A Brief History of Road Building

by Shirley Sponholtz

Most of us give very little thought to the roads we drive on every day, and tend to take them for granted-at least until they are closed for repairs, washed out in a flood, or in some way rendered impassable. However, only during the past forty years or so have we enjoyed the luxury of a vast, extensive, and well-maintained system of roads accessible to everyone. In the midst of our grumbling about potholes, traffic jams, and incompetent drivers, we forget how fortunate we truly are. Obviously, it was not always the case.

From the earliest times, one of the strongest indicators of a society's level of development has been its road system-or lack of one. Increasing populations and the advent of towns and cities brought with it the need for communication and commerce between those growing population centers. A road built in Egypt by the Pharaoh Cheops around 2500 BC is believed to be the earliest paved road on record-a construction road 1,000 yards long and 60 feet wide that led to the site of the Great Pyramid. Since it was used only for this one job and was never used for travel, Cheops's road was not truly a road in the same sense that the later trade routes, royal highways, and impressively paved Roman roads were.

The various trade routes, of course, developed where goods were transported from their source to a market outlet and were often named after the goods which traveled upon them. For example, the Amber Route traveled from Afghanistan through Persia and Arabia to Egypt, and the Silk Route stretched 8,000 miles from China, across Asia, and then through Spain to the Atlantic Ocean. However, carrying bulky goods with slow animals over rough, unpaved roads was a time consuming and expensive proposition. As a general rule, the price of the goods doubled for every 100 miles they had to travel.

Some other ancient roads were established by rulers and their armies. The Old Testament contains references to ancient roads like the King's Highway, dating back to 2000 BC. This was a major route from Damascus in Palestine, and ran south to the Gulf of Aqaba, through Syria to Mesopotamia, and finally on to Egypt. Later it was renamed Trajan's Road by the Romans, and was used in the eleventh and twelfth centuries by the Crusaders when they attempted to "reclaim" the Holy Land. Around 1115 BC the Assyrian Empire in western Asia began what is believed to be the first organized road-building, and continued it for 500 to 600 years. Since they were trying to dominate that part of the world, they had to be able to move their armies effectively-along with supplies and equipment. Their army's engineer corps laid pontoon bridges and leveled tracks for carts and siege engines. As the Assyrians gradually faded, another imperial road, the Royal Road, was being built by the Persians from the Persian Gulf to the Aegean Sea, a distance of 1,775 miles. Around 800 BC, Carthage, on the northern coast of Africa, began to use stones for paving roads. Although they may not have been the first to pave their roads with stones, they were among the earliest, and some people believe that the Romans imitated Carthaginian techniques.

Without doubt, the champion road builders of them all were the ancient Romans, who, until modern times, built the world's straightest, best engineered, and most complex network of roads in the world. At their height, the Roman Empire maintained 53,000 miles of roads, which covered all of England to the north, most of Western Europe, radiated throughout the Iberian Peninsula, and encircled and crisscrossed the entire Mediterranean area. Famous for their straightness, Roman roads were composed of a graded soil foundation topped by four courses: a bedding of sand or mortar; rows of large, flat stones; a thin layer of gravel mixed with lime; and a thin surface of flint-like lava. Typically they were 3 to 5 feet thick and varied in width from 8 to 35 feet, although the average width for the main roads was from 12 to 24 feet. Their design remained the most sophisticated until the advent of modern road-building technology in the very late 18th and 19th centuries. Many of their original roads are still in use today, although they have been resurfaced numerous times.

Under Roman law, the public had the right to use the roads, but the district through which a road passed was responsible for the maintenance of the roadway. This system was effective so long as a strong central authority existed to enforce it. Unfortunately, as the Roman Empire declined so did their roads, and their work fell into disrepair all across Europe and Great Britain.

On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, several centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, the Inca Empire began to rise in South America during a period that corresponded with the Middle Ages in Europe. Centered in what is now Peru, the Incas branched out into Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile, and, like the Romans, recognized the need for a system of roads that would enable them to extend their conquests and to govern their empire. Interestingly enough, the Incas built their empire without inventing the wheel, without the use of draft animals, and without a written language. Because they had no wheeled vehicles to worry about, their roads could ascend steep inclines via terraces or steps-in one place a road going up a steep mountainside was built of 3,000 consecutive stone steps. They also built over swamps, and constructed a causeway 24 feet wide and 8 miles long, which had a paved surface and stone walls. Unfortunately, their well-constructed system of roads ultimately assisted in their downfall as the invading Spaniards used the Incas' own roads to move Spanish armies, weapons, and supplies.

Back across the Atlantic, but later, in 18th century England, the technology of highway construction was getting a long overdue boost from two British engineers, Thomas Telford and John Loudon McAdam. Telford, originally a stonemason, came up with a system of road building which required digging a trench, installing a foundation of heavy rock, and then surfacing with a 6-inch layer of gravel. During construction, the center of the road was raised, producing a crown that allowed water to drain off. In the course of his career, Telford built over 1,000 roads, 1,200 bridges, and numerous other structures. Although his system was faster and less expensive that the Romans' method, it was still costly and required frequent resurfacing with gravel.

On the other hand, McAdam's system was based on the principle that a well-drained road made of suitable material does not need the stone foundation of Telford's system, but could be built directly on the subsoil. First McAdam placed a closely compacted 10- to 12-inch layer of stone which had been broken to an inch in diameter, and which was raised in the center to facilitate drainage. This was followed by a carpet of finer grained stone that was cemented by the setting of the powder, a process that was completed in stages, allowing the road's traffic to compact each stage. The greatest advantages to McAdam's system were its speed and low cost, and it was generally adopted throughout Europe. However, it was the lack of a firm foundation for the roadbed that was to prove the ultimate undoing of macadam roads with the advent of heavy motor vehicles, especially trucks. For that reason, on roads that had to support heavy loads, Telford's system of construction became the standard.

During this same time period, the growth of turnpikes was resulting in much improved road conditions across England. Private individuals built roads themselves and then charged for their use, usually blocking passage by setting a long pole (pike) across the road. Once the toll had been paid, the pole would be swung (turned) out of the way, allowing the travelers access to the road (turnpike). By 1829, 3,783 different turnpike companies operated 20,000 miles of highway throughout England. However, during the latter half of the 19th century, canal building and the growth of railroads outstripped the turnpikes, and roads in general became less important until the turn of the century.

As European settlers migrated across the Atlantic to the U.S., they found themselves faced with an almost total lack of roads-in Europe they had at least had the Roman roads to use as a foundation for rebuilding. In America there were only Indian trails, and while they were long and quite extensive, they were also very narrow, allowing only for single file passage of foot traffic. Like their Inca counterparts, the natives of North America did not invent a wheel, and so did not develop roads that would accommodate wheeled vehicles. Initially, America's early roads were no more than widened Indian trails which had been leveled and filled, most of them full of tree stumps that tripped horses and halted wagons. The expression, "I'm stumped," derived from this era, when vehicles were frequently hung up on tree stumps and could go no further until they'd been freed. Also, since most of these early roads ran through forests, the route was often marked by notches chopped on trees, from which evolved names like "Three Notch Road." America, like England, went through a period of turnpike development, and for many years, turnpikes were the best roads in the U.S.

Not surprisingly, the overall development of transportation in the U.S. continued to parallel its counterpart in England, and interest in building and maintaining long distance roads waned during the last half of the 19th century. As in England, this was due both to increased canal building and the growth of railroads. But the advent of the motorcar changed all that for everyone, and the advent of the motor truck changed it even more. Obviously, motorized vehicles made it possible for both people and goods to travel both more quickly and more comfortably-so long as there were adequate roads upon which they could travel. Thus the Good Roads Movement was born.

Before proceeding with motor vehicles, we have to give some credit to bicycles for bringing attention to the need for good roads, since these two-wheeled vehicles enjoyed enormous popularity in the late 19th century. Many clubs and cycling societies sprang up, including the League of American Wheelmen, a national organization founded in 1880 whose members began crying out for better roads. The first definite success of the fledgling Good Roads Movement was achieved in 1891, when New Jersey became the first state to take responsibility at the state level for improving roads and formed a State Highway Department. Massachusetts followed this example in 1892, and by 1917 all the states had adopted similar programs.

However, aside from outspoken cyclists and their leisure time needs, farmers were actually the earliest commercial agitators for the Good Roads Movement, since they needed a way to get their farm products to market. In addition, the railroads initially supported early efforts to improve local roads for farmers because it increased their own traffic. In 1896, the Department of Agriculture opened an Office of Road Inquiry to assist in the development of better roads, and an often-heard slogan was, "Get the farmer out of the mud!" Of course, once it became clear that motor trucks presented a serious competitive threat to their business, the railroads began losing their enthusiasm for the Good Roads Movement.

U.S. Senator John H. Bankhead* (see endnote), of Jasper, AL, was president of the Good Roads Association, and played a key role in funding the nation's road-building efforts. As Chairman of the Senate Committee on Post Offices and Post Roads, he introduced bills that appropriated money for the construction of post roads. In 1912, he pushed through a $500,000 appropriation that resulted in 425 miles of improved roads in 17 states. Then in 1916 Sen. Bankhead got the Federal Highway Act passed, which has been the basis for a continuing federal aid road building program ever since. These early programs led to both the Highway Trust Fund which was implemented in 1956 in order to construct our interstate highway system, and the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1968, which modified and expanded the interstate system.

As they say, the rest is history-a history that most of us have experienced-and just about any drive we take today provides concrete evidence of the outcome. Ironically, even at its height, our modern interstate highway system totals only about 42,500 miles (as of 1991). Granted, this figure does not include surface streets or other roads. But 2,000 years ago the Romans, without the help of all our engineering technology or road-building machinery, constructed 53,000 miles of roads, much of which is still in use today.

I can't help but wonder if our roads will fare as well or be as impressive to historians 2,000 years from now.

*Sen. Bankhead's two sons, John and William, were Senator and Speaker of the House, respectively. His grandson, Walter Will, entered the House of Representatives. His unconventional granddaughter, Tallulah, became an actress and severely shocked conservative Jasper, AL, society.

[Author's Note: Thanks to several sources for background and information used in this story: Roads, by Fon W. Boardman, Jr.; Alabama Now and Then, by Dr. Donald B. Dodd; The Story of the Road, by J. W. Gregory; American Highways, by Victoria Faber Stevenson; The Congressional Record; and Debra West, Librarian, Auburn University at Montgomery, AL.-SSS]

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