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The Creation of US20 – The Yankee Road

With the publication of Volume 3 of The Yankee Road launching August 2020 (here’s a bit of the story behind US 20, America’s longest highway.

US 20 stretches across the United States nearly 3400 miles, from Boston to Newport, Oregon. It is a designation connecting a number of largely pre-existing roads rather than a singular highway. The numbered U.S. highway system was created in 1926 as a result of the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916, which called for the classification of highways by their importance and provided federal funds to the States to improve the more important ones.

The Act was a response to the uncoordinated growth of local roads prompted by the growth in the use of autos and trucks in the early years of the 20th Century. A variety of innovations tried to overcome this lack of coordination. The first State maps of improved roads were devised in 1895. Lacking route numbers and local signage, these had to be accompanied by fairly detailed instructions on how to access the roads through and between towns.

One of the logical extensions of these maps was the designation of “trails” by clubs of automobile enthusiasts. By 1924, just before the US numbering system was imposed, there were 250 marked trails in the country, sponsored by 100 road and tourist associations. Some were the (Theodore) Roosevelt, from Washington DC to Los Angeles, the Jefferson, from Winnipeg to New Orleans, The Old Spanish Trail from St. Augustine FL to San Diego (a remnant of which in Tucson AZ still goes by this name), The Pacific Highway from British Columbia to Mexico, the Atlantic highway from Maine to Florida, the Yellowstone Highway from Plymouth (Rock) MA to Seattle and a (different from the one I knew) Dixie Highway from Duluth to Miami Beach.

The problem with these trails in the early years of the century was their chaotic spontaneity: they often overlapped and there was a lot of competition between their respective boosters, so that signage, which tended to be colored rings painted on telephone poles, was erratic and sometimes sabotaged. On one 1500-mile stretch of road in the West, the markers of 15 routes were painted on poles, barns and the like.

The Dixie Highway that I knew was marked on a series of roads from the Straits of Mackinac in northern Michigan to Miami, Florida in 1915. The driving force behind this Dixie Highway (now I-75) was J. Dallas Dort, an early Flint MI automaker, whose business was absorbed by General Motors after World War I. I grew up in Flint, not far from the Dixie Highway. In town, it was the main street and known as Saginaw Street, but to the north and south, US 10 was the Dixie Highway to everyone even into the 1960s. I never knew why it was called that: it was just one of those things that was “natural”.

The most famous of these named routes was the Lincoln Highway, which was promoted by a group of businessmen around 1913 as a means of linking New York with San Francisco. The group was led by auto and parts manufacturers and was seen as a private sector venture. Carl Fisher, an auto parts manufacturer who had just completed a new auto racetrack, or speedway, in Indianapolis, IN (yes, that one) stated that “the highways of America are built chiefly of politics, whereas the proper material is crushed rock or concrete.” The Lincoln Highway eventually fell to the government-mandated numerical grid system, as most of its length was designated as US30, and by 1927, Henry Joy, one of the original sponsors of the idea, would write to a colleague:

 “We tried to put on the map of the United States a wonderful main arterial route from New York to San Francisco as a memorial to Abraham Lincoln…The effort has resulted in total failure. The government, so far as has been within its power, has obliterated the Lincoln Highway from the memory of man.”

In fairness, a lot of the trails were not maintained properly and the Lincoln Highway became the exception that proved the rule: “The ordinary trail promoter has seemingly considered that plenty of wind [publicity] and a few barrels of paint are all that is required to build and maintain a 2000-mile trail.”

Another impulse for building a national system was national security. The first real military use for cars and trucks came in 1916, when General Pershing was sent to New Mexico to avenge a raid on Columbus NM by a Mexican force led by Pancho Villa. A contract to build 54 special trucks to haul munitions and supplies was given to the Packard plant in Detroit on a Monday morning and the completed vehicles left by rail the next afternoon for El Paso, where they were put into use along with horses and mules as the army moved south into Mexico.  This example led entrepreneurs to consider the possibility of using commercial trucking as an alternative to railroads. The first commercial trucking service was apparently set up the next year as a promotional idea by Goodyear Tires to ship its products. In the spring of 1917, it took 21 days for the first truck to drive from Akron Ohio to Boston, with weather being the cause for many delays.

The rails may have been faster, but the need for transport in addition to what the railroads could provide in World War I demonstrated the potential of trucks. The uncoordinated and underbuilt system of highways made trucking movements difficult and somewhat undependable. In desperation at the congestion on the railways, the Council on National Defense asked that military trucks made in the Midwest not be shipped by rail, but be driven to East Coast ports while filled with other war materiel. The first convoy left Toledo, Ohio for Baltimore in December 1917 and took three weeks to get there.

In 1919, a military experiment in moving a motorized convoy across the country had a galvanizing effect on federal interest in roads. After a number of send-off speeches by politicians, a three-mile convoy of military vehicles, accompanied by a young observer named Dwight Eisenhower, set off from Washington DC to cross the country to San Francisco. What with frequent stops to hear more speeches, attend dinners and dances, have breakdowns and overcome the lack of roads as they moved west, the convoy took 62 days to make the trip. In 1920, a second convoy was dispatched to Los Angeles across the South. It took 16 days just to reach Atlanta and 3 months to get to the West Coast.

Considering the problems with relying on rail for military mobilization that had arisen in the previous three years and the need to effectively defend two coastlines, the 5-mile an hour average convoy speed in 1919 was unacceptable. Eisenhower described his trip as a ‘journey through darkest America with truck and tank and the roads as ‘average to non-existent.’ One result of the 1919 convoy was that war surplus construction equipment was donated by the federal government to States to build roads.

Direct federal involvement in roads had ceased in the early 19th century and did not resume until 1912, when a $500,000 Congressional appropriation was made in the Post Office budget of that year. This was followed by the 1916 Federal Aid Road Act (or the Rural Post Roads Act), which was passed ostensibly to improve rural mail delivery. The money, $75 million over 5 years, was provided under the principle that the funds were to be administered by the State governments, a testimonial to the success of the new (1914) American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO). The roads were to be classified in terms of their importance, a step toward the national system a decade later, but in practice, the expenditures followed political pressures rather than a rational plan.

State activity can be seen in the case of Michigan. In 1905, there were about a thousand cars in the State. An alliance was formed between the bicycle associations, who had once teamed up with farmers in the 1890s in the “Good Roads Association”, and the automobilists. The new grouping opposed the farmers, who wanted radial roads to and from market centers in favor of intercity travel based on a grid system. Michigan bicycle activist Horatio “Good Roads” Earle successfully promoted an investigation into the State’s road conditions and then led a move to amend the State’s constitution in 1905 to allow it to support trunk road construction. Earle was then appointed the State’s first highway commissioner. In 1913, the State committed itself to fund a 3,000-mile trunk road system, just as federal funds started to become available.

This new government action reflected the growing importance of motorized vehicles in the country. For instance, by 1916, the average automobile cost about half a year’s wages for a clerical worker, about the same proportion as in 2006. The number of cars and trucks in the country in 1916 was about 3.5 million, growing to 4.8 million in just one year. Forty thousand garages and repair shops had sprung up to service these vehicles. The first motel, a hotel catering to automobile travelers, was developed in 1925 and there were 20,000 of them by 1940. The state of the roads was the weak link in a rapidly growing important new industrial sector.

By 1921, as a result of the Federal Highway Act of that year, the federal government began to consider the uses of a road system for the country. It seemed to the officials of the time, that roads should serve four functions: provide better communication between farm and city, provide recreation opportunities for citizens, improve commercial flows, and make all parts of the country accessible for defense. These considerations led to the development of a rough outline of a national system of improved highways. Part of the Act’s accompanying regulations mandated that 7% of the highways it helped finance must connect across State lines.

The next year saw a federal-state conference set out a grid of national highways in the Northeast that would receive support for construction and maintenance from Washington. Agreement by all 48 States to this plan led to its expansion in late 1923. This was followed by the creation of a federal-state commission to designate and number a national grid. In 1925, the AASHO decided to move from designating routes by names to a numerical system and the actual routes and their numbers were approved by the States in 1926. This effectively ended the informal ‘named’ road system that had grown up in the previous decade. The head of the federal Bureau of Public Roads declared in 1926 that:

There have been just three great programs of highway building within recorded history: that of the Roman empire, beginning with Julius Caesar and ending with Constantine; that of France under the Emperor Napoleon; that of the United States during the last decade.

The grid provided for even numbers for roads running east-west and odd numbers for those running north-south. Further, the numbering system provided for smaller numbers starting from the northeast corner of the country, ending in larger numbers in the southwest. The lowest numbers were for 1 and 2, while the highest numbers were 96 and 101 Supplemental highways were given related but even higher numbers, such as 301 that roughly parallels Highway 1 along the East Coast. The most important from a strategic and use perspective were numbered as multiples of 10 (10,20,30,..) and 1 (1,11,21,..).  

US 20 was intended as one of the routes extending from New England west. US 2 rambles across central Maine and northern New Hampshire and disappears into Canada, only to reappear in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and then goes west to the Pacific. US 6 sort of rambles in a southwesterly fashion from Cape Cod towards California, while US 10 doesn’t begin until Detroit, then it skips over Lake Michigan and on to the Pacific. The ‘teens’ all begin in odd places and one, US 16, and has been both reduced to a state highway and subsumed into the Interstates. Highway 20 begins in Boston and goes across the country just below the Great Lakes to the Pacific Ocean in Oregon, though until 1940 it stopped at Yellowstone Park. This last accounts got the numerical oddity of US 26 actually reaching the Pacific north of US 20.

US 20 cannot boast of some particular identity since its historical antecedents are a series of turnpikes and roads connecting one city with another. Today, it is paralleled by an Interstate from Boston to Chicago, but from there to the west coast at Newport Oregon, it is largely on its own.  Only about 40 miles of its 3365-mile length has been taken over by an Interstate, though Iowa is now developing the highway itself as an expressway across the northern tier of that state.  Fifty miles into Nebraska, a long stretch of the highway seems more like a simple country road, one of Least-Heat Moon’s  ‘blue highways’. It has a lot of diversity in its form and use across the country.


The rest of this narrative is related to places, generally within 50 miles along US 20, which I nickname the Yankee Road.  Naming roads is a hit-and-miss American process. Tourism agencies still refer to the National Road that was created in the late 18th century to connect the Potomac River with the lands north of the Ohio River. The Lincoln Highway is still lamented and promoted, even by television documentaries. In the 1950s, US 66 became popularized as the “Mother Road”, for what reason I cannot divine.  It had been designated as an afterthought near the end of the numbering process and it did not lead to new settlement.  Instead, its claim to fame is that it provided a way for settlers and descendants of settlers to leave Chicago and the Great Plains for a new life in California in the 1930s and 1940s. Read Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

The reason for my reference to US 20 as the Yankee Road is that, for much of its length, it goes through the center of lands that were first settled by Yankees and their descendants in the late 18th  and throughout the 19th Centuries. The value of traveling Highway 20 today does not lie in its geography, with some exceptions, but in what has happened on or near the route and in the significance of these happenings to the present and future of the country.

This 3-part volume consists of essays that relate to the impact of Yankee values on America as a whole, and by extension, the world. They are written as history, but their appearance along Highway 20’s length is in geographic, not historical order. Each piece generally consists of a rough historical treatment, with considerable focus on individuals. I tend to use the modern designations for States (MA, NY,MI) for convenience.