Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
There’s a common misconception that President Dwight D. Eisenhower was the father of America’s remarkable Interstate highway system. Earl Swift in “The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 384 pages, photographs, maps, $27.00) debunks this myth with his account of visionaries like Carl G. Fisher, the man who built both Miami Beach and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, who worked with the president of Packard Motors and others to promote the coast-to-coast Lincoln Highway.
He also writes about highway engineers like Thomas MacDonald — called by Swift America’s greatest road builder — who developed plans for the highways years before Ike, pretty much a non-reader, even knew of the plans. Swift says that young Army officer Eisenhower did participate in a coast-to-coast convoy of military trucks through a route that took the troops through the miserable excuses for roads that existed in 1919. It took the convoy 62 days to make the run from Washington, DC to San Francisco. In his memoirs, Ike recounted the trip, along with his experiences in viewing the autobahns in Germany, contributing to the legend of Ike as the father of the Interstates.
MacDonald’s ideological right hand man, as Swift calls him, was Herbert Fairbank, who opined that superhighways would ease congestion in the nation’s big cities and wipe out slums in the process. This contributed to a backlash led by Lewis Mumford and others, including an African-American army veteran named Joe Wiles in Baltimore who organized his community and eventually the entire city to keep expressways and I-70 from destroying vibrant neighborhoods. Wiles and his supporters largely won the battle but lost the war as Swift describes how even the proposed routes of expressways contributed to the decline of neighborhoods. I saw this firsthand in Milwaukee in the 1960s with the aborted Park Freeway on the East Side of the city.
Frank Turner, a third great highway engineer, later headed the nation’s highway agency in the Department of Transportation and lobbied long and hard to keep light rail transit from using highway trust fund money to build subways and rail systems. A man who practiced what he preached, bus commuter Turner instead advocated buses for their flexibility as traffic patterns changed.
Actually, the subtitle is a tad misleading. Michael Wallis, author of the new biography “David Crockett: The Lion of the West” (See my review: http://www.huntingtonnews.net/10424 ) and the voice of the sheriff in the “Cars” movies, recounted the story of the Lincoln Highway, which passed through my hometown of Rochelle, IL, in an excellent heavily illustrated book called “The Lincoln Highway” which I reviewed in 2007. Link: http://archives.huntingtonnews.net/columns/070817-kinchen-columnsbookreview.html. Rochelle, long called the Hub City, is at the intersection of I-39 and I-88 and also has a state of the art multimodal transportation facility that takes advantage of the two railroads and the two Interstates converging in the city of 10,000.
The Lincoln Highway Association was created in 1913 to promote the road using private and corporate donations. The idea was embraced by an enthusiastic public, and many other named roads across the country followed, including Fisher’s own Dixie Highway from Traverse City, Michigan to Miami, Florida.
Swift delivers the goods like the Interstates themselves in a comprehensive book that describes what the world was like before the Interstates and how they changed our culture and contributed to big box retailers, chain motels like Holiday Inn, chain eateries like McDonald’s and Burger King and Taco Bell, and that extravaganza on I-95 at the North Carolina-South Carolina border named “South of the Border.”
Before he began the road trips and research for “The Big Roads” Swift believed the story about Eisenhower and the creation of the Interstates, which also has Ike marveling at Nazi Germany’s autobahns, with an eye to creating our own.
A lot of research went into this book and it shows. The book also reflects Swift’s 20,000 miles of travel — roughly 40 percent of the total mileage of the system — on the nation’s Interstates. He is quick to cite the advantages, a network that provides fresh food and fast delivery of goods, while noting the blandness that results from the uniformity of the Interstate design.
In an Amazon.com interview Swift said that “Researching the story’s main characters required that I spend a good bit of time with their papers, which are locked away in university archives and libraries all over the country. On one road trip, in the summer of 2008, my daughter and I drove from our home on the Virginia shore to Hot Springs, Arkansas; Texas A&M; Fort Worth; Iowa State; the small town of Montezuma, Iowa; Ottawa, Illinois; and the University of Michigan’s main campus in Ann Arbor. On another research trip, in the summer of 2006, we drove the Lincoln Highway through eleven states.”
All in all, Swift echoes my view of Interstates, with their smooth speed (in most states, not in Illinois or Arkansas or Oklahoma, in my opinion, where the surface is rough) and ease of driving. Interstates account for 1 percent of our highway mileage and carry 25 percent of our traffic, he marvels.
Earl Swift is currently a staff writer for the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot newspaper. His work has also appeared in Parade and The Best Newspaper Writing 2000. His book “Where They Lay” was a finalist for the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction. His website: http://earlswift.com/3001.html
Publisher’s website: www.hmhbooks.com