This month we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the National Defense Interstate Highway System. Dwight D. Eisenhower was President. He figured he could not get authorization for an interstate highway system through the Congress unless he wrapped it around national defense. The idea was if we had to move large numbers of troops across the United States in a hurry we could not do so with the highways we had in 1956.
Prior to 1920 there were few paved roads outside of metropolitan areas. Then an underdog candidate for Governor of Iowa ran on the slogan "Get Iowa out of the mud." He won and with that victory a nationwide effort to build roads was on its way. The vast electric interurban network which had laced the nation beginning from 1895 through 1920 began to retrench as highways came on line and automobiles became affordable for the average family.
At that the United States road system was basically a series of regional roads linked together. I drove US Route 6 before much of the Interstate was complete. It ran from one small town to another. It was a great way to see America but only if you had lots of time.
I recall the big sign which went up on Highway 41, a major road between Milwaukee and Chicago. I lived between the two cities. The sign read: "Coming soon. Interstate 94." I was quite excited to see that sign. But my excitement declined when several years later the sign was still up but there was no sign of the Interstate.
Finally it was built and cars zoomed west of all the cities between Milwaukee and Chicago. Outside of some motels and a few restaurants you saw nothing but cattle grazing. There was no trace of the cities anymore except for the exit signs announcing them in so many miles.
The Interstate changed the character of the nation. Perhaps Ike knew what the consequences of the Interstate System would be. Perhaps not. Before the Interstate system, even the designated US highways were often two-lane affairs which linked local culture. Once the Interstate System was largely completed the uniqueness of small town America was bypassed. One could drive from one coast of the nation to the other without passing through a small town. No more corner diners, no more ethnic bakeries. Most of these died out in due course as truck traffic and through-routed automobile traffic never graced those communities again.
There is no doubt that the Interstate System has been helpful to commerce. We could not begin to think of the immense trade we have with other nations if we did not have the Interstate System. Yes, a few places had toll roads, such as the Pennsylvania Turnpike which opened in 1938, but freeways were the exception, not the rule.
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