“Every American who is in the habit of traveling, which is almost equivalent to saying every American…”

– Calvert Vaux, Nineteenth Century Architect and Designer of Central Park

We are a nation of drivers. Our culture, our economy and our architecture have long been defined by the road. We refer to the “Great White Way” (New York’s Broadway), we get our “Kicks on Route 66,” we refer to living “in the fast lane” even when we are not in an automobile and our politicians in Washington, DC don’t understand us with their “inside the beltway” mentality. Our entrepreneurs have developed the “drive-in,” the “drive-thru” and the “drive-up”. Our architects, planners and landscape architects have responded with rational plans to accommodate the automobile in places like Radburn, New Jersey, Greenbelt, Maryland and Irvine, California. Our promoters have responded with a glittering Strip in Las Vegas and the ubiquitous strip in the suburbs.

John Steinbeck immortalized Route 66 in the Grapes of Wrath with his vivid descriptions of the dirty and desperate faces of the “Okies” fleeing the oppression of environmental degradation and financial injustice during the dust bowl; and later he took us on a romantic driving journey across the nation in Travels With Charley. William Least Heat-Moon gave us Blue Highways and MGM gave us a yellow-brick road.

Many of the most significant events of the twentieth century were celebrated with ticker-tape parades on Broadway, while one of the most powerful events of that century took place along a rain-spattered highway as an oppressed people marched from Selma to Montgomery to demand the right to vote. We can credit the Interstate Highway System for launching a post-war boom, and immediately deride the system for dividing many urban communities.

For many of us, the road is associated with more personal memories. A trip to loved ones along a winding road during a gentle snow, the new and unfamiliar landscapes rolling by the window on your first big vacation, a favorite drive where you, the automobile and the road become one.

Yet for such a powerful imprint to be placed on the landscape, very little has been said about the need for the preservation of our highways and byways. It has only been in recent years that serious efforts and legitimate dialogue have begun to address the preservation of the routes and corridors that bind us together from state to state and nation to nation – our historic roads.

– Paul Daniel Marriott, author Saving Historic Roads and From Milestones to Mile-Markers

Recognizing & Preserving Historic Roads

Historic Columbia River Highway, Oregon. Credit: Paul Daniel Marriott

Across the United States historic roads are being lost through demolition, neglect and poor management. This can be due to policy, external pressures and 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 segments of the Historic Columbia River Highway – losses lamented as much by historic preservationists as travel promoters now seeing the value of these resources for tourism marketing.

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 public, 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 exaggerate 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 a 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 the civic pride associated with a better and more comprehensive understanding of a community’s transportation heritage.

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.

Design, Technology & Famous Association

“66 is the path of a people in flight, refugees from dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership, from the desert’s slow northward invasion, from the twisting winds that howl up out of Texas, from the floods that bring no richness to the land and steal what little richness is there. From all of these the people are in flight, and they come into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks and the rutted country roads. 66 is the mother road, the road of flight.”

– John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

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.

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 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).

Arroyo Seco Parkway, c. 1940, Los Angeles, California. Credit: California Department of Transportation