The Lure of the Road

When I was young, summer meant wonderful road trips. By car, and later by motorhome, my parents and I visited 48 states. I still thrill to the thought of getting into a car and heading down the highway to some new destination. What will I find around the next corner? A natural wonder? A quaint town? A city? A quirky roadside attraction?  America has a rich history in roads, how they developed and what they have meant and still mean today to those who venture out for business or pleasure.

The earliest federally funded road was the National Road, also known as The Cumberland Highway. President Thomas Jefferson recognized the need for good roads to reach the west and in 1806 he signed the act establishing the National Road. Construction began in 1811 and was completed in 1834.  When finished, the highway stretched almost 700 miles from Cumberland, Maryland to Vandalia, Illinois.

The first improved coast to coast road, dedicated October 1, 1913, was the Lincoln Highway. It covered over 3,300 miles beginning in Times Square, New York City, New York and ending in Lincoln Park, San Franciso, California. Look for Lincoln Highway markers the next time you travel on Route 27 through Princeton to Route 206 through Trenton and over the “Trenton Makes” Bridge into Pennsylvania. Greetings from the Lincoln Highway by Brian Butko and The Lincoln Highway by Michael Wallis and Michael S. Williamson are excellent books that take you mile by mile across the United States.

Another road that we use in our daily travel is U.S. Route 1. Have you ever thought about where is goes once it leaves Mercer County? U.S. Route 1 begins in Fort Kent, Maine and extends over 2,300 miles to Key West, Florida. It connects most of the major cities on the east coast. Along the way you will pass places of import and of whimsy, such as Seashore Trolley Museum in Kennebunkport, Maine; Hubcap City in Jessup, Maryland; FBI Headquarters in Washington, D.C.; the North Carolina Motor Speedway and Ernest Hemingway’s house in Key West, Florida. Author Peter Genovese chronicles his drive down Route 1 in The Great American Road Trip.

Perhaps the most iconic road in the United States is Route 66, often called The Mother Road or the Main Street of America. Stretching from Chicago, Illinois to Los Angeles, California, it has achieved fame in song, television and movies. In 1946, Bobby Troup wrote “Get Your Kicks on Route 66” which was then recorded and made famous by Nat King Cole and has since been covered by many artists. From 1960 to 1964, two young adventurers explored the road in their Corvette in the television series Route 66. Cars, the 2006 Disney/Pixar animated feature, bases the town of Radiator Springs on locations along Route 66. Route 66 Remembered by Michael Karl Witzel offers a photo journal of this iconic road.

Today the Interstate Highway System provides multilane highways that allow us to reach our destination in less time.  Divided Highways by Tom Lewis details what has been called the largest public works project in United States history.  President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 and ushered in the transportation network that has become a part of our culture.

No matter what reason you are “hitting the road” this summer, take a moment and think about the visionaries, engineers and construction teams who have imagined and built the roads over which we journey.

- Melissa H.


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