Along one of the nation's oldest east-west routes, Tim Collins recalls what car culture brought to the rural Midwest, and what it took away.
Americans’ fascination with roads and automobiles is pervasive. Testifying at confirmation hearings before he became Eisenhower’s Secretary of Defense in 1953, General Motors CEO Charles Erwin Wilson admitted, “For years I thought that what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa.”
Many people still do think so.
We are a culture largely built – in every sense of the word – on automobiles and the sometimes-open road. Cars and roads symbolize individual freedom, invention, restlessness, and alliances of economic and political power. The auto, oil, and construction industries, in conjunction with government at all levels, have shaped our living and thinking since early in the twentieth century.
Cars and roads brought rural communities into closer relationships with urban areas. Their benefits to commerce and individuals are undeniable, if measured in terms of economic growth. But they also came with a high cost, including rural decline and outmigration from some areas and widespread environmental damage. Since the 1970s’ oil crises especially, roads and autos have been, at least for some, examples of decadent but pragmatic individualism and gluttony. They fostered urban sprawl based on cheap, nonrenewable fossil fuels. Few of us, especially in rural areas, however, can do without our cars. They are a necessity.
So, please let me engage in an exercise that comes with some guilt: Driving alone cross country. Some people are fans of U.S. 66, the “Mother Road” from Chicago to Los Angeles. Others love U.S. 30, the “Lincoln Highway.” Still others travel the remnants of U.S. 25, the “Dixie Highway,” from Michigan to Florida. I want to write about U.S. 40, which crosses from Atlantic City, New Jersey to Park City, Utah, nearly parallel to Interstate 70.
U.S. 40 is the “National Road,” the “National Pike,” the “Cumberland Road,” and the “Nation’s Main Street.” Note the romanticism. It was a dream of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Swiss native Albert Gallatin, Jefferson’s Treasury Secretary and a former Congressman, helped develop the financing mechanism for the nation’s first interstate highway that started in Baltimore in 1811.
By the late 1830s, the National Road extended across the Allegheny Mountains to Vandalia, Illinois, making the Midwest more accessible for trade, migration, and settlement. It was supposed to be extended to St. Louis and beyond, but this didn’t happen right away. Federal funding slowly dried up, partly because of competition from railroads. Congress finally halted this gigantic internal improvement project in 1840, leaving it incomplete and totally under the care of the states.
Enter the automobile. In the early 1900s, the National Road was designated part of the National Old Trails Road, envisioned as part of a transcontinental highway system. Impetus for this system came from states, communities, and private groups, especially the new American Automobile Association. Congress stayed on the sidelines for a number of years. With passage of the Federal Road Aid Act in 1916, Washington finally began to play a major role in building a national system of highways again, working closely with states. The National Road was named U.S. 40 in 1927.
Whatever the excesses of the auto and oil age, the National Road expresses what we have been and what we could be. It was a project of nation-building, not only to assist commerce, but to provide faster movement of information so necessary to a functioning democracy. It built rural and urban communities, binding them along its route through better-connected markets, mail service, and citizen-travelers. When the endeavor fell to the states, it floundered for lack of funds and coordination.
After its revival as part of a truly transcontinental road system, U.S. 40 helped open the eyes of a child of the 1950s and 1960s. I spent much of my life living near U.S. 40, first in Ohio and then in Western Pennsylvania. Growing up near its busy course helped open my mind to ideas, to other places, and to possibilities.
As a child, I started to become attuned to greater and lesser patterns of life that make up our national heritage and community life. Now, I carry with me a deeper understanding of those patterns, and the touch of nostalgia that comes with growing older. The National Road impressed on me the importance of U.S. history and our interconnectedness, as well as the rise and fall of places along the way as transportation, communications, and the political economy evolved.
A trip last fall on rural parts of U.S. 40 from east of Indianapolis, Indiana, to Zanesville, Ohio, (skipping my childhood stomping grounds on the east side Columbus) brought mixed emotions. I found a bypassed cross-section of the country with decaying reminders of a different phase of the automobile age — before limited access highways were built. Farm neighborhoods had disappeared, and abandoned houses, filling stations, restaurants, and motels dotted the roadside. Nearby, newer facilities serve travelers at interchanges along Interstate 70. Most of the earlier businesses were locally owned. Franchises and chains serve today’s customers.
On the other hand, the trip on old 40 let me stop whenever I wanted to take pictures. There was little traffic. In places, I was able to wander off the four-lane highway built after World War II onto the old two-lane road that marks the National Road’s original route. This put me in the middle of all-but-forgotten small towns where autumn foliage sparkled under cloudless skies. It was so quiet in these places.
Trips like these are the stuff of learning and of memories old and new. The new road is safer and faster, great when you’re in a hurry. The old road takes more time and reveals changes in people, places, and the land — more than the traveler can know to ask for.
Timothy Collins is assistant director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.