The Big Roads
Earl Swift
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Buy *The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways* by Earl Swift online

The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways
Earl Swift
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
384 pages
June 2011
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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As Johnny Carson might have said, “EVERYthing you need to know about interstate highways is in this book!”

Subtitling his book The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways, the first thing author Earl Swift does is to knock a great icon off his pedestal by revealing that Dwight D. Eisenhower was not the leader of the interstate initiative. That honor, according to Swift, goes to Carl Graham Fisher: "Trace today's interstate highways back to their earliest incarnation, and there stands Fisher, pushing the idea while Dwight Eisenhower was still at West Point, a full forty years before he gained the White House.” A sixth-grade dropout, Fisher's determination to make automobile travel possible and popular resulted, among other things, in the creation of the "Brickyard" - a paved track in Indianapolis safe enough for high-speed competition (after a couple of bloody deaths before the paving happened). Fisher drove the pace car at the first Indy 500.

Before the interstates were, trails were. Often old Indian trails then supplanted for use by the frontiersmen (example: Davie Crockett stalking intrepidly through the Cumberland Gap), these paths became the roadbeds - often little more than earth pounded down by wagon wheels – that would become the freeways of the future: trails such as the Lincoln, Midland, and Yellowstone. Of these inter-branching mud-ways Swift says, "Primitive though it was, America had its first interstate road network."

Yes, Eisenhower did play a role; to be fair, Ike was a great delegator. He had indeed seen how easily the Germans could transport their armies on their much advanced autobahns, and he did indeed worry about getting men and material from coast to coast in case of a shooting war. There was a useful item called the Pershing Map, an army’s eye view of the U.S. that “had some curious omissions” – it left out most of the South and all of Florida, the idea apparently being that the South was too poor and Florida too swampy for invaders to bother with. But no doubt, some of the reason behind the interstate system was based on the military necessities of the time.

After a lot of wrangling about who would pay how much to whom for what, states came on board with the interstate plan, and most of the funding for building and maintenance eventually came out of highway taxes. You pay them every time you fill up your tank.

In an earlier generation, when roads were pits of rock and slush and people were crazy for auto travel, the interstates seemed like the best thing since sliced bread. Later, they began to seem like a blight, especially the monstrous cement interchanges and criss-crosses in cities like Baltimore, where there were protests against further “development” by the humans that had to live next to and under such noisy behemoths. People began to see their surroundings as an environment that was fragile and threatened; reducing noise pollution and enhancing view-scapes became more important than seamless, high-speed travel, at least to some. That battle still rages, even though now most of the interstate system is complete and there are no plans to build any more mega-super-roads.

There are a lot of off-road attractions in this book that make it especially pleasant reading. How about HoJo? Howard Deering Johnson was an entrepreneur who started his business career with a single drugstore in 1925 and by 1939 had 107 chain restaurants, all pretty much the same. Sameness was once perceived as a virtue, being acquainted with safety and sanitation. William Stuckey was unemployed, running a nut and fruit farm, when he and his wife started selling pecans and pecan rolls to snowbirds heading from Georgia to Florida. "People stopped there knowing what they would get." Again with the sameness, though Stuckey’s (and the legendary South of the Border which began life as a place to slip out and get forbidden alcoholic beverages) had a kind of kitschy charm that we now identify as “Americana.”

The future of the interstates, Swift states, is not secure, though the roads, as it were, aren’t going anywhere. Rising fuel prices are vying with higher taxes and some planned toll segments on the interstates to push automobile manufacturers to build smaller cars with better gas mileage and hybrid/alternative fuel potential. Everyone agrees that something in the American passion for road travel has got to give – just a question of what and when.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Barbara Bamberger Scott, 2011

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