How highways changed the West and the West changed highways
American curiosity to discover the vast expanses of the West, along with political infighting between Utah and Nevada, forced the government’s hand to decide how and where roads would be built in America
While news reports called it a marathon, historian Amanda Katz has a different take on Congress’ tortured process to passing an infrastructure bill.
It took almost 40 years for Congress to put together the nation’s first road funding package in 1916, she notes. Vested interests didn’t understand how a system of passable roads could work in their favor. And confusion over what role, if any, the federal government should have in state and local road building applied an effective brake on the legislative process.
“So, to me, this passed pretty quickly,” Katz says of last week’s bipartisan approval of a $1.2 trillion spending package for roads, bridges and other physical infrastructure after less than a year of negotiation. President Joe Biden called the bill’s $110 billion investment in roads and bridges the most significant in 70 years.
Only the federal government can make that kind of an investment, and Katz argues the settlement, development and discovery by tourists of the West played a crucial role in bringing both state and federal political clout and resources to the table to create the nation’s coast-to-coast network of roads. A graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University, she recently defended her doctoral dissertation on American highway engineering in the late 19th and early 20th century and presented her ongoing findings on Western road development at the Western History Association’s annual meeting last month in Portland.
In an interview with the Deseret News about her research, Katz explains how American curiosity to discover the vast expanses of the West, along with political infighting between Utah and Nevada, forced the government’s hand to decide how and where roads would be built in America.
‘Marching through enemy territory’
While railroads gave many Americans their first access to the West, it was roads and the automobile that brought the masses into the comparatively unsettled and sparsely populated Western regions of the country.
And it’s still that way today, Katz says, as cutting and maintaining roads continues to be an engineering and political battle, even as vested interests have evolved over the decades.
Think of off-roading today to understand how bad most roads were in the United States, and particularly in the West, at the turn of the 20th century. Katz describes how muddy, rocky, rutted, dust-consumed roads turned what would be an exhilarating four-wheeling adventure today into a harrowing, frustrating ordeal more than 100 years ago.
“A journey that would today take maybe a day, could take eight or 10 days before 1920,” she says in an interview. Often, those trips were from the farm to the town market.
Great distances between sparse population centers and challenging landscapes made traveling and road construction particularly difficult in the Intermountain region, according to Katz.
A U.S. military convoy dispatched in 1919 to assess the feasibility of transcontinental travel concluded that the proposed coast-to-coast Lincoln Highway lived “largely in the imagination and on paper,” Katz’s archival findings presented in Portland reveal.
The convoy’s mindset that its expedition would be “marching through enemy territory” was apt as they recorded 230 accidents.
In one particularly bad episode, Katz notes, the convoy spent 42 hours “in the most arduous and heroic effort in rescuing the entire convoy from impending disaster on the quicksand of the Salt Lake Desert in Utah and the Fallow Sink Region in Nevada.”
Experiencing the journey was a young Lt. Col. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who would later get Congress to fund the creation of an interstate freeway system when he was president in 1956.
But it wasn’t just the military that had an interest in developing the nation’s network of interconnected highways. The automobile industry, local auto clubs and other associated grassroots organizations carried considerable clout in pressing government to get more involved in building and maintaining roads.
Among the most prominent and best known groups championing road improvements was the Lincoln Highway Association. Conceived by auto racing enthusiast Carl Fisher, the association set out in 1912 to develop the first transcontinental highway from New York to San Francisco.
The Deseret News reported in 2001 that the association expected a pass where the highway would ascend Utah’s Stansbury Mountains in the western desert to be named after Fisher. It never happened, and the association said then that it would at least like a monument to Fisher at what is still known as Johnson Pass.
The seeming slight mirrors the fractious relationship between Utah leaders and Lincoln Highway proponents when the road was under construction a century ago. The slow but steady progress of the highway stalled in the Beehive State from about 1918 through much of the 1920s as officials in Utah and Nevada argued over the best route, according to a detailed account in Utah Historical Quarterly.
Since Utah was the final connection for the transcontinental telegraph and rail lines, Katz finds it amusingly appropriate that the state would also be where the last stretch of the first cross-country road would be completed.
But infighting among varied interests over the route from Wyoming to Salt Lake City (through Echo or Parleys canyons) and a larger dispute between Utah, Nevada and Lincoln Highway officials over whether the highway should go from Salt Lake City — to either Wendover (which is what Utah wanted) or Ely (which is what Nevada preferred) — slowed construction to a near standstill.
Katz says the dispute is an ideal case study of how politically cutthroat road building can be. Unlike railroads, which were transplanted to the United States from Europe by private companies, roads from the beginning were considered public because everybody used them and everybody wanted a say in how they were built.
“It didn’t take long for politicians to understand they could run on a good road plank,” she says.
A watershed moment in breaking through such political logjams came on Nov. 9, 1921 — 100 years ago this week — when Congress passed the Federal Highway Aid Act. The law carefully navigated around Western skepticism of federal overreach by limiting the government involvement to engineering expertise and offering funding formulas that incentivized states to comply with federal recommendations.
However, even those efforts didn’t resolve the Lincoln Highway dispute in Utah. After nearly a decade of infighting, Katz says, the then-Bureau of Public Roads eventually said enough is enough and declared the route, which descended into Salt Lake City via Parleys Canyon, would intersect with Nevada at Wendover. That route generally aligns with the direction of today’s I-80.
Katz also notes the vast areas of public lands in many Western states created opportunities for the government to build roads allowing public access to national parks and forests, launching a tourism industry that still thrives today.
“And so the scarcity of resources and people paired with how do we build roads on and in public lands are unique to the West and are finally addressed in the 1921 act,” Katz says. “And that’s why to me, the West is important in the development of the nation’s infrastructure.”
While the bipartisan support for the latest infrastructure bill illustrated federal highway policy can be a unifying issue, the contentious negotiations and brinksmanship that took place also showed politics continues to be an obstacle to improving and maintaining the nation’s roads.
And there’s a risk to that reality, Katz warns.
“When you politicize roads, you don’t always know how many you get built.”