Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Open Road

       Did you know that in addition to our town"s historical courthouse and marvelous old homes, it also has a bit of history preserved in a portion of the old Bankhead Highway? The Bankhead extended from Washington, DC to San Diego, CA and was a part of the National Auto Trail system. It was a symbol  of our nation’s modernization. It made possible travel from coast to coast, which in 1930 was considered quiet a feat. The route was marked by a pole marker that was white with yellow stripes on the top and bottom and the letters "BH" in black. 
          The Texas Historical Commission is charged with focusing attention on historic highways and byways of Texas, and we can hope the Bankhead is on its list.  
           Like many other highways of that era it had many branches or splits.  In Texas, there were a total of 11 splits as it took different routs through the state before they all came together at El Paso,
           . The main route passed through Texarkana, TX, before arriving at Fort Worth, where it turned into former U.S. Highway 80, and continued westward, going on through Midland and Odessa before rejoining the branch route at El Paso. The route from Fort Worth to El Paso is now followed by Interstates 20 and 10.
        Browsing through the records of that bygone era, will soon make it evident that standardizing the system was a great improvement. Never mind that we sometimes take the wrong exit or in a complicated interchange get on the wrong highway. Believe me, what we presently have is a vast improvement!

    Todays signs are highly 
    visab even on 
     foggy days.
    Steep grades on today's
    have deep sand escape lanes
    for runaway trucks

    Four lanes are far
    differentfrom old
     dirt roads of the past.

    Even mountains don't stop the
         Today we expect nothing less than a well maintained route to get us to our destinations as easily and quickly as possible. For most of the present generations of travelers, good highways have always been a fact of life but not too many years ago, at least in the memory of some of our oldest citizens, navigating the country was a totally different experience. It was time consuming and at times, hazardous.
         In the 20s most of the roads were hardly more than the old wagon trails they had once been. The highways that were paved were usually in major cities and were, of all things, cobblestone.
         For years they were not marked until several trail association initiated change and by 1925 there were over 250 named highways.
        The first named was the Lincoln Highway: there was a Jefferson Highway, a Dixie Overland, the Glacier Trail, the Great White Way, and well over 200 more including the Bankhead Highway which ran from Washington, DC to San Diego, CA
         Each highway had their own type of colored signs and they were placed haphazardly on barn roofs or other flat surfaces that faced the oncoming traffic. Signs were sometimes placed on telephone poles.  
         The Federal Government recognized the confusion that was developing and advanced the radical idea that the highways should be standardized with a numbering system and standard signs. This proposed change was not popular: people had bonded with their highways’ names and disliked the idea of substituting numbers which had no meaning.

          It becomes easier to understand how the road system was so slow to become more efficient when you remember that in those years only the rich had automobiles, making extensive highway use nonexistent. Most people contented themselves with their horse and buggy or of streetcars in some of the cities. Longer trips were made by train. Only a few of the more daring automobile owners ventured out on sightseeing trips. At the time, to do so was an adventure comparable to an African safari.
    Trouble on the road.It was a brave
    person who dared take a picture of
    a man with car trouble.
          Think of them, wearing their dusters, poring over poor maps, and hoping they were fully prepared for emergencies, with cans of water, gas, spare tire a tire tool, and a tire pump.
         All  that changed with the popularity of Henry Ford’s Model “T”, They were affordable to almost anyone with a well paying job, dropping down to under $300 in 1920. Although they were not known for comfort, they made possible increased travel and an  increased demand for good roads. Thus our present highway system came into existence.  

         Although the names have mostly disappeared from our maps, the nostalgia remains. The people of those days of change were correct in their belief that the numbering system was a colder, less personal one, and the only numbered highway to find a special place in our memories is Route 66. The pathos of the travelers of the 30’s led to it being immortalized in song and fiction.
          The name is a magnet that pulls us to its old route and Texas has a small section running through Amarillo. That it was lined with antique stores was an added enticement when we occasionally visited that town, for in years past, I seldom willingly passed an opportunity to share with them most of my available cash.
          It appears that I am fascinated with the old days  and the changes that have been made. See more highway nostalgia in the July 16, 2010,Rocking Chair Journey.


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