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Wyoming History

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Lincoln Highway

Part three of seven parts

Part 1

Part 2

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

Part 7

Continue to References

 

Fort Bridger State Historic Site

 

The Politics of Road Construction

Historian Russel R. Elliott notes that highway construction in the early-twentieth century was similar to nineteenth-century wagon road construction. "In the construction of the nation's highway network Nevada played basically the same role as it had during the exploration of the West and the building of the railroads: that bridge to get somewhere else, usually California" (Elliott 1973:263). Whatever the purpose behind building a road system, the "transportation revolution," as Elliott called it, brought in a new business interest, "the road builders."
While the car was the eventual catalyst that led to improved highways, the movement to improve the nation's roads predates the advent of automobile travel. At the turn of the century, due to lack of good roads, "the greater part of the United States was still isolated and confined by the extreme poverty of its roads" (Fuller 1956:67). This isolation was due, in part, to the fact the federal government following the Civil War "had turned its back upon its former practice of constructing roads within the states . . . ." Without funds from the national government, the responsibility for road construction fell to the territories or states. They too lacked adequate revenues and when they "refused the burdens of highway construction, . . . the work was left to the local governments" (Fuller 1956:67).

With local governments in control of road construction and maintenance, the quality of roads throughout the West and the rest of the United States was uneven at best. "Under the management of towns and counties, using no standard road building methods and employing antiquated systems of road taxation, only about seven percent of the nation's roadways had been improved with gravel, shell, oil, or some other substance by 1904." The poor condition of the nation's roads led to a country-wide call for better highways. "The demand for improved roads was heard in most sections of the country and from different interest groups . . . " (Fuller 1956:67). In the East, farmers were the most vocal in their demands for better roads while in the West, ranchers and miners consistently called for safer all-weather highways.

By the turn of the century, the demands for better roads began to bear fruit. The establishment of the Office of Road Inquiry, in 1893, marked a renewed interest on the part of the federal government in road construction. The renewal of interest in road building and repair was due to growing demands for federal action. This pressure was brought to bear by a variety of groups organized to work for better highways. The "good-roads movement" that emerged in the latter part of the nineteenth century was foreshadowed by organizations such as the League of American Wheelmen (Fuller 1956:69). The Wheelmen were an organization of bicyclists who in the 1880s energetically tried to arouse the nation's "indignation over the condition of its roads." Yet, it was the founding of the short-lived National League for Good Roads in 1892 that began "the good-roads movement along the lines it was to follow over the next twenty years." Out of the National League for Good Roads emerged the Office of Road Inquiry established within the Department of Agriculture with an annual appropriation of $10,000. "The role of the new Office was to be largely advisory: to offer expert advice on road building and to stimulate public interest in roads by the publication of pertinent road information" (Fuller 1956:69).

While the Office of Road Inquiry drew attention to the good road's movement, the postal department led efforts to establish "rural free delivery." Ultimately, the postal service would garner federal monies to help improve postal roads. Meanwhile, the Office of Road Inquiry actively promoted the cause. The Office of Road Inquiry's most dramatic efforts in the early 1900s came about due to its co-operation with the National Good Roads Association (Fuller 1956:70). Towns, such as Tonopah, Nevada had local chapters of the Good Roads Association. Community efforts, such as those initiated in Tonopah, helped create a nationwide road system that linked local roads to national highways. The overriding concern was improved roads.

Efforts to improve the nation's roads were evident on numerous fronts. For example, in 1896, while the Office of Public Road Inquiry and the National Good Roads Association were in their infancy, rural postal delivery began. "The new mail service sharpened demands for good roads." Almost from the outset of rural delivery, postal authorities realized that the success of the postal service depended on good roads. If roads could not be traveled due to mud or disrepair, then the daily mail, "so important to the success of the service, would be interrupted . . . ." Acting on this premise, the Postal Department initially did not serve areas "where roads were unfit for satisfactory operation of the service" (Fuller 1956:70-71).

The Postal Department's policy of serving only areas with "fit roads" gave rise to rural road improvements. "Country roads, which in the past had rarely received more attention than some farmer's hearty curse were suddenly being vigorously worked." Rural postal agents reported that at least in some parts of the country: "farmers . . . were out in force, building new bridges and culverts in order to secure new [mail] routes or retain old ones" (Fuller 1956:71). Rutted tracks where water stood and mud collected were drained and roads were crowned and ditched. Rural roads were "dragged" and graded "by earnest groups of farmers." By 1908, the Postal Department estimated over "$70,000,000 had been spent on rural route roads since the inauguration of the service" (Fuller 1956: 71).

After the turn of the century, the Postal Department "actively co-operated with the Office of Public Road Inquiries – formerly the Office of Road Inquiry and, after 1905, the Bureau of Public Roads" (Fuller 1956:72). Coupled with federal efforts was a surge in state level activity. Around 1900, the historic indifference traditionally given to local roads waned. "Between 1900 and 1910, state after state passed laws that gave direct financial aid for local road building or created highway commissions to control the development of highway systems" (Fuller 1956:74). The new attitudes in the various states grew from the need for better postal roads and the efforts of good road organizations and the Bureau of Public Roads combined with the increased use of the automobile. Ultimately, some postal roads would be improved using federal funds, but early in the twentieth century much of the funding for road improvements came from local and later state revenues. Yet, the impetus for local road improvements can trace their roots to the advent of rural postal delivery (Fuller 1956:74). What eventually made long term and large scale road improvements a permanent goal in most states was the automobile. As historian Russell Elliott notes, "There would be little real achievement in road building . . . unless the United States government appropriated the funds" (Elliott 1976:264).

The 1916 Federal-Aid Road Act greatly assisted Wyoming's efforts to improve its roads. Wyoming's "highway system received its initial impetus from the 1916 act and gained additional benefits in 1921 under new federal legislation." Under this 1921 law "a matching formula . . . gave an advantage to states where the unappropriated and unreserved public domain exceeded 5 percent of the total area." Wyoming, with a little over 69 percent of its land administered by the federal government, benefited. A state gasoline tax would be used to raise revenues.
Early in the twentieth century the most common source of highway funds were property taxes, poll taxes, and labor levies. "As late as 1904, of the $80,000,000 raised for road and bridge purposes in the United States, 59 per cent was paid in labor; 34 per cent was paid in cash as property taxes, 4 per cent was derived from local bond issues; and 3 per cent came from state funds as aid to local government units " (Burnham 1962:436). This increased pressure came about due to the rising numbers of automobiles. By 1919, there were six million automobiles owned by Americans. Traditional state and local sources of tax revenues were no longer adequate to support highway construction and repair programs (Burnham 1962:436).

When the twentieth-century opened automobilists took up the mantle of the good-roads movement of the previous century, an all out effort was launched to improve and construct highways. Due to their zeal and singleness of purpose, "Legislators . . . learned to fear the dedicated good-roads crusaders [during the] Progressive Era and the 1920's." Initially, the richer rural counties' response to the growing political pressure was to improve a few roads, "but poorer counties provided virtually no roads at all" (Burnham 1962:436). The 1916 Federal-Aid Act enacted by Congress was designed to ease the problem of poor roads. The "Act" provided matching funds to states for highway construction. Unfortunately, many sates had difficulties raising the matching funds. To help raise the so called "match," states developed new revenue patterns. "By 1921, the main sources of state highway expenditures were property taxes and general funds, federal aid, bond issues (partially financed by highway user taxes and automobile registration fees) which provided a quarter of the funds." Income from license (registration) fees "doubled between 1918 and 1920, and that sum tripled by 1927" (Burnham 1962:436). While the diverse sources of revenue assisted in initiating good roads, there was still not enough money to build adequate highways in sparsely populated states like Wyoming.

At the end of World War I, roads in most states were in poor condition. "Throughout the war the nation's highways had not been properly maintained." Transportation systems were strained during the so-called "War to End All Wars." "The wartime effort to supplement rail transportation caused heavy truck traffic over such highways as existed – in many cases roads which had never before borne heavy vehicles." Without upgrading the roads to bear the extra weight, "the result was often serious deterioration and destruction of roads which county and state highway authorities were not physically or financially prepared to repair." Not only were the existing highways in poor condition, but the clamor for new highways intensified. "Added to this was the greatest pressure of all to raise money for roads, the desire of the states to meet the large matching funds which the federal government made available after the war" (Burnham 1962:437).

These problems cut across state lines, but it was Oregon that first struck upon the gasoline tax as a solution. Oregon, like Wyoming and the rest of the West, faced critical funding problems. With Oregon's "sparse population, large area, rugged terrain, and long rainy season, no state needed more to 'get out of the mud,' as the good roads slogan suggested." So deplorable were conditions in Oregon that groups of automobile owners arranged "outings" solely to work on roads. Yet, in spite of these group efforts, "the condition of the roads remained the same – mud in winter and deep dust in summer" (Burnham 1962:438). The solution to the problem appeared to be the gasoline tax.

In 1919, first Oregon, then Colorado and New Mexico, passed gasoline tax legislation. The amount collected varied, but the results were the same. Now there were more funds available to build good roads. By 1925, forty-four states and the District of Columbia had gasoline taxes and in 1929, the last hold-out, New York, capitulated. By 1929, "rates of three and four cents were common, and in that year, the states collected $431,000,000 in gasoline taxes" (Burnham 1962:446). The result of increased revenues meant an improvement in roads. In most western states, this resulted in more road construction, route realignments, and the paving of roads.

Northern Nevandans wanted the Lincoln Highway to be the principal transcontinental road through Nevada (Barnhaus, April 16, 1913). Competition for where the national transcontinental route would be located was heated. In a resolution submitted by the Inyo Good Road Club to the Fresno County Chamber of Commerce, the following declaration was made:

WHEREAS, The Lincoln Highway Route in California is closed to inter-state motor-car travel more than on-half of each year.

And WHEREAS, The Inyo Good Road Club, in conjunction with others representing public sentiments, is endeavoring to secure change for said route to a road open the entire year, from Ely thru Tonopah and Goldfield into California, thru Westgard Pass and Big Pine, south thru Owens Valley into Kern County, thence westerly and northerly thru Fresno and the Other cities of the San Joaquin Valley to the Panama-Pacific Exposition, which said route has been named by said Club, THE EXPOSITION WAY.

Now THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, By the Board of Directors of the Fresno County Chamber of Commerce, that it thereby approves and gives its full moral support and influence to said Inyo Good Road Club and joins with it in respectful protest and request, to the Lincoln Highway Association for re-consideration and change of route as herein described (Fresno County Chamber of Commerce, February 4, 1914).

As noted earlier, during the first decades of the twentieth century, highways would be built along routes that would see little change throughout the rest of the century. The choice of highway corridors meant an almost permanent routing of traffic through one area. Road routes might change, but topographical features fixed the corridor. Thus, in the early part of the twentieth century boosters were fighting for the future. They may or may not have been conscious of the long-term ramifications of selecting one route over another. Surely they realized that once thousands of dollars were invested in paving a road, changing the road would require major political efforts. Possibly the road boosters, sensing this, thought that fighting the battles early might mean the difference between whether their community survived or died on the vine.

Throughout the years prior to World War I, the competition for where the transcontinental road would travel was severe. In March 1914, the Pacific Motor and American Motor News published an excellent discussion of how the battle lines were drawn. They reported the following:
ROUTE OF THE LINCOLN HIGHWAY PACIFIC MOTOR is an ardent advocate of the Lincoln Highway not only by moral support and influence, but by liberal contribution of its advertising pages – but above all it is for California and its best interest is at stake.

It stands for California as a whole, as one great and united commonwealth. California for all from Oregon to Mexico, from Nevada to the sea, and all for California.

The claims of sectionalism have no right to exist much less to be taken into consideration, unless they be based upon material equity.

After careful examination of the subject in its varied lights and phases, and elimination of the unreasonable prejudices so obtrusively insistent – this journal is of the positive opinion that the route suggested for the Lincoln Highway in this State is not the route that harmonizes best with all the interests of California.
We agree thoroughly with the Inyo Good Road Club in the position which it has assumed as follows:

That it favors a route from Salt Lake City south of the Great Salt Lake to Ely, Nevada; thence to the Pacific terminal, Oakland.

That it is unalterably opposed to the adoption of a route that can be used only four or five month each year.
A route that for seven or eight months each year is practically out of existence and that for the period named actually destroys inter-state motor-car traffic- and this in a state that boasts of its all year motor-touring attractions upon which rests a future financial revenue of hundreds of millions annually.

That it favors the adoption of a route already in actual use and in fair, natural condition which enters California at the center of its eastern boundary affording to tourists the choice of going either north or south – a condition eminently just to both ends of the State.

That the exclusive route through Tonopah, Goldfield, Westgard Pass and Big Pine which it favors, is open for use twelve months each year.

That such exclusive route would encourage inter-state motor car traffic, promote all year motor touring in California, generate good will between north and south, tend to obliterate the barriers of sectional prejudice and contribute in marked degree to the efficiency of a great seaboard highway system, vital to coast and interior defense, in the not impossible crisis of domestic or alien irruption.

That the club is justified in naming the suggested course the "Snow Shed Route," as has been thoroughly demonstrated at enormous expense by the Southern Pacific Railroad; in connection with which the fact stands forth undeniable that the route suggested for the Lincoln Highway in the locality just mentioned cannot reasonably be considered open for motor-cars before at least three, and perhaps four, months after the Panama-Pacific Exposition shall have commenced.

From an impartial viewpoint and to a true Californian it appears that the club is right and that it has the best of the argument.

This is the unbiased and uninfluenced belief of Pacific Motor as the consistent champion of California's motor-touring interests.

And it is proper to add that this belief is ably sustained by the written, official approval of the following organizations: Tonopah Auto Club, Unity Club of Goldfied, Automobile Club of Southern California, Kern County Board of Trade, Fresno Auto Dealers' Association, Fresno County Dealers' Association, Fresno County Chamber of Commerce, Madera County Chamber of Commerce, Modesto Chamber of Commerce, Stanislaus County Board of Trade (including fourteen distinct civic organizations), and Automobile Club of Northern California (Pacific Motor and American Motor News, March 1914).

In a letter to S. R. Moore, the Inyo Good Road Club secretary W. G. Scott, noted that the Lincoln Highway Association was "adverse to any concession" (Scott, May 16, 1914). Yet, Scott asked Moore to begin to move towards a middle ground and to begin viewing the Lincoln Highway Association not as a competitor, but as a potential ally in the fight for good roads. Scott writes: "It is probable that a closer cooperation of all concerned for [a] stronger and more unified effort, will be advisable . . . ." Possibly not knowing how the people of Tonopah or Moore might view this gesture of cooperation, Scott made a compelling plea. He wrote: "Assuring you of the [Inyo] Club's sincere appreciation of your past support and influence which has proved of great value – a continuation of same is respectfully asked . . ." (Scott, 1914). In spite of the fact that all indications pointed to the Lincoln Highway becoming the main east-west transcontinental highway, as federal funds for highway improvement became available, the battle for monies drew much of the boosters' attention.

*Historic Photographs are  courtesy Fort Bridger State Historic Site and Martha Powers

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If you have any questions please feel free to contact Dudley Gardner.

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