Rutted dirt was the rule on rural roads, like this one in Arizona. Rains made them muddy quagmires. Tall wheels with narrow tires worked well in these conditions. Photos: America on the Move

Rutted dirt was the rule on rural roads, like this one in Arizona. Rains made them muddy quagmires. Tall wheels with narrow tires worked well in these conditions. Photos: America on the Move

“Infrastructure” was once an arcane term known to civil engineers and not many other people. But it has recently worked its way into news stories and, more importantly, into the language of lawmakers, especially those in the U.S. Congress.

Something may well come out of this new interest, and the realization that crumpling concrete and rutted asphalt ain’t the modern and efficient way to go (not to mention aging water mains, sewers, electrical grids, capacity strapped rail lines, and everything else that makes a 21st Century civilization function).

In more primitive times, travel by carriage and freight wagon – forerunners to today’s cars, trucks, and tractor-trailers -- usually meant fighting deep ruts and being mired in mud because most streets and roads were bare dirt. Exceptions were cobblestone and wood-block streets in major cities, privately operated turnpikes paved with wooden planks, logs (known as corduroy) or crushed stone (macadam), and the National Road (the first federally funded highway, dating to 1817.  

A mule-drawn wagon stacked high with hay has easy going on a 19th Century plank road. But this was an exception in an era of ill-maintained dirt trails.

A mule-drawn wagon stacked high with hay has easy going on a 19th Century plank road. But this was an exception in an era of ill-maintained dirt trails.

In cities, copious amounts of horse and mule manure lay about, generating stench and drawing flies that upset the sensibilities of ladies and gentlemen. Women and sometimes men carried perfumed kerchiefs to mask the odor, and it’s likely that respiratory diseases were a more serious result.

Most travel of any distance was by train, as the railroads quickly expanded to meet demand and capture healthy and lucrative business from shippers and passengers. But people wanted more freedom.

By the 1920s, a Good Roads movement pressured local, state and federal politicians to raise money and make major improvements, including grading and paving, and marking and mapping road networks. Major corporations like General Motors and Firestone got behind it because it would expand markets for their products and enable shipping by truck.

But this movement was actually started about 1860, and was initiated not by operators of freight wagons and stage coaches, but by bicyclists. I just learned this from an essay in the Saturday Evening Post (now a bi-monthly magazine). It was based on a book, “The Mechanical Horse: How the Bicycle Reshaped American Life," by Margaret Guroff.

Touring cyclists with their high-wheeled conveyances, called "ordinaries," near Readville, Massachusetts, in September 1879. At far left is Charles Pratt, first president of the League of American Wheelmen.

Touring cyclists with their high-wheeled conveyances, called "ordinaries," near Readville, Massachusetts, in September 1879. At far left is Charles Pratt, first president of the League of American Wheelmen.  

She recounts how bicycles – originally high-wheeled contraptions with pedals and cranks directly attached – became wildly popular among well-heeled people who took to touring on them. Cyclists quickly became unhappy about lousy roads and began campaigning for them, not to mention the legal right to ride their bikes among carriages, wagons and the like.

They organized a group called the League of American Wheelmen and started the Good Roads movement. They had been posting signs and drawing maps to aid their touring, and that was the forerunner of a numbered and well-marked national network that came years later.

Rural byways were then supposed to be maintained by farmers whose land the trails passed, and LAW convinced them that publicly funded roads were to their benefit, as well. Together they gained political clout in the 1890s and roadways improved. (Do a web search on Good Roads and you will find much information about LAW and its early efforts, but little to nothing about the corporately backed campaign that followed.)

League of American Wheelmen preached the gospel of Good Roads in this pamphlet, widely distributed to farmers to gain their backing for the cause.

League of American Wheelmen preached the gospel of Good Roads in this pamphlet, widely distributed to farmers to gain their backing for the cause. 

Bicycles went out of style by the late 1890s, replaced by motor-bicycles, then motorcycles, automobiles, and of course their heavier brethren, motor trucks. Bicycles have made a comeback as both a recreational activity and good form of exercise, and for some, commuting. And cyclists are again an active constituency pushing for road rights and separate – and well paved – bike trails. Those trails are supported by money from the Highway Trust Fund, much to the chagrin of trucking interests.

Editors of today’s Saturday Evening Post say their 19th century counterparts wrote many articles and sympathetic editorials about the Good Roads movement. So did a sister publication, Country Gentleman. On Sept. 15, 1892, it published “The Question of Good Roads,” an excerpt from which presented an argument still meaningful today:

“The agitation for good roads has evidently taken a strong hold on the public mind… Our roads now are a shame to our civilization. Hundreds of steep hills have their stories of horrid accidents, wrecked wagons, horses running away, legs or arms broken, etc. [To delay improvements] is selfish, as it seeks to put a most necessary work on another generation.”

Author

Tom Berg
Tom Berg

Tom Berg

Journalist since 1965, truck writer and editor since 1978. CDL-qualified; conducts road tests on new heavy-, medium- and light-duty tractors and trucks. Specializes in vocational and hybrid vehicles.

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Journalist since 1965, truck writer and editor since 1978. CDL-qualified; conducts road tests on new heavy-, medium- and light-duty tractors and trucks. Specializes in vocational and hybrid vehicles.

View Bio
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