Across the United States historic roads are
being lost through demolition, neglect and poor management.
Sometimes this is due to policy, sometimes external pressures
and sometimes simply ignorance. These losses can be swift
and devastating or slow and incremental—hardly noticed
until it is too late.
It is important to recognize and preserve historic roads.
One need only consider the lost resources of earlier transportation
eras now lamented. Canals, railroad stations and the pony
express route. We have already lost long stretches of Route
66 and pieces of the Columbia River Highway—losses
lamented as much by historic preservationists as travel
promoters now seeing the value of these resources for tourism
While it is fair to say that no one organization or group
is responsible for these losses, it is also fair to say
that the basic “idea” of a historic road, much
less the preservation of historic roads, is not well understood
in the United States. In some instances state transportation
offices, historically charged with the safety and efficient
movement of the traveling pubic, may not consider the historic
aspects of a road during their planning process or may even
consider historic preservation an impediment to progress.
Conversely historic preservationists may “trump up”
the value of a questionable historic road resource to serve
ulterior motives—preventing a new highway project
or blocking the development of a proposed housing subdivision,
for example. Local residents may lobby for the demolition
of an historic brick road because the ride is too rough
for their precision automobiles while their neighbors may
argue the historic pavement serves as a traffic calming
(speed reducing) device.
Historic preservation is not, however, about a smoother
ride, slower traffic, or lost opportunities. It is about
the preservation of legitimate historic resources that represent
unique attributes of the American experience or are valued
elements of a community. In some instances the preservation
of a historic road may, indirectly, calm traffic, enhance
safety, or provide some other secondary, even unexpected,
benefit. What must be remembered is that these benefits
should evolve from the planning process to manage and preserve
a road that has been determined historic—not as a
means to justify historic preservation.
The benefits of preserving and managing a historic road
are significant and diverse. They may include opportunities
for heritage tourism and economic development, improved
safety and efficiency, restoration of historic structures
and features, and simply the civic pride associated with
a better and more comprehensive understanding of a community’s
Increasingly, communities across the United States and beyond
are beginning to recognize that their roads are historic.
Historic freeways, transcontinental highways, parkways,
farm-to-market roads and traffic circles are being studied,
inventoried, debated and discussed in the newest movement
in the historic preservation world.