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On September 13, 1955, Carl W. Brown, a prominent highways leader in Missouri and the nation, died in Fulton, Missouri, at the age of 68.
Brown was born in Vandalia, Missouri, on January 7, 1887. After finishing high school Brown enrolled in the University of Missouri’s college of engineering in 1904. He left the university in 1907 to work on a construction project for the Electric Railroad. In 1908, Brown made surveys for a toll road in Lincoln County, Missouri. After returning to the University of Missouri, Brown earned his civil engineering degree in 1910.
After graduating, Brown worked for the Burlington Railroad as an assistant resident engineer. Brown was elected as county engineer and surveyor for Rails County, Missouri, serving from 1915 to 1918. (As a sign of widespread respect for his abilities, he was nominated by the Democratic and Republican parties for that position.)
In 1918 Brown started his career with the Missouri State Highway Department (now known as the Missouri Department of Transportation). He began as an office engineer and chief clerk. Brown did well, and in 1920 was promoted to first assistant state highway engineer. Reporting on this promotion, Engineering World stated that Brown “is recognized as an excellent engineer with considerable general experience gained before his selection for a place in the department.”
Over the next 16 years Brown continued to perform and be promoted; in 1936 he was appointed the department’s chief engineer. He held that position under nine Missouri governors. As well as overseeing the construction and improvement of roads across Missouri, Brown was also active in a number of engineering and professional organizations. He served as president of several, including the Missouri Highway Engineers Association, the Mississippi Valley Conference of State Highway Officials (now the Mid America Association of State Transportation Officials) and the American Road Builders Association (later renamed the American Road and Transportation Builders Association). Brown was also a member of the Missouri Society of Professional Engineers and the American Society of Civil Engineers.
Service with AASHO
Brown was also active in the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO, now known as AASHTO), serving on a number of the organization’s committees. He eventually became a member of the AASHO Executive Committee and was elected first vice president at the association’s annual meeting in September 1948 in Salt Lake City, Utah.
A representative from Illinois was elected AASHO’s president at that annual meeting. However, his tenure in that role was quite short. In January 1949, he had to resign as president after a political issue caused him to abruptly retire from his position as chief highway engineer of the Illinois State Highway Department.
As the new first vice president of AASHO, Brown filled the vacant position of president. “Mr. Brown is well known to all members of the American Association of State Highway Officials,” noted American Highways (AASHO’s longtime magazine). “All those who have been associated with him appreciate and understand his loyal, active interest in the American Association of State Highway Officials, its progress and its welfare. Only a few men have succeeded to the presidency of the Association with the background of experience in its work possessed by Mr. Brown.”
As the 36th president of AASHO, Brown led the organization during a time when most states were addressing road maintenance that was deferred during World War II, coupled with the post-war demands for new roads and highways to serve the increasingly mobile U.S. population.
A highlight of Brown’s tenure was his meeting with President Harry S Truman, a staunch good-roads advocate and fellow Missouri native. The one-on-one meeting took place at the White House in early May 1949.
During Brown’s presidency AASHO continued research to gauge the service life of highway pavements, as well as the impact of wheel loads. The research was focused on creating better highways that could handle increased and heavier traffic. This effort was continued over the next several years through state-financed road tests in Idaho and Maryland, and then culminated in the “largest and most significant pavement research performed in the 20th century” – the AASHO Road Test in Illinois.
Brown gave his last address as AASHO president at the association’s annual meeting in San Antonio, Texas, in October 1949. He discussed the importance of the road tests, but he also used his speech to underscore another key issue. Brown said, “It is the duty of the highway official in so far as it is possible, to design, construct, and maintain our highways so that they will be safe. It is the further duty of every State Highway Department to inform the public constantly of various safety measures; in other words ‘sell safety.’ With human lives at stake, the realization of our stupendous task is cause for daily sober reflection and action.”
After stepping down as AASHO president, Brown continued to serve as Missouri’s chief engineer until he retired in 1951.
During his tenure as chief engineer, Missouri’s road-building efforts and innovations drew national attention. One of the obituaries following Brown’s death in 1955 noted, “During this period many of the state’s modern highways were built.”
FreightWaves Classics thanks the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, the Federal Highway Administration, the Missouri Department of Transportation and the National Park Service for information and photographs that contributed to this article.