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
The state also added an extension to the Meridian Highway, an 800-mile
lateral line from Waco
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
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