A history of American highways.

A history of American highways.

By: D. Momanaee
Photos: AUDI AG, Getty Images

What a wonderful circumstance in the history of the world that there should be a nation whose domain is so extensive that she is able to lay down as she chooses, by law, a road across a continent, the whole distance under one flag, and one law.” —Thomas Benton

It’s easy to forget the romance of the open road when you’re stuck in freeway traffic on a Friday, a living cliché and reality in Los Angeles. But then, you’re probably going faster than 18th century explorer and Spanish army commander Gaspar de Portolá. Along with just over 60 soldiers and a Franciscan priest named Junípero Serra, he arrived in Alta California in 1769 and founded a mission in San Diego. While Serra stayed behind to oversee the construction of the mission, Portolá and his men marched north five to ten miles per day to seize Monterey Bay for Spain. Although Portolá’s initial attempt failed, he completed his task the next year accompanied by Serra, and today, Interstate 101 in California follows their march almost exactly along the historic El Camino Real.

With over four million miles of highway in America, we take for granted the stories behind the roads we drive, with the horizon clear of borders and the land as varied and beautiful as any on Earth. Crisscrossing interchanges neatly stacked in the cities dissolve into highways that can take you clear across the country or just across town. We should know that Americans have always been on the move, and every mile of the American road has its own story, living as an ongoing construction of national identity.

Decades before the great national turnpikes and over a century before President Dwight D. Eisenhower brought asphalt to almost every corner of the nation, there was mud—and lots of it. The narrow American territory was surrounded on all sides by British, Spanish and French colonies, and Russia was moving in on the West from its outposts in Alaska. By 1801, Thomas Jefferson led a nation in which two out of three citizens lived within 50 miles of the Atlantic Ocean. Like many other Americans, he wanted to control the destiny of the West, and unlike other imperial aspirants, the United States had the settlers to populate it.

So in 1804, the year after Napoleon sold the million-acre Louisiana Territory to the United States, President Jefferson entrusted Capt. Meriwether Lewis, his personal secretary, and retired Lt. William Clark with his own lifelong dream: to follow the Missouri River to its mouth and blaze a trail to the Pacific Ocean. In their success, they were the first Americans to see the Great Plains, cross the treacherous Rocky Mountains, and interact with many Native Americans, such as the Shoshone, the Blackfoot and the Nez Perce.

By the time they made their return, the Corps of Discovery encountered settlers heading west, following the same path to the western frontier that the men had just completed. Today, we can drive down SR-14 through Washington state, following Lewis and Clark’s trail along the Columbia River to the highway’s terminus in Vancouver and strain optimistically to hear the Pacific Ocean as they did, the ocean still miles away.

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A thousand miles southeast, if you ramble past the foothills along Interstate 25 through Raton, New Mexico, to Santa Fe, you will echo the final and most treacherous part of the path first taken by William Becknell, known as the “Father of the Santa Fe Trail.” Like many Missourians, Becknell had been bankrupted by the panic of 1819, but he saw a chance to resolve his debts by finding a trail to bring American goods to a new market in New Mexico.

When Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, Santa Fe became a viable trade destination for Americans, who had dreamed of the silver they might make trading manufactured goods there. In the fall of 1821, without knowing if Mexico was truly independent of Spanish rule, Becknell carved out a new road to the Southwest, gambling everything on a western dream. He came back with stories of a picturesque village, a profit of thousands of dollars in silver and a map of a new trade route, parts of which still carry goods to market today. Many dreams were made and many lives lost in its short history as Americans continued chasing dreams over the Santa Fe Trail for almost 60 years, until the railroad arrived in 1880.

While many American roads were cut by intrepid pathfinders like Becknell and the Corps of Discovery, others like Natchez Trace Parkway have a longer history. Natchez Trace, a prehistoric passage from Nashville to Natchez, Mississippi, began as a narrow path worn down by grazing animals in the deep South moving towards the natural salt licks near the Mississippi River in Tennessee. Later, Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes living in the surrounding forests traveled the path for centuries before the French settled Natchez in 1716.

Under American control, the Natchez Trace became a post road and, before steamboats made upstream travel possible, was used by residents of the Ohio River Valley (among them, Abraham Lincoln’s family) to walk the long muddy path home after traveling down the Mississippi River to sell goods in Natchez and New Orleans. Among the many names in history who made their name on the trace, Andrew Jackson may be the most famous, and he was nicknamed “Old Hickory” for his perseverance on the trail during the War of 1812. But as with Becknell’s trail, the Natchez Trace was supplanted by technology when the steamboat left the road almost completely abandoned by the mid-1820s. It was resurrected as Natchez Trace Parkway in 1938.

It may have started as a series of buffalo paths and unpredictable waterways, but now the American road courses forward like an enormous river, beckoning drivers to adventure in every direction and carrying them to their destinies. It is a growing masterpiece written by many authors in struggle, opportunity and discovery, etched by the men and women who lived and died finding and mapping the trails that became the roads we use today. While we do not know exactly where it might take us next, we know that nothing will stop the American road. Except, maybe, the sea.

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