History of the paved road in Alabama

Published 5:00 pm Friday, March 1, 2019

VALLEY — Dr. Marty Olliff was the guest speaker for Wednesday’s third Making Alabama Lunch ‘N’ Learn program at Bradshaw-Chambers County Library.

It’s a special event in observance of Alabama’s bicentennial year. In previous programs, Eddie Lanier talked about the history of textiles in Alabama and Dr. Chris Haveman discussed the migration of the Creek Indians to Oklahoma in the 1820s.

A professor of history and philosophy at Troy University’s Dothan campus, Olliff earned his Ph.D. at Auburn in 1998. He’s an expert on the Progressive Era in Alabama, the period which laid the foundation for Alabama’s current highway system.

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His latest book, “Getting Alabama Out of the Mud: The Alabama Good Roads Movement and State Highway Administration,” falls during this period. The 2016 publication won the James B. and Anne B. McMillan Award from the University of Alabama Press the next year.

OLLIFF SPEAKS: Dr. Marty Olliff was the guest speaker for Wednesday’s third Making Alabama Lunch N Learn program at Bradshaw-Chambers County Library. He spoke about the history of the paved road in Alabama throughout the past 200 years.

He began the discussion by asking, “How many of you here came on paved roads?”

Everyone’s hand went up.

“How many came on dirt roads?”

No hands were seen this time.

The critical period for establishing a modern transportation system took place in Alabama from 1900 to 1930. What was going on in Alabama, Olliff said, was part of the largest infrastructure project in world history. More reliable roads and bridges were built in the U.S. than had ever been built before in world history.

“When a road is built, it’s a sunk cost and you’re committed to it,” Olliff said, noting that the state’s modern highway system still exists on right of ways that were established in this 30-year period.

Olliff said he was particularly interested in the development of U.S. Highways 231 and 431.

At one time, he lived in the Huntsville area, where these two highways diverge, and now lives in the Dothan area, where they come together again.

The driving force behind the Progressive Era, was the emergence of a middle class, he said.

“It didn’t exist until the 1890s,” he said. “By that time, it had become strong enough to identify itself by the desire to be college educated and to pay for it yourself. This middle class wanted the good life. Middle class people wanted to climb a ladder without knocking other people off.”

By the early 20th century, having an automobile and having places to go in it had become widely popular. Another factor in this is that people were becoming disaffected with railroads. They’d become too big, too dominating. J.P. Morgan, for example, owned one-third of all the railroads in the U.S., one of them being Southern Railway, which had 7,000 miles of track in the Southeast.

There was a growing desire throughout America to get a car.

Cars were available, but the roads were bad. There was some reluctance to have good roads, largely due to the fear of having outsiders coming in.

The Good Roads Movement, Olliff said, was all about having roads that went somewhere.

“They wanted them to go from town to town and from city to city,” he said.

Up until the early 1900s, road building had always been a local matter. For the most part, it was done by counties with the county line being the stopping point.

“There was no concept of long-distance travel by roads,” Olliff said.

This started changing, though, even before the advent of the automobile.

“Bicyclists played a prominent role in the Good Roads Movement,” Olliff said. “There was a cult of speed in the 1890s and a little later on, automobilists wanted to go long distances too.”

A demand for better roads was there, but no one could comprehend how much it would cost.

“Building highways was like going to the moon in the 1960s. It was tremendously expensive, and counties could not foot the bill,” Olliff said. “In 1903, John Bankhead and Asa Roundtree began a North Alabama Good Roads Association in Birmingham. A South Alabama Good Roads Association formed in Mobile. Two years later, in 1905, the Alabama Good Roads Association formed with a primary goal of having good farm to market roads. Even though it was still a hot potato at the time, they encouraged county commissions to seek long-distance highways.”

In the effort to have such roads, a road-naming movement started in 1909. Highway 29, for example, became the Jefferson Davis Highway. There’s a marker at the Alabama-Georgia line between Lanett and West Point that proclaims this. An Andrew Jackson Highway ran from Nashville to Mobile. The Bankhead Highway (U.S. 78) went from Washington D.C. through north Alabama to San Diego.

The first amendment to Alabama’s 1901 Constitution allowed the state to spend money on “internal improvements” (i.e. better roads). It wasn’t implemented until 1911. That’s because the state legislature met only once every four years in those days. It’s a historian oddity that the Alabama Legislature did not convene during the U.S. involvement in World War I — it met in 1915 and didn’t meet again until 1919.

The state organized a highway department during this period. W.S. Keller, brother of the famed Helen Keller, was the first director.

“Every county got $2,000 a year,” Olliff said. “You could build about a mile-and-a-half of a dirt road with that.”

It was pretty clear that it would be an big undertaking to have a network of good roads throughout the state. Road building struggled through the WW I era, but that changed in the 1920s.

“Three governors — Thomas Kilby, William W. Brandon and Bibb Graves — turned the Alabama Highway Commission into a modern bureaucracy,” Olliff said. “The department went from 100 employees to 1,800 with engineers, not politicians, dominated the department.”

States worked together to build new roads.

“The department was getting away from prisoners working on highways, but in the Depression chain gangs did the road work,” Olliff added. “Alabama made great progress in a relatively short period of time in having a highway system.”

Something unusual by today’s standards is that the first long-distance highways were one-lane roads.

“You went one way and came back another way,” Olliff said. “It was great for tourism.”

As early as 1907, Alabama had a pretty good network of state roads.

“Many of them are still in use today,” Olliff said.

Much of what we see today on our public roads came out of a meeting of state highway officials in 1925. They came up with a numbering system and the shapes and colors of road signs.

“Highway 29 was one of the roads that was numbered,” Olliff said. “Highways 131, 231, 331 and 431 were named at that time, too.”

All federal highways are identified by signs that are shield shaped. This goes for the interstates as well. As many of us see every day, I-85 is on a sleeker shield than the one for 29.

How was the decided?

“It was drawn on a bar napkin during a lunch break,” Olliff said.

At this same meeting, it was decided to make stop signs in an octagonal shape, railroad signs in a circular shape, signs for curves and to go slow in diamond shapes and information signs for schools and hospitals in the square shape.

The sign to get the most attention, the stop sign, is red, the caution signs — curve ahead, slow down, etc. were to be yellow and all others white. That’s pretty much what they are today.

One Alabama governor, Big Jim Folsom, was famous for his support of farm to market roads.

“He wanted to get farmers out of the mud,” Olliff said. “In many cases, he covered the surfaces of existing roads with paving.”

Road building was ambitious from the start but came at high cost.

“They had no idea how much these roads would cost,” Olliff said. “In 1914, it would cost $1,400 to $2,500 a mile for a cleared dirt road. Paving it would cost $20,000 a mile.”