The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
In today's landmine of culture wars, one that generates little attention - but lots of passion for those who DO pay attention - is the
animosity between car drivers and cyclists. On many forums and blogs devoted to transportation, riders deride the automobile drivers
who do not share the road, harass the cyclist, or worse. Drivers then argue that cyclists do not obey traffic laws, and should ride on the
sidewalk. Man, can it get ugly.
I am on both sides of this debate. I ride my bicycle both recreationally and to actually get somewhere, like the library or the grocery store.
But I also love to drive my car, whether to work (I actually look forward to the commute) or to whatever place on the map suits my fancy.
And this middle ground philosophy is a good one to have - considering that it was the cycling movement that brought together the
national road system.
The Beginnings of a Movement
During the Gilded Age, the safety bicycle, with its equal wheels, rubber tires, and rear wheel chain, replaced the suicidal penny-farthings
and other nervous-looking contraptions that made bicycling a dangerous sport. This new design created a bicycle craze throughout the
modern world, especially because women could get in on the fun now, too. But the roads that crossed the nation were meant for horses,
carriages, coaches, and foot traffic, not vulcanized rubber. To make a trip between two towns, a bicycle rider might end up having her
teeth knocked loose from the ruts and sand bars that had accumulated on the ill-maintained trails. Thus, by 1891, cyclists in Boston
formed the League of American Wheelmen, which advocated the building of better roads. Soon, chapters sprung up in all parts of the US,
including the Red River Valley.
The movement to build "Good Roads" coincided with another world-changing invention: the automobile. While in its infancy, many
farmers and traditionalists saw the car as just another plaything for the rich - some cities going as far as to ban automobile traffic because
it scared the horses - enthusiasm for this fast, personalized transportation began to gain traction (pun kind of intended). Those with a yen
for adventure and movement naturally turned from bicycling to automobiles, and the Good Roads Movement began to advocate for
governmental funding of road construction and/or improvements. Effective public relations helped, too: the Good Roads Associations
convinced farmers that they could bring their crops to market much quicker if they used gasoline-powered trucks, thus associating the
burgeoning automobile industry with economic prosperity. The loud and noxious "horseless carriage" was becoming publicly acceptable,
and by 1920, building roads suitable for motorized traffic had become a pressing governmental concern.
|Goody! A Road. Thank a bicyclist.
The question of who should be in charge of constructing roads has lingered in American politics since the beginning of the country. The
constitution mandates a postal system - which, by definition, requires a network of roads - so the federal government built many
interstate traces, the first one being the Cumberland Road between Maryland and Ohio. Likewise, federal and state governments funded
the construction of military roads to link forts to one another, with many of the soldiers pulling duty not in defense, but in road
construction. In the Red River Valley, military roads also served as the routes used for Indian removal in the 1830s, the most prominent
one being the Southwest Trail that linked Little Rock to Washington in Hempstead County and then to Fort Towson in Indian Territory.
Local roads, however, were more of a private concern.
Early trails either mimicked ancient trading paths - like Preston Road/Texas Trail or the Trammel Trace - or cut thorough the landscape
across private land, where owners charged toll to allow travelers to pass. The owners of ferries or bridges across the Red River charged
tolls as well. Private clubs built the first roadways specifically for the enjoyment of automobile driving, such as the Bankhead and Ozark
Trails, and prominent citizens established Good Roads Committees in their cities to foster commerce and advocate for road
improvements. With more and more people buying cars and demanding better roads, it became obvious that the previous rag-tag system
of construction was no longer going to cut it, and Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Arkansas each founded their own departments of
New road construction and the improvement of existing roads became the big concerns for these agencies. The first order of business
was to find funding, which came in the form of automobile registrations, gasoline taxes, and a yearly road tax. If citizens could not afford
(or didn't want to pay) the road tax, they would have to commit to a stint of road building for one week out of the year. This arrangement
was none too popular and instead, the states relied on prisoners to man their road building crews.
The state highway departments published magazines to gain support for their missions, which highlighted new legislation and advocated
continued road building to encourage tourism. Tourism, opined the Arkansas Highways magazine in the 1920s, would bring prosperity to
the state... and the roads would soon pay for themselves. A number of federal highway aide acts were passed in the 1920s and 1930s to
fund highway building in each state. One of the main reasons for this proved to be World War One. Supreme Commander Jack Pershing
recognized the need for better roads to move military equipment, and urged the creation of an integrated, paved interstate system. The
Federal Highway Aide Act of 1925 did just that, as it numbered interstate routes and provided building and maintenance incentives.
Now you drivers and cyclists stop yelling at each other and play nice… like your ancestors did.
|The Bankhead Highway (US 67) near Fulton, Arkansas.
|This used to be a gas station on US 80 west of Palo Pinto, Texas. The Bankhead Highway, one of the earliest automobile routes in the southwest,
encompassed many numbered federal highways. In the Red River Valley, they include US 67 (until Dallas) and US 80 (west of Dallas).
|When the federal government proposed paving the Robert E. Lee Highway in Oklahoma, over 2,000 people turned out at a 1922 convention to
voice their support. This highway is now known as US 70.
|West of Lawton, Oklahoma sits an old alignment of US 62. Today, US 62 is a four-lane, divided highway, but it used to be a narrow road that
traversed the rugged landscape of the Wichita Mountains. A series of bridges cross the Salt Fork of the Red River.
|A lone bridge pillar is all that remains of the toll bridge that once connected Oklahoma and Texas along Route 69. The toll bridge, which
belonged to the Colbert Family of the Chickasaw Nation, replaced an earlier ferry. When the federal government opened a free bridge
across the Red River in 1931, Texas Rangers barricaded access to it because of its contractual obligations to the Colbert's toll bridge
enterprise. Oklahoma wanted none of that; the governor declared martial law, and state police removed the barricade. A short, intense
standoff ensued, but ultimately, the free bridge won and Texas paid out the remaining contract with the Colberts, who subsequently blew
up their toll bridge.
|Drama on the Road I: The Red River Bridge War
|A Texas Ranger stands his ground on the Texas side of the Red River, refusing to let cars pass on the free bridge. (Life Magazine)
|The Oklahoma state police made sure that motorists could cross the Red River on the free bridge. (Oklahoma Historical Society).
|The concrete pillar of the now-destroyed Colbert toll bridge is a silent sentinel to history.
|Drama on the Road II: The Garland City Bridge Blow-Up
|Garland City in Miller County, Arkansas was once known as the boot-legging capital of the Southwest. It was also a stop for the Cotton Belt
railroad and before the rails came through, the town boasted a steamboat landing and ferry crossing. In the modern era, Garland City
petitioned for a road bridge to be built over the Red River on US 82, and the state began construction in 1927. On the morning of
September 3, 1930 the almost-completed Garland City bridge was wracked by a blast that propelled the span into the Red River. The Kansas
City Bridge Company rebuilt the span, and the State of Arkansas ended up charging two construction workers with the crime, but charges
were dismissed when alibis were presented. Locals spoke amongst themselves that it may have been the ferry operator who organized the
blast, as he had been vocally protesting the bridge's erection. Nonetheless, the truss bridge opened in 1931, but was demolished in the
1980s when US 82 was straightened and a much less prettier span replaced the bridge.
|Opened in 1931, the Pennsylvania truss bridge spanned the Red River for over fifty years at Garland City. It is now gone, and US 82 bypasses the
old town (founded in 1833). (Library of Congress.)
|The bridge for the Cotton Belt Route (now, Union Pacific) still sits at its original location in Garland City between the new road bridge (1/4 mile
upriver) and the old road bridge (1/4 downstream). Note the remains of the steamboat landing and erosion controls in the background.