wisdom of broader ribbons across the land."

Military considerations — his perceived need for good roads to transport troops and materiel over far-flung continental distances — initially compelled Eisenhower. But, with the force of an idea whose time had arrived, the system and its eventual designers found broader inspirations — the German Autobahn, as well as the parkways built by New Yorker Robert Moses as early as the 1930s and the futuristic highway visions of Norman Bel Geddes and French Modernist Le Corbusier.

In a fuller sense, however, it was America's 1950s economic boom that proved the Interstates' true progenitor. The Federal-Aid Highway Act, passed by Congress and signed into law by Eisenhower on June 29,1956, allocated $25 billion to pay 90% of the costs of a 41,000-mile "National System of Interstate and Defense Highways," to be completed by 1972.

To reassure state governments nervous about the tab, Congress levied a 3% federal tax on gas and diesel fuel to pay 90% of construction costs. Congress subsequently expanded the network to include other routes and the new states of Hawaii and Alaska. And even now, ongoing fidgeting with the system — the repaving and widening of established highways and the construction of new metro commuter routes close to growing cities — suggests that old joke about New York City: "It'll be a great place if they ever finish building it."

But America's Interstate system — the largest civil engineering project in human history — is actually substantively complete. And now that it is, we can begin to comprehend its scope and impact. After we've spread enough asphalt and concrete and acquired enough right-of-way to cover the entire surface of the state of Delaware, we can begin to comprehend how this sprawling 75 m.p.h. planet of concrete, asphalt, steel and white-line-paint has changed America — both the way we live and how we view our nation. Like some vast, caffeine-propelled external manifestation of our collective nervous system, these freeways changed everything.

By allowing us to travel with greater speed, freedom and whim than our ancestors could ever have imagined, the Interstates changed how we experience movement through space and time. Not so long ago, when family vacations entailed days poking along in slow-moving cars on even slower roads, the journey ranked almost as high as the destination. To relieve the tedium, Dad made regular stops at places that now seem hopelessly quaint — alligator wrestling joints, tourist cabins, and dinosaur-themed miniature golf-courses.

The Interstates reduced the older highways to ghost roads: "Let's-Stop-Here-Daddy" gave way to "We-Can-Make-Los-Angeles-By-Tomorrow-Morning." The mom-and-pop businesses that squatted just off the blacktops disappeared, replaced by the more impersonal, neon-announced franchise businesses that often sat hundreds of yards from the Interstates. These new entrepreneurs succored road-weary travelers with a dependable uniformity in food and lodging.

Thanks to McDonald's, Holiday Inn, and Howard Johnson, one suddenly could travel coast-to-coast and eat from an unvarying menu and sleep in the same room every night. As Alphonse Karr might have mused, "The more one travels, the more one stays in the same place." Indeed, by now, the Interstates' uniform signages — emblazoned with the system's own red-white-and-blue shield icon; others proclaiming speed-limits and upcoming exits; and still others touting McDonald's, Best Western, Exxon, BP, and Wendy's — float through our subconscious like so many branded Jungian archetypes.

Still one might fairly ask, to what degree does the system incarnate the vision of its 1950s authors? And how does it mesh with the nation's grand romance of the open road? After all, travelers from Walt Whitman to Jack Kerouac have done time on earlier American roads, portraying them variously as pathways to freedom or into a Hobbesian wilderness. And more recently, Hunter Thompson, Willie Nelson, Bruce Springsteen and other myth-makers have tried to hustle the Interstates into that same picaresque canon.

But is that really the way most Americans feel about these roads? Many of us, after all, use them more for daily commutes rather than for recreational trips. And let's be honest —for the millions of metro commuters who endure daily knotted freeway traffic-jams, any portrayal of the Interstates as the latest incarnation of America's classic Open Road rings false. For them —perfectly happy, thank you, to wait to get back on the road again — these highways feel about as romantic as a digital clock.

Celebrated or cursed, the Interstates still evoke sublime feelings about the technological forces that, over five decades, have transfigured American lives. More than television, the space program, computers or any of the other defining, and once controversial, technological icons of our lifetimes, freeways continue to divide Americans. To understand how 19th-century Americans felt about technology, historians often examine individuals' attitudes toward the railroad. Freeways offer a similar litmus: Although still beloved by automobile, trucking, construction, advertising and franchising executives, the roads are excoriated by academics, artists, writers and activists for diminishing communities, landscapes, public transportation and regional distinctiveness.

Moreover, freeway fracases over everything from neighborhood preservation to roadside billboards echo long-standing national conversations that reach back to our republic's dawn. Long before Ike's fountain pen in 1956 inscribed these red-roads into our Rand-McNally pages, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton sparred over how to balance democracy, freedom and commerce in American lives. Put another way, even as history's odometer this season rolls up the Interstates' 50th anniversary, these roads still take us on a multi-lane tour of our murkiest feelings about home and travel, the near and the distant, the here and the there.