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Clay Coppedge
Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

The Invisible Track Highway


by Clay Coppedge

S.B. Moore started his career with the Southern Pacific Railway as a conductor in California, and worked his way up the ladder to become, for seventeen years, a construction engineer for Southern Pacific lines running east of El Paso. As the automobile came into vogue along with roads to accommodate it, Moore decided that the roads being built for cars and trucks were a lot less durable than the tracks laid down for railroads.

"Highway failures are due to the rut," he told the New York Railroad Club in 1922. This observation led him to come up with an idea for building a more permanent highway. He first called it the Permanent Track Highway, but it would eventually be better known as the Invisible Track Highway.

Moore designed his highway with four permanent treadways, built mostly of reinforced steel and brick, and a surface of crushed stone and asphalt "of considerable width" running between each pair of 26-inch treadways. All the driver had to do was stay on the treadway.

The early roads weren't very good, but they were quite expensive to build and maintain, and Moore believed he had the right idea at the right time. He pitched his idea to Texas Governor James "Pa" Ferguson, who might have liked or even understood the concept, but who definitely liked money.

Texas only had 100 miles of paved road in 1923 when the Texas Highway Department (now the Texas Department of Transportation) assumed responsibility for the maintenance of the state's roads through an act of the 35th legislature. Ferguson signed the legislation creating the highway department in 1917, and for the rest of his public life, he and his wife and future governor, Miriam "Ma" Ferguson, used the new state agency as their own cash cow and milked it for every cent they could.

Pa Ferguson made sure the sixteen-mile stretch of road would run from Belton to Temple in the Fergusons' home county of Bell. Frank Denison, the project's contractor, proposed using concave rollers to create "tracks" in the highway, an idea he described as "revolutionary."

Denison had never built so much as a single mile of road in his life, so he subcontracted the work to a pal in Fort Worth who agreed to buy all of the equipment he needed for highway from Denison's hardware store. He brought in Moore as a consulting engineer. Fred Ferguson, Pa's cousin, sold most of the gravel used in the project, and it must have been the best gravel in the world because it was certainly the most expensive.

Local leaders, as local leaders will do when talking about local projects, declared the invisible track highway the safest road in the world - the world! One of the few people who ever braved the road had a different take: "Once you got on, you had to stay on. You couldn't get off anywhere except at the end. It was the stupidest design you ever saw. It was crazy."

To these and other criticisms, Moore claimed that those "complaining never want to run less than 40 miles per hour."

The first (and last) five miles of the highway ended up costing somewhere around $250,000, or about $3 million in today's dollars. The state, not the county, spent most of that money. A house committee investigating the peculiar highway and the finances surrounding it called Moore to testify. Committee attorney Richard Critz asked Moore if he knew of another case where the state spent so much money without the county putting up its proper share. And why would the state spend so much money in Bell County, home of the governor?

"I think I can answer that," Moore replied. "James Ferguson told me that, if the experimental road was a failure, he could explain it easier to the home people."

Well, he couldn't. Ferguson's deep attraction to larceny and his contempt for the rule of law led to impeachment early in his second term. The impeachment, which included seven charges of misapplication of public funds, prohibited him from holding public office, but Pa steered his wife, Miriam "Ma" Ferguson, into the governor's mansion a few years later.

By the time the Ferguson rode off into the political sunset, the state hand abandoned the Invisible Highway project but didn't repair or otherwise gussy up the old road for six years, instead leaving it as a testament to the Fergusons' foolishness and greed. Eventually, the Invisible Track Highway became truly invisible as the state paved it over without any tracks, visible or otherwise, and built a new bridge over the Leon River.
Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" November 16, 2019 column

Clay Coppedge's "Letters from Central Texas"

  • The Unflappable Flapper Bandit 10-19-19
  • Monroe Fisher's Higher Calling 9-23-19
  • Temple's International Man of Mystery 8-27-19
  • Rocket Mail 8-1-19
  • James Brock's Honesty of Purpose 7-16-19

    See more »

  • More Columns
    Clay Coppedge's "Letters from Central Texas"

  • The Unflappable Flapper Bandit 10-19-19
  • Monroe Fisher's Higher Calling 9-23-19
  • Temple's International Man of Mystery 8-27-19
  • Rocket Mail 8-1-19
  • James Brock's Honesty of Purpose 7-16-19

    See more »


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