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Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

The road that became
an Interstate

by Clay Coppedge

The people who founded and participated in the Good Roads Associations in the early part of the 20th century were on the right side of history. They correctly predicted that the invention of the automobile would change American life and transportation dramatically, and they set out to get roads built in a more or less orderly manner since cars aren't worth much without roads.

One of those people was John C. Nicholson, a Kansas attorney and Good Roads Association activist. In 1911, Nicholson envisioned a road - a "Main Street of America" - that stretched north-south from Galveston to Manitoba, Canada. Most of the ambitious roads of the day - the Lincoln Highway, the Bankhead Highway, the Old Spanish Trail and some others - ran east-west. Nicholson envisioned a road linking America to Mexico and Canada, and the Great Plains to the rest of the U.S.

Nicholson called his road the Meridian Road, not because it happened to pass through Meridian, Texas but because surveyors nearly everywhere west of the Mississippi (except Texas) use a grid system that relies on the sixth principal meridian, a longitudinal reference point that runs through the Great Plains from Canada to Mexico City. The line first came into use when surveyors mapped the Louisiana Purchase. Surveyors also used the line to form the boundaries of Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming and South Dakota.

David E. Colp of San Antonio, president of the Meridian Highway Association's Texas Division, guided efforts to build the Texas portion of the highway and even wrote a travel guide describing and touting the "history; limitless scenic wonderland; untold hunting and fishing; fabulous virgin mineral wealth; and boundless industrial and commercial possibilities" a traveler might find along the Meridian Road.

The Good Roads people quickly changed the name to Meridian Highway to reflect Nicholson's grander vision of something more than a simple road. The Texas Highway Department (now the Texas Department of Transportation) labeled the highway State Highway 2, meaning the department's commissioners judged Meridian to be the second most important highway in Texas, behind the Bankhead Highway, which they named State Highway 1. The Bankhead Highway originated in Washington, D.C. and ended in San Diego, California. Boosters billed it as "America's Broadway."

The state also added an extension to the Meridian Highway, an 800-mile lateral line from Waco to Galveston known as the Gulf Division. The extension and the main highway provided a boost to farmers and ranchers along the route, giving them a cheap and reliable way of getting their goods to market at a time when yields were increasing. It also gave people in Texas and the Great Plains an easy route to the tourist delights and temptations of Galveston.

In 1926, the federal highway numbering system gave the Meridian Highway a new and enduring identity - U.S. Highway 81. With roads that people could be traverse rather than merely endure, Highway 81 and others like it gave the hundreds of thousands of former trail riders and rail passengers a way to see the country in their new horseless carriages. They did so in great numbers, causing chronic road congestion in bigger cities like Houston, San Antonio and Dallas-Fort Worth, a situation that time has done little to correct.

Plans for new "super-highways" to relieve the congestion had to wait until after World War II when state planners used segments of the Meridian Highway to implement the new Interregional Highway program, which served as the foundation of the Interstate Highway System of the 1950s and 1960s, which changed forever the way Americans travel. It made road trippers of us all.

Now we see U.S. 81 most often as an exit off Interstate Highway (IH) 35 because much of the current IH-35 follows the original highway path. The Texas Historical Commission (THC) published a 300- page history of the Meridian Highway this year, the result of long and extensive research into the old highway and its transformation into one of America's main thoroughfares.

The team of THC historians documented 1,800 resources associated with the Meridian Highway, including 521 gas stations, 210 hotels and motels, 158 restaurants, 150 auto dealerships, 280 road segments and four metal truss bridges. And probably a few traffic jams as well.

Nicholson and Colp, visionaries that they were, could never have imagined what the old Meridian Road would become 115 years after they first started working on it. At least it's something to think about the next time you're stuck in traffic on IH-35.



Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" November 1, 2016 column

Related Topic: Texas Drives
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