How the Nation’s Highways Were Built
By Tom Morrow
If you could credit (or blame) the person most responsible for our massive interstate highway system it would have to be Henry Ford. In the early years of the 20th century the pioneer auto builder and developer made cars affordable for the average working man but there was a limited number of roadways in which to travel. Few, if any could be used in the Southwestern and Western states as most were nothing more than a two-track pathway cut through the landscape with no particular destination beyond connecting one city or town with another.
In 1919 and 1920 two future U.S. presidents were involved in the development of the cross-country highway system. The first “coast-to-coast highway was the “Old Trails Road,” which was a private organization to build to roadway connecting St. Louis and Kansas City, Missouri. In 1912, the Association’s second president, Jackson County Judge Harry S. Truman of Independence, Mo. In 1926, the Association determined that Old Trails Road be split into several “numbered” roads throughout the nation. A portion of the “National” Old Trails Road from Chicago to Los Angeles would later become the iconic U.S. Route 66.
The first nationwide roadway was named the “Lincoln Highway,” running from New York’s Times Square to L.A., or San Francisco. The Old Trails Association determined that automobile manufacturers should donate 1 percent of their annual revenue to building the road. All the major companies complied except one. Ironically, the holdout was Henry Ford. He declared the highways were the responsibility of the national government.
In 1919, before there was any real organization connecting the West to the rest of the nation. The U.S. Army mounted a convoy to travel the length of the Lincoln Highway to determine the condition of the road. The convoy was headed by Lt. Col. Dwight D. Eisenhower. Results of the Army’s mission encouraged Congress to pass the “Federal Aid Highway Act of 1921. This greatly increased matching funds with the various states to building and improving roadways connect the Lincoln Highway.
Eisenhower reported that while the Lincoln Highway through Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana was in good shape, much of it paved, the roadway from Illinois to the West was mostly dirt, which was nearly unpassable during bad weather. Much of it was little more than a two-rutted roadway.
In 1928, Boy Scout troops across the nation placed concrete markers along the Lincoln Highway marker the route between Lincoln Park in San Francisco to Times Square in New York City.
“Ike” vowed to do everything he could to improve the nation’s roadways. Years later as president Eisenhower would oversee the creation of today’s modern Interstate Highway system. Much of the Lincoln Highway still exists as U.S. 30, which follows the same route as the original.
A Ford Sidebar:
The following is a story sent to me by a long-time reader down Texas way. It’s another example of how Henry Ford continues to be ever present in our daily lives.
Ford’s Model T, which would number in millions sold, required 100 board-feet of wood to build. Ford despised waste. His motto was, “Reduce, reuse, and recycle.” In addition to being one of the nation’s original environmentalists, Ford also was a nature-lover. His escape from the stress of building automobiles was camping in the great outdoors.
Frustrated by the mountains of sawdust his lumber mills created, Ford and his workers sought a way to utilize the scrap wood and sawdust into a useful (and profitable) product. An idea came to him one day when he was camped out with some friends in the wilds of Michigan. Taking time out to collect firewood was not something Ford enjoyed doing. When he returned back to work, he headed for his lumber mill to share an idea he got watching the glowing embers of a campfire.
Ford’s idea was simple: lump a fistful of sawdust, mix it cornstarch and a bit of tar to form a “briquette.” After charring it, the concoction performed exactly as Ford imagined. He then built a charcoal briquette factory adjacent to his lumber mill where the sawdust waste from that plant became fuel for another Ford company.
Dealers across America frequently sold new Model T Fords with a bonus bag of Ford Charcoal Briquettes, so you could drive into the woods to camp out and not worry about collecting campfire wood.
Ford not only created the modern automobile industry which takes millions of us to work each day on the nation’s highways, he also created the primary product for backyard grilling and outdoor camping.
In 1951, the Ford Charcoal Briquette Company was sold. The new company was named after Ford’s real estate partner who helped him find the land to supply wood for building those early Ford automobiles. His name: E.J. Kingsford. Today, the Kingsford Charcoal company is the world’s largest producer of charcoal briquettes.