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The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways Hardcover – June 9, 2011
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How did we get from dirt tracks to expressways, from main streets to off-ramps, from mud to concrete and steel, in less than a century? Through decades of politics, activism, and marvels of engineering, we recognize in our highways the wanderlust, grand scale, and conflicting notions of citizenship and progress that define America.
Q: What drew you to writing about the interstate highways?
A: Well, they’re kind of hard to miss. They’ve snaked their way into every aspect of our lives — where we live and work and go to school, what we eat, how we view time and distance. They’ve altered the shape and size and character of our cities, and what it means to live in the "country." We see the physical United States differently, thanks to this weave of concrete. Check out the weather map on any TV news program, national or local: the United States is no longer depicted topographically, with rivers and mountains as its reference points, but as a grid of highways. That reflects how we’ve come to see America: not as an expanse of physical obstacles, but as a network of high-speed corridors that are so ubiquitous, they’re taken for granted.
The fresh salad you toss at home and the steak you savor at a big-city restaurant wouldn’t be possible without them. The clothes, furniture, electronics, even the house you buy, depend on the speed and access they provide. Building the interstates wasn’t simply a matter of pouring concrete; they helped create the modern American experience.
Q: The book’s subtitle mentions the "engineers, visionaries, and trailblazers" who created America’s superhighways, but nothing about presidents. Weren’t the interstates Dwight Eisenhower’s doing?
A: Actually, Ike had very little to do with them — which may come as a surprise, seeing as how they’re named for the man and associated with his time in office, alongside coonskin caps and polio shots. In truth, FDR had more of a hand in the interstates. And their origins date back decades before him: they’re the product of an evolution that began before America’s entry into World War I.
The real fathers of our modern highway system will be unknown names to most readers. There’s Carl Fisher, who inspired the nation’s first primitive network of motor roads; Thomas MacDonald and a supporting cast in the federal Bureau of Public Roads, who turned that network into the numbered U.S. highway system in the mid-twenties and drew up plans for the interstates in the late thirties; and Frank Turner, who played the starring role in turning that prewar vision into what we have today.
Alongside these builders are a host of men and women who helped shape what we got, some of them by resisting the system’s advance — people like Lewis Mumford, a writer who initially championed high-speed roads and later became their harshest critic.
Q: Did you know of these players before you started work on the book?
A: No, I didn’t. I assumed I knew the basics, that Eisenhower was a major figure in the story. The more I researched, the more I came to see that it wasn’t so.
The myth was helped along by Ike himself. In his memoirs he writes about a coast-to-coast trip he took with an army truck convoy in 1919, and how it opened his eyes to the primitive state of American roads; it took the convoy 62 days to drive from D.C. to San Francisco. A quarter-century later, his armies advanced on Berlin using Germany’s autobahns, and he realized that here was the answer — and so it was, he wrote, that building a superhighway network became one of his priorities as president.
Ike certainly had both of those experiences, and they may well have fueled his desire for big roads. But by the time he got into politics, the interstates were a done deal. How they are, and where they are, had largely been decided, and they differed in fundamental ways with what he had in mind.
Q: Did you drive much of the system in researching the book?
A: I’ve traveled about 20,000 miles of the interstates, or roughly forty percent of the total. That doesn’t include do-overs: some legs I’ve driven many times — I-44 and I-40 between St. Louis and L.A., which parallels old Route 66; I-95 between New York and Richmond; I-80 from New York to San Francisco; the 900-odd miles of I-64.
Researching the story’s main characters required that I spend a good bit of time with their papers, which are locked away in university archives and libraries all over the country. On one road trip, in the summer of 2008, my daughter and I drove from our home on the Virginia shore to Hot Springs, Arkansas; Texas A&M; Fort Worth; Iowa State; the small town of Montezuma, Iowa; Ottawa, Illinois; and the University of Michigan’s main campus in Ann Arbor. On another research trip, in the summer of 2006, we drove the Lincoln Highway through eleven states.
Q: Are you a fan of the system?
A: Most of the time I’m on it, yes. But it certainly has its negatives: an interstate exit has more in common with interchanges a thousand miles away than it does with the local countryside; the system amounts to a fifty- first state, a place unto itself — one of unvaried engineering, look-alike architecture, taste-alike food.
So driving an interstate through, say, New Mexico is not exactly like visiting New Mexico. You can see it from the highway, but you’re kept at a distance by the interstate’s wide corridor, and the view is blurred by your speed; you’re in it, but not of it. It’s a bit like changing planes in an airport terminal. You can’t really say you’ve been to the surrounding city.
For all that, I enjoy driving on interstates. I enjoy their smooth speed; I’d imagine it’s as close as most of us come to piloting a plane. I appreciate their ease and safety. I’m awed by their scale. Some of their approaches to cities offer truly spectacular views. And I’ve had some wonderful moments on them, with company and without. I get a lot of thinking done when I’m on the road.Plus, there’s this: whatever their flaws, whatever unintended ills they spawned, the interstates do exactly what they were designed to do, and do it very well. They account for one percent of our highway mileage. They carry a quarter of our traffic. They’re really pretty amazing.
Q: Do you have any favorite routes?
A: I always look forward to driving I-81 through Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley — the Blue Ridge looms to the east, the Alleghenies to the west. It’s gorgeous, though you can’t gaze for too long, because the highway’s crowded with trucks. I-40 in the Southwest and I-80 in the Great Plains pass through some austere but beautiful country. There’s a pleasing lonesomeness to those drives. I-10 rides a causeway through the Louisiana swamps; drive it just after dawn, it’s otherworldly.
Q: Any bad experiences?
A: Oh, sure. Whenever I drive the New Jersey Turnpike or the Long Island Expressway, I can’t say I’m having a good time; they can be harrowing. Same goes for the Capital Beltway at rush hour, which most days seems to last about eighteen hours.
I avoid certain rural stretches whenever possible. I-35 between Fort Worth and Waco is weedy, trash-strewn, ugly. The Indiana Toll Road is an eyesore. The road surfaces in Michigan and Illinois are close to lunar.
As for moments of real danger, I was in a dozen-car pileup once, on I-44 in southern Missouri. Didn’t get hurt, but it was an eerie experience to see such a lavish piece of engineering rendered unusable; the whole highway was blocked by wreckage. I was rear-ended while stopped at another snow-related accident by a Camaro doing 50; I was in a microscopic Fiat. That was unpleasant, to say the least, but again, I didn’t get hurt.
Then there was the time my MG started to overheat as I drove alone across the desert from Needles to Barstow, California. It was blistering out — 110 degrees or so — and I had no choice but to crank up the heater. That stretch of I-40 was the longest hundred miles I’ve ever driven. On any kind of road.
"Travelers hitting the highways this summer might better appreciate the asphalt beneath their tires thanks to this engrossing history of the creation of the U.S. interstate system."—Los Angeles Times
“Engaging, informative . . . The first thorough history of the expressway system.”—Washington Post
"The book is a road geek’s treasure—and everyone who travels the highways ought to know these stories." —Kirkus
"Readers interested in urban planning as well as engineering will find a well-told story about a defining American feature." —Publishers Weekly"
Discover books for all types of engineers, auto enthusiasts, and much more. Learn more
More About the Author
His latest book--AUTO BIOGRAPHY: A CLASSIC CAR, AN OUTLAW MOTORHEAD, AND 57 YEARS OF THE AMERICAN DREAM--was released in 2014 to widespread critical praise. It's now available in paperback and all audio and ebook formats.
He's also the author of four other books of narrative nonfiction--THE BIG ROADS, a lively 2011 history of the interstate highway system and its effects on the nation it binds; WHERE THEY LAY: Searching for America's Lost Soldiers, for which he accompanied an army archaeological team into the jungles of Laos in search of a helicopter crew shot down thirty years before (2003); JOURNEY ON THE JAMES, the story of a great American river and the largely untold history that has unfolded around it (2001); and a 2007 collection of his stories, THE TANGIERMAN'S LAMENT.
All titles are now available as e-books.
Swift is the father of a 21-year-old daughter, Saylor, and is engaged to the fresh-faced and free-spirited Amy Walton of Virginia Beach.
Top Customer Reviews
Most people seem to think that the US Interstate system was devised and begun during the Eisenhower administration. It was Eisenhower who approved and began the billions dollar project but planning had begun years before, as the automobile designs improved and costs went down, and people-in-cars took to the roads. At first, cars were used basically to go short distance, but as the 1900's turned into the 1910's, visionaries began to see the need for roads - and good roads - to stretch across the United States. Various government and private companies began working on developing a nationwide system, basically based on the upgrading of already established roads. State governments would approve upgrades in their own states, but there was no country-wide plan. Throughout the 1920's and 1930's plans continued to be made but not necessarily implemented. Notice was taken of the autobahn system being developed AND built in Germany. Strange how those beautifully developed four lane highways went out to the country's borders and not from city to city within Germany... Strange.
After WW2, the US government realised they had to begin building the Interstate system. Added cartage of goods and materiel during war-time had shown how inadequate US road system truly was. It was under Eisenhower, who, curiously had been part of a government study as an Army officer in the 1930's of the country's transportation system, that the national United States Interstate system was finally developed, approved, and built. Begun in the 1950's, roads are still being built and fixed today.Read more ›
=== The Good Stuff ===
* Earl Swift would certainly subscribe to the theory that the political side of road-building is more interesting and more difficult than the actual engineering side. Given the current state of US highway building, it might appear that he is correct-more roads have been shot down over politics than insurmountable engineering problems. Swift does a masterful job of capturing this conflict.
* We meet an interesting cast of characters, and Swift does a nice job at capturing the personalities and motivations of these people. There are certainly the stereotypical engineers-you can almost see the slide rules- planning the routes; the finance guys figuring out how to pay for it; and the political operators-managing what is possible. But there are also the citizens who refused to have their city gutted by a cross-town expressway, and environmentalists and historical preservationists who stand up for their principles.
* Much of the history presented was new to me. I had always subscribed to the "Eisenhower cross-country trip" theory of how the Interstate system came about. Swift makes a convincing case that much of the work was done prior to Eisenhower, some as early as WWI, and much of it under Roosevelt. Eisenhower comes across as a sort of final enabler, and someone who wasn't really paying attention anyway.
* We see some of the dealing that went on to make the project happen.Read more ›
Author Earl Swift (what a name!) begins in the 19th Century, when a network of roads stretching from coast to coast was an outlandish thing to consider. He tackles early auto pioneers before moving into the 20th Century and the men who began to build the infrastructure we still use today. Men of vision. Men with bold ideas. Men who got things done.
Then he gets on to the huge federal highway system, the big infrastructure projects of the post-WWII years, and the road system that changed American during the Baby Boom era. Running into the early 1970s, it paints a picture of a living, breathing construction project that lasted for a century.
Throughout it all he peppers the text with fun, quirky stories about interesting drivers, sights, sounds, engineers, politicians, and oddball anecdotes.
Plus, politics. Lots and lots of politics. After all, national highway systems don't get built without a lot of hand-shaking.
All in all, Swift's book is a fascinating and comprehensive telling of the story of America's road system. Car enthusiasts, road enthusiasts, you don't need to be either ... if you enjoy AMERICANA, this is an essential read.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
A fascinating read with so much background I never knew about how the Interstate highway system evolved. Read morePublished 2 months ago by Jim Cox
This is an interesting modern history well told. Since I live in Baltimore I really enjoyed the parts about the initial plans and the many political battles to reach the eventual... Read morePublished 2 months ago by slats
Maybe I purchased this book with the wrong intentions. I was hoping to learn more about America's highway system and its future. Read morePublished 3 months ago by Booky
Very readable style for a subject that could have been made really boring by the wrong writer. The book focuses on the people who founded the roads, and the effect on society. Read morePublished 4 months ago by Jo Urquhart
A decent read on a forgotten need. I have taken for granted the complexity and planning involved in reworking an existing road or interstate, let alone the work required to create... Read morePublished 5 months ago by Scott
EXCELLENT BOOK!! well done. easy read for those history buffs, and those are REALLY interested in how our highway system came to be.Published 6 months ago by mike sprinkle
A clear concise read. It dispels many myths surrounding the highway system from its conception to present day. Read morePublished 9 months ago by alwoof
Earl Swift takes an amazingly dry subject and makes it one of the more interesting reads I've ever picked up. I was genuinely surprised.Published 9 months ago by The Docmiester
I loved this book; I didn't want to read it. I saw it in my local library, and being an engineer and patent attorney, I checked it out, feeling a sort of professional obligation. Read morePublished 9 months ago by Richard P. Beem