Officially named the Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways, the interstate highway system has had a profound impact upon the physical, economic, and cultural landscapes of the United States. Most Americans travel the system without thinking about its influence on everyday life, and yet our cities look different because of the expanse of roadway ringing them or going through them; our products are shipped quickly and efficiently on them; and our popular culture adapted to them through attractions based on the heavily traveled roads. The fiftieth anniversary of the interstate system was celebrated in 2006 with little fanfare because the interstate is simply an ordinary part of American culture.
Since 1956, the year construction started, the roadway network has expanded to over forty-two thousand miles. This network is a uniform, efficient system that belies the nation’s earlier efforts at transcontinental transportation. Since the earliest days of the nation, government leaders sought ways to unify the growing country through overland transportation and to aid westward-moving settlers as they often traveled on poorly marked trails that crossed rugged terrain. The advent of the automobile in the late nineteenth century and its growing popularity in the twentieth century shifted transportation concerns from the rivers and railroad networks to routes conducive to quick, convenient trips by automobile.
Initiatives often began in the private sector as automobile enthusiasts started clubs that promoted various roadway networks. This movement became known as the “Good Roads Movement” and continued to stress improvements to local roads that connected larger towns and cities rather than inter- and intra-state travel. By the early 1920s, state governments became more involved in roadway construction and built systems with more uniform design standards that better suited increasing automobile usage. As early as the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt considered building toll superhighways as a New Deal program that could employ hundreds or thousands of people. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1938 funded a study to determine if such highways would be cost effective and feasible for the country. The report, Toll Roads and Free Roads, concluded that the need for transcontinental toll roads was not great enough to offset the cost of constructing them. Instead, the report recommended interregional roads that would connect large cities for defense and civilian traffic. Even as World War II loomed, President Roosevelt continued to see these interstate roads as a solution to the potential postwar economic crash that could send the country back into a depression.
The need for better roads to carry the increasing numbers of automobiles became evident to Dwight Eisenhower early in his military career and was reinforced as he rose through the military ranks to command Allied forces in Europe during World War II. In 1919, Eisenhower took part in a three-thousand-mile military convoy through eleven states to illustrate the need for a system of well-maintained roads that would be useful for defense purposes. The need for a roadway system, an idea that began during and after World War I, was reinforced in Germany during World War II when Eisenhower witnessed the speed and efficiency of the Autobahn. The quick troop movements on the Autobahn system for both the German army and the Allied forces made the roadway a strategic asset. Eisenhower, as Allied commander, understood the Autobahn’s importance and used the control of it to help crush Hitler’s army.
Eisenhower’s popularity as a military hero translated into the presidency when he was elected in 1952. Although politically conservative, Eisenhower worked to keep the building of the interstate system squarely in the federal government’s hands. Introduced to state governors in 1954, Eisenhower’s original plan called for a fifty-billion-dollar network that would be paid for primarily with tolls. Through political maneuvering and compromise, the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 was passed, and construction on the interstate system began in Missouri in the fall of 1956.
Much of the legislation creating the interstate system was co-authored by Senator Albert Gore of Carthage, Tennessee. In 1955, Senator Gore served as the chairman of the Subcommittee on Roads within the Committee on Public Roads and opposed the initial interstate legislation proposed by Eisenhower. Senator Gore revised the interstate bill, excluding the sale of bonds and most tolls to pay for the system and including provisions for the federal government to pay ten billion dollars in the first five years, and received initial support from fellow senators. As a result of this positive support, Representative George Fallon from Maryland authored the financial portion of Senator Gore’s legislation, requiring much of the interstate system to be paid for with gas taxes. Voted down in 1955, the legislation co-authored by Senator Gore and Representative Fallon would go on to be passed by Congress and signed into law by President Eisenhower on June 29, 1956. This legislation appropriated twenty-five billion dollars from 1957 to 1969 with the federal government paying for 90 percent of the cost and requiring over two million acres of land. In honor of Senator Gore’s influential role in the legislation for the system, all interstates leading into Tennessee are signed as the “Albert Gore, Sr. Memorial Highway.”
One of the key components of the interstate system is its standardization. From lane width to signage, the system is the same throughout the country. It differed from local roads because of its uniformity. All segments would have, at least, four twelve-foot-wide traffic lanes, with two lanes traveling in each direction. Separated by a median, the highways would offer limited access with interchanges periodically spaced to allow traffic to enter. Early proponents optimistically pointed out the benefits of the nationwide system, including saving close to eight thousand lives per year by diverting traffic from rural, two-lane roads where the possibility of head-on collisions was more imminent than in a roadway divided by a median. The interstate system was also credited with bringing people from across the country together through the increased linkages between cities, which had been a goal since the nation’s founding.
Streamlined engineering required drivers to adjust to a new way of driving. In the early 1960s, the Tennessee Department of Highways, the precursor to the Tennessee Department of Transportation, published a booklet giving tips on using the acceleration lanes to enter the roadways, planning trips wisely since stopping for gas or necessities became more difficult, and making sure to stop for driver fatigue since the standardization of the roadway can be hypnotizing. Differing greatly from today’s interstate concepts, the same publication touted scenic beauty, pointing out that both local residents and tourists would welcome the interstate for opening up previously undisturbed scenery.
Soon after the Federal-Aid Highway Act was passed, Tennessee transportation officials began planning. Construction began on the first segment of Interstate 65 in Giles County, near the Tennessee-Alabama line, in May 1957. That segment opened to traffic on November 15, 1958, with an official ceremony featuring state dignitaries at the Ardmore Figure-Eight interchange in southern Middle Tennessee. This auspicious opening ushered in decades of engineering and construction on the state’s original interstate allotment of 1,049.8 miles, which made Tennessee fourteenth in the nation for total interstate mileage.
One of the longest highways to traverse the country is Interstate 40, which runs through eight states from Wilmington, North Carolina, to Barstow, California, with a total length of 2,555.4 miles. Tennessee has the most miles within its borders at 455 miles, running from its North Carolina border to the Mississippi River.
After much of I-40 from Nashville to Memphis opened in the early to mid-1960s, Tennessee was once again thrust into the national spotlight with the proposed alignment of I-40 through Memphis. The Tennessee Department of Transportation purchased right-of-way through Overton Park from the city of Memphis in 1969. Buildings were being torn down by the early 1970s, and concerned residents in the neighborhoods surrounding Overton Park rallied against the proposed construction. Gathering signatures for petitions, local residents started a grassroots campaign and spent over twenty-four years opposing the interstate through a variety of legal channels. Finally, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case Citizens to Preserve Overton Park v. Volpe in 1971. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the citizens, protecting Overton Park through a clause in environmental legislation passed by Congress in 1966 that protected parkland unless there were no known prudent and feasible alternative for the road. This decisive victory against interstate construction set the stage for legal battles on the basis of environmental concerns. In 1981, the section through Overton Park was taken off the official I-40 master plan and previously purchased right-of-way continues to be returned to private owners.
The rugged terrain of Tennessee has made the building and expansion of the interstate system a challenge for engineers and construction crews. Interstate 24 runs from Clarksville on the northern border with Kentucky to Chattanooga on the southern border with Georgia and passes over Monteagle Mountain in Marion County. Monteagle had been a problem for motorists heading south since the first road was built over it in the 1920s. It took the state highway department six years to build this section of the interstate, and when it opened in 1968, I-24 became the safest route over the mountain. Another distinctive feature of the state is the Mississippi River on the western border. Since the interstate system followed nationwide routes, bridges were necessary to cross over the famed river. It was not until 1973 that the I-40 bridge over the Mississippi was completed, linking Tennessee and Arkansas. Even though the physical features made interstate building in Tennessee difficult, the state has often been a centerpiece of the transportation movement, with over one-third of the state’s counties having interstate access. Moreover, Nashville is one of only four U.S. cities where six legs of the interstate converge within its boundaries: I-40 East and West, I-24 East and West, and I-65 North and South.
In 2006, the nation celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 that created the interstate system. This milestone made consideration for the National Register of Historic Places a possibility for the entire roadway system. After careful evaluation by the keeper of the National Register in Washington, D.C., two interstate-related structures in Tennessee are eligible for the National Register. Both are important engineering feats that traverse the Mississippi River in Memphis. The first, the I-55 Memphis and Arkansas Bridge, was listed in the National Register in 2001 for its engineering significance. Completed in 1950, it is the only bridge spanning the Mississippi River that was designed exclusively for vehicular traffic. It was first a part of a state highway and was converted to interstate use in the 1960s. The only other nationally significant interstate feature in Tennessee is the Interstate 40 (Hernando DeSoto) bridge over the Mississippi. The bridge is officially named for Hernando DeSoto, European discoverer of the Mississippi River in 1541, but is often called the “M” Bridge because of its distinctive “M” shape, which was outlined with lights in 1986.
The original designation for the interstate system in Tennessee was completed in 1985 with a segment of Interstate 24 in Davidson County. Over the past fifty years, 1,105 miles of the system have been placed upon Tennessee’s landscape. The completion of the last segment marked the end of a fast-paced era of which interstate highways served as a product of change and a catalyst for further change.
Dan McNichol, The Roads That Built America: The Incredible Story of the U.S. Interstate System (2003); Tennessee Department of Transportation, Interstate 50th Anniversary: Celebrating a National Milestone (2007), http://www.tninterstate50.com