I just finished reading The Big Roads by Earl Swift, and I couldn’t wait to write about it here. The book’s subtitle is “The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways,” and as a denizen of the road, it filled in many blanks, corrected misconceptions and entertained me at the same time. If you’ve ever wondered about those wild interchanges, long stretches of straightaway and gentle curves and the people behind them, The Big Roads will help unravel the mystery for you.
Earl Swift is an experienced journalist based in Norfolk, Virginia. The Big Roads is his third non-fiction book. In addition, his newspaper and magazine columns have been collected in a volume called “The Tangierman’s Lament.” I heard Swift interviewed on NPR’s All Things Considered last summer, and I immediately placed an order for his book. Time being the fluid instrument that it is, The Big Roads took its place in my cue, and I just got around to reading it this winter. It was worth the wait.
The U.S. Interstate Highway System is one of the biggest construction projects in the history of the world. According to Swift, it’s bigger than the Pyramids, bigger than the Great Wall of China, bigger than the Panama Canal by many orders of magnitude.
Still, the story of America’s Interstate System is ultimately the story of several remarkable individuals, and that’s what makes The Big Road a very readable, entertaining book.
The story begins with the birth of the automobile, and a visionary businessman named Carl Fisher. Fisher grew up in Indianapolis, and his fascination with the automobile led him to be one of the founders of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Wise investments in automotive projects like Prest-O-Lite, the gas headlights that graced a number of early car brands, led to great wealth for Fisher, and his commitment to the auto drove him to help improve roads. He was one of the prime forces behind the planning and execution of the Lincoln Highway, the first Transcontinental route across the U.S.. Fisher’s ceaseless lobbying, cajoling and even bankrolling of road projects helped spur the Federal government toward getting involved.
Swift challenges our traditional views of government bureaucracy by putting a human face on the various iterations of what is now the Federal Highway Administration. The first real highway chief was a man named Thomas H. MacDonald, and he served in the government for decades. MacDonald was so single-minded and devoted to the greater good of the American people that the term “bureaucrat” could be deemed a compliment. His successor, Frank Turner, was similarly inclined, and served as an oasis from the political intrigue that often characterizes interaction in government. After reading The Big Roads, I admired and respected these men — men who I never suspected existed behind our roads.
Not that there weren’t mistakes and missteps in the process. Sometimes, the same drive and single-mindedness about highways led engineers to ignore and discount the human factor, especially when it came to displacement of homeowners and cutting swaths through major cities. The routes that seemed best for cars could divide established neighborhoods, and lay waste to the social fabric of the very areas that they were designed to service. Swift uses Baltimore as a case study, and once again, a remarkable individual emerges at the center of the story. Joseph Wiles was a biomedical engineer who lived in the close-knit African-American neighborhood of Rosemont. He was a pillar of the community, presiding over the Rosemont Neighborhood Improvement Association and leading efforts to keep the enclave clean and safe for families. When plans became public about a highway spur slated to cleave Rosemont in two, Wiles became a vocal, active opponent of the highway program. His activation became emblematic of “the human obstacle” to the Interstate, and eventually drew the attention of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Eisenhower has long been credited as “the Father of the Interstate Highway System.” Swift dispels this notion, and sets the record straight about Eisenhower’s relative distance from the project. Eisenhower was certainly our President when key funding and legislation passed through Congress, but the Interstates were in process decades before Eisenhower came to power. Swift also sheds light on the myth that the highways were primarily designed for troop movement, and that the Army demanded lengths of straightaway long enough for jet plane landings and takeoffs at regular intervals. The military certainly had an interest in an efficient highway system, but the implementation was driven by civilian interest.
Swift occasionally digs deeper into the minutiae of highway business than even I cared to know, but quickly returns to the human stories that give blood to the asphalt.
Reading The Big Roads convinced me that the Interstate Highway System is a necessary evil, and that it is the result of a set of very good intentions by a number of visionary, talented people. It also reinforced my preference for the old roads — roads with twists and turns that follow the topography, rather than forcing the Earth to bend to their will. I prefer regional specialties and unique roadside attractions to generic fast food and prefabricated strip malls. I’m not averse to comfort or familiarity — I’m averse to sameness masquerading as experience, and that’s what the Interstate breeds. In The Big Roads, Swift quotes John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley: “When we get these thruways across the whole country, as we will and must, it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a single thing.”
Swift has written an eye-opening story of an important slice of American life and travel in The Big Road, and anyone who spends any time at all on the highways of this country will benefit from reading it. The next time I cruise down a section of the Lincoln Highway or Route 66, I’ll give a nod of appreciation to the people who pioneered my path.