Historic Highways

Until the late nineteenth century, the United States emphasized the construction of railroads rather than highways. Few cohesive road networks existed, and most roads were in a deplorable condition. The Good Roads Movement began about 1880, peaked with the passage of the Federal Aid Act of 1916, and ended about 1926 with the development of the U.S. routing system.

The Goods Roads Movement, led by farmers and railroad interests, initially stressed local road improvements, often termed “farm-to-market” roads. About 1910 the Good Roads Movement splintered when individuals in the automobile and tourism industries began promoting the development of transcontinental or interstate roads to connect primary towns. Interstate corridors sometimes required the construction of new roads, but more often, highway associations overlaid the interstate designation onto an existing route. In order to receive the designation, however, local officials had to agree to improve the route to predetermined standards.

Perhaps the best known of these interstate routes was the 1912 Lincoln Highway, which stretched from New York City to San Francisco. By the mid-1920s, twelve widely known interstate highways existed in the South. The two most traveled were the Bankhead Highway through the Deep South, which clipped the southwest corner of Tennessee as it crossed the Mississippi River at Memphis, and the north-south Dixie Highway, which crossed the state in both Middle and East Tennessee.

Other prominent routes in Tennessee included the Lee Highway, the Andrew Jackson Highway, and the Jefferson Davis National Highway. Less well-known interstate corridors that passed through Tennessee included the Magnolia Route, the Beeline Highway, the Florida Short Route, the Cincinnati-Lookout Mountain Air Line Highway (Dixie Air Line Highway), the Taft Memorial Highway (Alvin C. York Highway), the Mississippi Valley Highway, and the Mississippi River Scenic Highway.

The five-hundred-mile-long Memphis-to-Bristol Highway, although not originally an interstate route, tied in with other highways and functioned in much the same way. Local businessmen formed the Memphis to Bristol Highway Association in 1911 to promote its development. Soon after its creation in 1915, the Tennessee State Highway Department designated this corridor as State Route 1 and made it the top road priority. In 1926 the state designated about two-thirds of it as U.S. 70, the major east-west corridor in the region. In the late 1920s the entire route became part of the Broadway of America Highway from California to New York. State Route 1 remained the main east-west route through the state until the completion of Interstate 40 in the late 1960s.

The state highway department designated Tennessee's portion of the Dixie Highway, which stretched from Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan, to Miami, Florida, as the state's second highway priority. This route became the most influential interstate highway in Tennessee and the only one to have its national headquarters in the state. Businessmen and politicians formed the Dixie Highway Association in April 1915 at a meeting in Chattanooga, the city that would be its national headquarters throughout its existence. Although an independent association, it functioned as an outgrowth of the Chattanooga Automobile Association, and members of that group played a pivotal role throughout the association's history. Foremost among its members was Judge M. M. Allison, who served as president of the Dixie Highway Association from 1915 until the association ceased active operation in 1927. In 1924, in honor of his work, the association erected a monument in a roadside park in Marion County, the highest point on the route and roughly its midpoint.

Unlike the continuous road of most interstate routes, the Dixie Highway meandered more than four thousand miles in two parallel routes with connectors and side roads to special attractions. The Western Division ran along Lake Michigan and through Indianapolis, Louisville, Nashville, Chattanooga, Atlanta, and Tallahassee. The Eastern Division followed Lake Huron and passed through Detroit, Cincinnati, Lexington, Knoxville, Chattanooga, Atlanta, Savannah, and Jacksonville. In 1918 the association added the Carolina Division through East Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.

By 1926 over six hundred highway associations were operating in the United States with roughly 70 percent of their routes overlapping. Virtually all of these early interstate routes became state routes and played pivotal roles in local as well as regional and national traffic patterns. In 1926 the U.S. Routing Commission, under pressure from many of these associations, deliberately chose to splinter these routes. With a solid network of federal and state financing and maintenance, the associations gradually disbanded.

Suggested Reading

Howard L. Preston, Dirt Roads to Dixie (1991)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Historic Highways
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date June 18, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018