President Dwight D. Eisenhower is widely credited with being the driving force behind the building of the nation’s interstate highway system. While most of the construction of these 47,000 miles of roadway took place in the late ’50s and early ’60s, one of its inspirations occurred some 40 years earlier when Eisenhower, then a young soldier, joined a convoy of Army vehicles on a cross-country journey to test the nation’s road system. What Ike found was a jumble of asphalt, gravel, dirt and mud roads, an unreliable system of transportation that would remain that way until he got behind the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956.
This little nugget is just one of the treasures of Earl Swift’s The Big Roads, which examines the movers and shakers who built our interstate highway system. Swift got the idea for the book during a road trip with his sixth grade daughter and her friend. During the long trip, he became curious about the genesis behind an interstate system we now take for granted, and discovered that it was others besides Eisenhower who made it happen. The key players included high-profile characters such as Carl G. Fisher, who helped build the Lincoln Highway, the nation’s first cross-country highway, in the early 1900s. Fisher is also notable for being one of the founders of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Then there were more low-key federal bureaucrats like Frank Turner, a civil engineer who supervised the completion of the interstate system.
The Big Roads isn’t simply a history of the highways. It also explores the economic, social and environmental ramifications of building the interstates. These roads have been blamed for killing towns large and small, either by passing them by or by hastening people’s exodus from city to suburbs. They have been blamed for ruining pastures and prairies and accelerating construction of shopping malls and fast food chains. Yet it’s undeniable that the interstates also greatly eased motor travel and contributed to our economic growth.
As we prepare for our summer road trips, Swift’s book is a good primer, summarizing all we love and hate about life on the highway. Gasoline is no longer a quarter a gallon, and the GPS has replaced the road map, but Americans still love a good road trip story, and The Big Roads delivers.