Design and planning advances on some historic roads were nationally, even internationally, recognized at the time of construction and served as inspiration and guidance for subsequent road projects. The union of aesthetic design considerations with technological advancements, first beginning at the end of the eighteenth century, and evolving into the twentieth century, demonstrated that beauty and innovation could exist together in exquisite harmony. Modern machinery and materials and traditional craftsmanship are evident in many of the signs, bridges and structures of our nation’s parkways and park roads. Purely modern expressions of art and efficiency can be seen in the streamlined and fluid forms of early freeways, or more recent projects such as Interstate 70 in Colorado’s Glenwood Canyon, constructed in the 1980s and early 1990s.
In general, design considerations have added beauty to the landscape and sensitivity to the environment while technological advances have enabled roads to cross into new frontiers through the use of modern materials and safety features. An exceptional collection of today’s historic roads elevated the art of highway design to new levels and previously unimagined functions. Many of today’s historic roads can directly or indirectly trace the origin of their design, or even their inspiration, to the new challenges, efficiencies and beauty these innovative pavements represented.
The Bronx River Parkway in New York not only introduced many advanced safety concepts when opened in 1923, but also showcased the benefits of the environmental restoration of a river valley that had been obliterated due to industrial development in the nineteenth century. The engineers for the Columbia River Highway in Oregon (constructed 1913-1922) studied the great scenic roads of Europe with the mission of replicating their beauty along the Columbia River gorge, while also maintaining a strict five-percent maximum grade—no easy task when trying to construct a road through the Cascade Mountains. Late nineteenth century residential road networks in Riverside, Illinois and Baltimore’s Roland Park were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. to work with the natural topography of the area. National Park Service roads such as the Blue Ridge and Natchez Trace Parkways and the Going-to-the-Sun Road at Glacier National Park in Montana (constructed 1921-1932) would establish the Park Service as a leader in sensitive highway design. These roads, and many others, would be studied and imitated across the nation.
Technological advancements and achievements made many of today’s historic roads faster and safer, able to cross terrain previously inaccessible, or overcome natural barriers or hazards. The development of the Roman arch allowed roads to leap great chasms across elegant viaducts, while steel technology enabled the Pulaski Skyway in New Jersey an elegant leap across Hackensack and the Passaic River as one of the first elevated expressways. The introduction of macadam surfacing to the United States on Maryland’s Boonsboro Turnpike in the early nineteenth century literally paved the way for durable all-weather surfaces. The first high speed, limited-access roads such as the Pennsylvania Turnpike and Arroyo Seco Parkway, slightly more than 100 years later (both opened 1940), paved the way for a national grid of superhighways we know today as the US Interstate System. Less dramatic, but equally important, are the countless experiments with different pavements, retaining walls, culverts and drainage systems, separated-grade interchanges, lighting and even the durable paints that allowed for modern safety markings on the pavement.
For some historic roads, notoriety may be more a result of a famous association than a particular aesthetic sensibility or technological achievement. Judged independently from the historic voting rights march, the Selma to Montgomery highway is little more than a pleasant stretch of highway traversing Alabama’s rolling countryside. Yet due to the events of March 1965, the road has taken on an association that embodies the struggles and triumphs of equality in the United States. It is the events of March 21 to 25, 1965 that catapult the Selma to Montgomery highway from the ordinary into the extraordinary—making it one of the most significant roadways in the nation.
In other instances, symbolism may be a defining feature of a historic road. Consider US Route 81, the United States historic segment of the great Pan American Highway, running from the plains of Winnipeg in Manitoba Province to the jungles of southern Panama. The most comprehensive north-south route in the Western Hemisphere is worthy of imagination and romance. From this hemispheric viewpoint one can focus on a particular detail—the Meridian Bridge between South Dakota and Nebraska. The great lift bridge, opened in 1924 conquered the final great geographic hurdle, the Missouri River, in completing the highway.
New York’s Broadway, Bourbon Street in New Orleans, the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles and Castro Street in San Francisco all have social and cultural associations that transcend their design and construction. US Route 66, perhaps the nation’s most recognized historic road, has associations in our popular culture (television and song) and our literary culture (John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath).