Columbia River Highway, circa 1940

Understanding the origins and evolution of a historic road are necessary to objectively evaluate the road resource and identify the need for preservation actions or activities. For some historic roads exceptional characteristics through design, technology and famous association may have physically, intellectually or culturally affected our regard for the road. For most historic roads, design, construction and evolution over time can be traced to aesthetic, engineered or cultural evolutions.

Identifying Historic Road Types

For general reference, there are three types of historic roads: aesthetic, engineered and cultural. The determination of road type is based on an analysis of the physical design of the road (a serpentine roadway along a stream, an elevated roadway over an urban area), the goals and expectations through which it was constructed (delivery of mail, access to a mine), its original intended uses (pleasure, commerce, speed), its physical setting (prairie, urban or landscaped park) and the design details that distinguish the road (stone arch bridges, utilitarian concrete culverts, ornate lighting, brick pavement, rough tunnels hewn through rock). For many historic roads, evolution over the years may have refocused or shifted the original goals and aspirations of the road’s creators—leaving a bewildering array of alignments and details. For some, the historic road’s origin may be lost in the wanderings of animals whose traces were eventually adopted by humans or the mundane practicality of two communities wearing a path across the landscape.

Aesthetic Routes

entry road, Yosemite National ParkAesthetic routes represent historic roads designed to provide a very specific traveler experience. In general these historic roads were designed for scenic enjoyment, leisure, recreation or commemoration. Aesthetic routes will have a documented purpose or rationale behind their development and a documented date of construction.

Seldom intended as the fastest or most direct route, aesthetic routes typically follow the natural topography of a region. They may wind through river valleys, along ridge tops, or up rainforest slopes. In urban areas aesthetic routes are more typically represented by park boulevards or monumental avenues. These routes may be lined by great sculptures, anchored by grand public edifices, or shaded by ancient rows of trees. Whether crossing the natural landscape or defining a civic landscape, aesthetic routes are distinguished by their thoughtful attention to the traveler’s experience and careful attention to design details. Every view, be it a distant mountain range enframed by trees or a capitol dome rising above the city is carefully planned and considered in the alignment of the road. Every detail such as plantings, lighting, barriers and pavement is carefully selected to support the overall design concept (the “look” and “feel” desired for the traveler). Often aesthetic routes may influence the larger landscape (beyond the right-of-way) such as a parkway’s viewshed (the views taken in from a particular vantage point) or the building facades along an urban route.

Due to their conception and design as a singular statement, any alteration to any component of an aesthetic route will significantly impact the historic integrity of the resource.

Engineered Routes

Early Traffic Signal Washington, DCEngineered routes represent historic roads designed for the efficient movement of people, goods and services. They are our most common designed roadways. While they may exhibit some aesthetic qualities or features, their design intent will be rooted in efficiency of movement, ease of access, and prudent construction cost. Like aesthetic routes, engineered routes will have a documented purpose or rationale behind their creation and a documented date of construction.

More pragmatic in their origins than aesthetic routes, engineered routes have been designed to open isolated areas to commerce, reduce traffic congestion, link the nation, or simply link a farm to a market. Engineered routes are unlikely to influence or manage the larger landscape and are usually confined to their defined right-of-way. The alignment and details of an engineered route may be important in the representation of new roadway technologies or material innovations. Early transcontinental highways, turnpikes and toll roads represent many such engineering advances in materials, design and safety. Most basic city grid patterns represent the characteristics of engineered routes. Today, due to location or earlier technologies, many engineered routes have taken on aesthetic qualities as the design and construction techniques of the past become appreciated by new generations of users.

Cultural Routes

Waterford, VirginiaCultural routes represent historic roads that evolved through necessity or tradition. While it is possible some cultural routes may have a documented rationale, they will not have the design and construction legacy of an aesthetic or engineered route. (It is possible, and likely, later additions or alterations may be well documented—this category, however, addresses the nature of the original origin of the road.) These may be roads that evolved from Native American, colonial or animal trails or simply logical connections between villages or through difficult terrain. Roads through mountain passes or water gaps, paralleling the foot of mountains or following a line of stable soils or river courses are typical of cultural routes. Additional types of cultural routes may include a footpath between farms or to a resource site (sand, clay, timber or stone) that ultimately became road. Some routes may have cultural associations through use, activity or events.

Cultural routes, in use as roads today, generally exhibit the greatest number of historic periods or layers. Beneath the modern pavement are potentially rich archaeological sites representing not only people and cultures over the years, but also the history of the very route—compacted soil from the 15th century, evidence of a widening to accommodate a carriage in the 1730’s, remnants of an old corduroy road from 1790, and early twentieth century highway improvements. For cultural routes it is important to understand these layers as you make a determination as to the period or periods of significance that are worthy of preservation. Remember too, subsequent layers of the road may embody the characteristics of aesthetic or engineered routes.

Multi-category Routes

As soon as you establish a definition, there are likely to be exceptions. For the three historic road “types” the question is not so much “exception,” but rather “combination” or “evolution.” Such roads may be defined as multi-category routes. Every road will be able to be categorized as aesthetic, engineered or cultural. As noted, many cultural routes may have aesthetic or engineered alterations over the years. Some may represent the characteristics of two or three of the defined categories at the point of design and construction. Such historic roads may be early freeways (engineered) that were also designed to provide an aesthetic experience. Others may be parkways (aesthetic) that were also designed to provide quick efficient movement (aesthetic). Usually, but not always, one of the three categories will be recognized as the primary characteristic-defining origin of the road.

Multi-category routes may be represented by routes with origins as a Native American trail (cultural) that were adopted by European settlers for their trade needs (engineered) and ultimately redesigned as a parkway (aesthetic)—the Natchez Trace Parkway in Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi, for example. A city grid pattern, as a whole, may be viewed as characteristic of the engineered routes category, but may include a grand avenue clearly characteristic of the aesthetic category.