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The Good Roads Movement was active in the United States between the late 1870s and the 1920s. Road improvement advocates were able to turn what had been a local issue into a national political movement. The movement began as a coalition between organizations of farmers and bicyclists, such as the League of American Wheelmen. Their goal was the improvement of rural roads through state and federal spending. By 1910, automobile groups such as the American Automobile Association joined the campaign, coordinated by the National Good Roads Association.
Outside most cities, roads were dirt or gravel; which meant mud in the winter and dust in the summer. Travel between cities and towns by road was slow and expensive. Early advocates pointed to Europe, where road construction and maintenance was a function of national and local governments. In its early years, the movement’s primary goal was to educate legislators, newspaper editors and interest groups about why road building in rural areas was important, as well as to help rural populations gain the social and economic benefits enjoyed by urban dwellers. Those living in cities had railroads, trolleys and paved streets, which made transportation much easier.
On October 20, 1892 – 130 years ago tomorrow – good roads advocates from across the United States gathered in Chicago. This was only six years after Karl Benz invented what most consider to be the first automobile.
The good roads advocates met at Chicago’s Central Music Hall to form an organization that would further promote their cause. The meeting was held in conjunction with the dedication ceremonies for the Chicago World’s Fair (also called the World’s Columbian Exposition), which would take place the following day.
Although the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago was planned to open in 1892 (celebrating the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the New World), it was not completed in time. Therefore, organizers held a dedication ceremony on October 21, 1892, during the recognized anniversary month. The estimate of participants was well over 100,000.
Holding the meeting in conjunction with the dedication ceremony was a good idea. Over 1,000 people attended the meeting, including many prominent advocates who would likely not have attended if they had not been in Chicago for the ceremony.
General Roy Stone, who called for the meeting on September 8, was one of the key speakers. Stone helped organize the event and was then elected General Vice President and Acting Secretary.
Historian Philip P. Mason described the mix of participants: “In addition to the large number of prominent national figures present, there were delegates from many boards of trade and agriculture, farmers’ organizations, agricultural colleges and universities, and from practically all of the state road improvement associations.”
Start of a new organization
The main purpose of the meeting was to start a new organization of good roads advocates that was broader than the urban bicyclists that were the majority of members of the League of American Wheelmen (LAW), which had been established in 1880. Representatives of almost all groups championing improved roads nationwide attended the meeting.
Stone delivered the opening address. About “this peaceful campaign of progress and reform,” he said, “The time is ripe for it, and the opportunity should not be lost. There is work ready and waiting that needs the strong hand of a national organization … The best thought of the whole nation is required in developing or choosing a plan of action, and the solid support of the people is required when a plan is found.”
He also outlined his funding plan; he stated that it could be accomplished without increasing the federal debt if the federal government guaranteed local loans. “On condition, local governments could secure low-interest loans because of the federal government’s high standing in money markets.”
Conscious that some potential supporters of good roads were concerned by the thought of federal aid and the expense involved, Stone added a note of caution. However, his opening address concluded with these words: “The Government of the United States is as much the servant and instrument of the whole people as a State Government is of a part, and when [the people] determine again to use that servant and instrument in this business, for purposes of inquiry or of remedy, the only ‘danger’ will be to those who stop the way.”
The National League for Good Roads
Delegates at the meeting unanimously adopted a constitution that authorized creation of the National League for Good Roads. The next day’s edition of the Saint Paul (Minnesota) Daily Globe reported, “The objectives of the league are to awaken interest in the improvement of public roads, to determine the best methods of building and maintaining them, to secure state and national legislation and to conduct such publication as may serve those purposes.”
The new organization resolved to organize at the state, county and local levels, with the local school district as the primary unit, as a way of stimulating a “grass roots” movement. In addition, the league elected U.S. Senator Charles F. Manderson of Nebraska as president and Stone as general vice president and acting secretary. Finally, the members agreed to hold a convention in Washington the following January. Offices for the league were established in New York City, where General Stone lived.
The meeting generated national news and editorials. On November 12, 1892, New Haven, Connecticut’s The Register published an article on “Improving the Highways” by John Gilmer Speed. He wrote, “There is no question before the American people of more importance than that of the improvements of the common roads.” He added, “The person to take the initiative in this movement was Gen. Roy Stone of New York.”
And although the article appeared in November, Speed’s interview occurred prior to the Chicago meeting. In the interview, Stone explained the goal of the good roads movement, stating, “The importance of this movement cannot be overestimated. The public sentiment in favor of road reform is profound and universal, but as to exact methods and ways and means it is all at sea, and brings no practical influence to bear anyway. If it can once be massed, and crystallized upon definite measures, it will be irresistible. This can only be accomplished by organization, reaching every interest concerned, and especially the farmers.”
He described the condition of U.S. roads in terms that he would repeat many times in coming years, stating, “We have the worst roads in the civilized world; their condition is a crushing tax on the whole people, a tax the more intolerable in that it yields no revenue, not even supports a tax gatherer; any adequate relief from this tax involves the rebuilding of 1,000,000 miles of road and an expenditure of some thousands of millions of money.”
Stone’s comments were made about 110 years after the founding of the United States. He noted that the nation’s early leaders “understood the need to provide roads and canals to bind the republic together.”
An idea becomes law
A December 18, 1892 article in The New York Times described the “steady progress made by the National League.” Senator Manderson had been in New York for meetings, including a meeting with the state Chamber of Commerce at Stone’s home.
The second national convention of the National League for Good Roads was held on January 17, 1893 in Washington. The next day, The Washington Post‘s article about the meeting was headlined “Our System of Highways” and sub-headlined: “It Is the Worst on Earth and Should Be Reformed.”
Although there were numerous speakers at the convention, the most influential was President Benjamin Harrison’s Secretary of Agriculture, Jeremiah M. Rusk. He told the delegates that he supported better roads, but not federal aid for roads, believing road improvement to be primarily a local matter.
Despite his position, the Department’s appropriations bill had been amended to include $10,000 “for the collection and dissemination of information on road laws and the methods of road construction,” which Rusk agreed were legitimate federal activities. According to the U.S. Representative that amended the bill, he “credited Albert Pope with the plan for the establishment of the Office of Road Inquiry within the Department of Agriculture.” Pope was a leading bicycle manufacturer, as well as a founder of the National League.
Congress approved the appropriations act on March 3, 1893, and it was signed later that day by President Harrison in one of his last acts before leaving office. (Until the 1937 inauguration, presidential inaugurations occurred on March 4 in the year after the election.)
President Grover Cleveland began his second (non-consecutive) term; his Secretary of Agriculture, J. Sterling Morton, established the Office of Road Inquiry (ORI) within the U.S. Department of Agriculture with the $10,000 annual budget appropriated by Congress and approved by former president Harrison.
General Roy Stone was appointed as the first chief of the ORI, the earliest predecessor of the Federal Highway Administration.
FreightWaves Classics thanks the Federal Highway Administration, nebraskaeducationonlocation.org, North Carolina Department of Transportation, transportationhistory.org, the U.S. Department of Transportation, wvencyclopedia.org and other sources for information and photographs that contributed to this article.