Columbia River Highway, circa 1940
 

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 marriage of aesthetic design considerations and technological advancements in the first half of 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.

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. A few 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.

Design

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 Historic Columbia River Highway in Oregon 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. 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 park roads of Glacier National Park in Montana 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.

Technology

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 early eighteenth 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 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.

Famous Association

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 Alabama roadway. 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.

Bourbon Street, New OrleansNew 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 Grapes of Wrath)

—John Steinbeck

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