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Historic Roads in the National Park System






Early Roads

The Development of Park Roads

Teamwork/Cooperative Efforts

Evolution of Parkways

World War II and Beyond

Understanding and Managing Historic Park Roads


Historic Roads in the National Park System
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Traveling down an early 19th century country road in frontier North America was a hazardous undertaking for the hardy travelers who ventured forth. Sometimes these routes were just tracks through the wilderness. The Santa Fe Trail, for instance, connected towns, villages, trading posts, and forts, and followed water sources from point-to-point across the central lowlands, the Great Plains, the southern Rocky Mountains, and the high plains and deserts of the Southwest. As the nation expanded west, the development of reliable transportation systems that included the arteries of roads, canals, and rivers became the foundation of that expansion.

Federal involvement in the process of building roads for the nation was a slow evolution. During the early 19th century the economy of the new country was still struggling. In 1801 Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin suggested that one-tenth of the net proceeds of public land sales be applied to road building, but only if the state through which the road passed gave its consent. Congress finally passed the proposal in 1803, and eventually each state passed its own legislation. Ohio was the first state to do so. Three-fifths of the money gleaned from public land sales there was earmarked for roads to and through Ohio. [5] This was the beginning of federal and state support for road construction.

In 1807 the United States Senate requested Albert Gallatin to conduct an inventory of transportation resources and to make recommendations for improvement. His study, which was released the following year, looked at some of the most successful transportation systems of Europe. Gallatin investigated the most productive facilities of Europe, and he concluded that large, integrated transportation networks were the underpinnings of that success. Good roads connected to shipping ports, for instance, quickly brought meat and produce from farms to market. [6] These arteries kept the heart of a country's economy pumping.

At the time that Gallatin's report was released, the Cumberland Road was under construction. This road was an attempt to put into practice the same principles. Begun in 1806, the purpose of the road was to connect the navigational headwaters of the Potomac River in Cumberland, Maryland, to the Ohio River. The legislation for the road included road standards, and the financing for its construction came from sales of public land in Ohio. The first section of the road opened in 1813, but the road planners had not taken into account the heavy use the road would receive. So many wagons loaded with freight traveled the road that available funding could not cover the high costs of maintenance. Merely building the road, then, was not enough.

As the years passed, maintenance costs increased so much that in 1822 Congress pushed for the Cumberland Road to become a toll road. The toll monies were to be allotted for maintenance. President James Monroe, however, disapproved of the proposal and vetoed the bill. He reasoned that the collection of tolls implied that the federal government had jurisdiction over the roads. Federal jurisdiction was not permissible unless the states amended their constitutions. So, he argued, the federal government could provide funding for public improvements, but it had no jurisdiction or sovereignty over the land upon which the improvements were made. As a result of his veto, states eventually accepted the control and maintenance of the road. [7] That set the precedent for the way in which roads built by the federal government were handled after construction.

Other transportation-related developments during the early 19th century included construction of the National Road and the Maysville Turnpike, land grants to states for wagon roads, and land subsidies for canals. Also in 1801 the federal government reached an agreement with the Choctaws and Chickasaws to construct a wagon road from the vicinity of Nashville, Tennessee to Natchez, Mississippi. The road, completed in 1803 and called the Natchez Trace, was planned as a military road to provide access to the port of New Orleans. The road was laid out over early Native American trails. Between 1807 and 1880 the United States Army constructed more than 100 other military wagon roads throughout the United States and its territories, which amounted to 21,000 miles of roads. [8] Thus federal involvement in road construction started in the early 19th century and contributed to the development of the nation through actual road building and federal aid.


During the middle of the 19th century a young horticulturalist and writer on landscape architecture named Andrew Jackson Downing began producing volumes that dealt with naturalistic landscape gardening principles and design. Although most of his work concentrated on landscape issues on private estates, he included as part of his work sections on road construction within parks. He stressed laying out roads following the topography and the natural curves of the landscape. He emphasized planting copses of trees within curves to make it appear as if the path of the road was laid out specifically to avoid those trees. Also he stressed bringing the road to precise points of interest to disclose particular vistas or natural features of interest. [9] His approaches either worked with existing natural landscape features, or included construction or manipulation of landscape features to enhance the qualities of nature.

Further expanding on the ideas of scenic road construction as a segment of overall park development was master Landscape Architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. Olmsted expanded on Downing's ideas and took them a few steps further. The concept of a loop drive, such as the one through Olmsted's Central Park in New York, emerged in the 19th century. This picturesque, designed landscape was gently placed in the natural landscape in a way that revealed only a portion of what existed there. Olmsted, who also designed Franklin Park in Boston, spent considerable time with the design of roads in that park to blend them with the landscape. He wrote that he designed those roads not only to bring people to certain views, but also so that visitors could enjoy the simple rural scenery "while in easy movement, and and grades avoiding unnecessary violence to nature." [10] His gentle approach to landscape architecture stressed the process of sequentially experiencing nature.

Another proponent of the importance of road design to the landscape of parks was Frank Waugh, a professor of landscape gardening at Massachusetts Agriculture College. In his book, The Natural Style in Landscape Gardening, Waugh recognized the importance of the kinetic aspects of the experience of passing over a road or trail. Waugh believed that at each vista the path should turn and rise upward to the next one. Waugh termed these "paragraphic" places, and he noted their importance in the entire process of experiencing a road or trail laid out to subtly direct the visitor to a specific vista or feature. [11]


The need for better, more dependable road systems increased in the late 19th century. The. Agricultural Appropriation Act of 1893 set aside $10,000 for the secretary of agriculture to investigate road-building techniques and to assemble information on road construction so that it could be distributed to states and municipalities, federal agencies, and private citizens. The secretary established a temporary office known as the Office of Road Inquiry to fulfill that obligation. At the same time the department was forbidden from influencing any type of policy that might have a bearing on formulating road systems. Rather, the office was charged with disseminating information. The agency started by producing small bulletins on road construction. Also, in 1894, the new agency completed a "Good Roads Map" that depicted all of the macadamized and gravel roads in the United States. The office sent copies of that map to each county, and asked the counties to update them. [12] The new agency also started compiling general information on roads. A report for 1893, for instance, noted that farmers liked the permanent stone roads because of the increased weight of produce they could carry over them, and because of increased property values. [13]

As the agency evolved, its name changed in 1899 to the Office of Public Road Inquiry (OPRI), and its duties expanded. The annual report for agency for 1901 included a summary of progress in road construction that had been made across the Atlantic. Martin Dodge, director of the agency, wrote that France had the best highways in the world in 1900, and that it had been testing road materials used in the construction of its national highways for 30 years. Dodge also wrote about the new testing laboratory in the U.S. Bureau of Chemistry where road materials were tested free of charge. When a sample was submitted to the Bureau of Chemistry it was subjected to an abrasion test "to determine its resistance to wear; a cementing test for determining its cementing or binding power; a toughness test; a hardness test. Also the material was assessed for density absorptiveness, nomenclature." Then the applicant who brought in the material was required to submit meteorological information about the location where the road material was to be used. The Bureau of Chemistry analyzed all of that information and made recommendations about the appropriateness of the material for road construction or suggestions for possible improvements to it. Dodge readily understood the benefits of learning from successful operations and studying the applications of different materials. [14]

In 1900 the Office of Public Road Inquiry experimented with a variety of road materials that included vitrified brick, oiled roads, and steel roads. One of the big successes of the year was on the Queens Chapel Road in the District of Columbia. Besides rehabilitating the road, the agency coated 4,650 feet of it with residual oil or roadbed oil to settle dust and kill weeds — a system first recognized and used by the West Jersey and Seashore Railroad. At that time 30 other railroads throughout the United States were using the process, and most claimed that the crude oil made the road surface impervious to water, thus also free of frost and mud. The experiment was to settle the question about whether oil would supersede gravel and stone in the improvement of country roads. [15] This experiment was typical of ones the bureau had underway.

The annual reports for the agency during the early 1900s concentrated on two concerns: technical aspects of road building; and building good roads for the nation to open it up and serve the people. The aesthetics of road design and construction were not discussed in those reports. Instead the agency's bent was a purely practical one concerned with materials and maintenance."

By 1903 the OPRI budget increased so it could start doing more. At the time, the office had a construction team that traveled around the country building demonstration roads. They constructed approximately eight or nine road segments each year in areas scattered all over the United States. The segments varied from .5 mile to 1.5 miles long. In 1900 they had even constructed an experimental brick road on the grounds of the Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C. [17] The 1903 budget increase boosted the number of teams building demonstration roads around the country to four. While these demonstration roads were under construction, special agent and road expert E.G. Harrison of the Office of Public Road Inquiry usually gave speeches about improvements in road design and often he had them printed up in local newspapers. His intent was to increase awareness and support for road construction. In one of the articles Harrison wrote:

... the U.S. is interested in the rural districts and wishes to help the farmers and others to get good roads. Therefore, the Department of Agriculture has established the Office of [Public] Road Inquiry which is seeking to gather all the information possible about the construction and maintenance of good roads and to impart it gratis to the people. The government will not be building your roads, but will place at your disposal all the information it has gained from experts, experiments and other sources.... Here we have not even been building the best kind of macadam road. For that you must go to your cities and look at the boulevards. We have simply taken the material at hand and from it constructed the best road possible with the money we have. The boulders from which the stone is crushed were brought from the neighboring farms. They are of good quality and very hard. They consist of granite, trap, syenite, quartz, etc. This is much better than your soft limestone, or loose sandy, washed gravel. [18]

Harrison encouraged communities to look toward the best materials they had available locally and to use the expertise available from his agency. The demonstration roads provided tangible examples that states and local communities could study and follow in establishing and carrying out their road construction programs.

This small agency also assessed the broader needs of the country. In 1904 the agency conducted a survey to get an idea about the condition of roads throughout the United States. It mailed out a questionnaire that quizzed local authorities on road materials, mileage, taxation, sources of revenue, total expenditures, and surface type. The study concluded that 2,151,570 miles of rural public roads existed in the United States, along with 1,598 miles of stone-surfaced toll roads. Of the public roads, less than 7% had any type of surfacing. [19] This survey revealed how much work needed to be done.

At first the Office of Public Road Inquiry was established to fill a temporary need, but it continued to receive funding in the annual agricultural appropriations bills. The director of the agency then recommended that the Office of Public Road Inquiry be made a permanent part of the Department of Agriculture. That recommendation was accepted, and in the Agriculture Appropriation Act of 1905 (33 Stat 882) the Division of Tests of the Bureau of Chemistry merged with the Office of Public Road Inquiry to create the Office of Public Roads (OPR). Also the legislation required that the head of the agency be a scientist. Logan Waller Page was appointed to the position.

Page had a strong background in road engineering, and he was a proactive thinker. He began his career as director of the roads materials laboratory of Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard University while he served concurrently as a geologist and testing engineer with the Massachusetts State Highway Commission. In the late 19th through the early 20th century France had the highest roads standards in the world, and Page took advantage of that knowledge by attending the French Laboratory of Bridges and Roads. He brought his additional skills back to his jobs in Massachusetts. He set up a laboratory for testing road materials with the Bureau of Chemistry in the Department of Agriculture, and he helped to establish testing labs in some of the states. When he received the appointment as director of OPR in 1905 he continued that agency's practice of constructing demonstration or object lesson roads. He expanded that program and shifted the emphasis in construction materials from macadam to locally available materials — most often earth, clay, and sand — that tended to respond better to the local environment. Even more importantly, however, Page wrote and disseminated additional information on road construction. In his writings he continually emphasized that proper initial construction and systematic maintenance — things that were cheap and affordable to most communities — would keep roads in good condition for long periods of time. Following that course of action, he noted, provided a solid foundation for hard surfacing when funding allowed that to become a possibility."

Under Page's direction the Office of Public Roads continued to progress in the fields of road construction and materials testing. Between 1908 and 1910 the Office of Public Roads oversaw the construction of 1,300 miles of dirt roads and 440 miles of sand-clay roads. Some were still experimental. In Mississippi, for instance, the agency tried burning fires on a clay road until the clay lost its plasticity and became a hardened surface. Under Page's direction, the OPR engineers drew up specifications for different types of road construction based on their experiences with demonstration and experimental roads. They published the specifications in bulletins that received wide distribution throughout states, counties, and municipalities, as well as through college reference libraries. OPR specifications for bituminous road binders became the industry standard, and they were adopted by many state highway commissions. [22]

Page looked closely at the practical applications of his work, and his agency cooperated with the U.S. Forest Service in laying out and constructing wagon roads and trails in forest reserves to facilitate lumbering. One engineer was assigned from the Office of Public Roads in 1906 to assist solely with work in forest reserves, but Page allowed more of his people to work with the Forest Service as additional funds became available. [23] Page also saw the need to increase the size of his staff, and he wanted to do so with the best-trained people. To accomplish that he assessed the way in which highway engineering was taught in technical schools and colleges. Then he established courses in highway design and construction to train a pool of civil-engineering students from which he could draw. [24]

The need for qualified people increased as the finding did. In 1912, Congress established the "10% fund" under which 10% of the receipts from forest revenues went to road construction and rehabilitation. An additional $10 million — to be spent between 1917 and 1926 — came with the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916. Also, the Post Office Appropriation Act of 1919 provided $3 million for road construction in fiscal years 1919-1921. [25] This surge of federal money into road construction allowed Page to draw from that group of civil engineers trained under his direction.

Because of this large influx of federal money into road projects, officials from state highway departments across the country began discussions among themselves and noticed common problems and goals. In 1914 they formed an organization known as the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO) for "the purpose of providing mutual cooperation and assistance to the State highway departments ... and the Federal Government, as well as for the discussion of legislative, economic and technical subjects pertaining to the administration of such departments." [26]

The influence of AASHO was strong, particularly on the development of standards for road construction. Although the federal government had established a handful of standards in the federal-aid regulations of 1916, they were extremely minimal in content. Those federal standards stated that bridges, viaducts, and overpasses were to have roadways of not less than 16 feet, with clear head room of not less than 14 feet for a width of 8 feet at the center. This was one of the few occasions in which the federal government set standards for roads. Instead, the states worked together through AASHO to establish standards they all found acceptable, and they made adherence to the standards a provision of receiving federal aid. [27]

Contemporary road construction practice of the time included several types of available technology. Hot-laid asphalt was available for use and had been used in Europe and the United States since the early 1870s. The cost of using it on country roads, however, was prohibitive. Experiments with bituminous materials continued after the turn of the century, and penetration and mixing methods were both used. Even though the experiments were relatively successful, the emphasis in road construction by 1916 shifted away from dust prevention methods to road preservation methods. In the latter, wearing courses of tar or asphalt were built up over macadam, slag, or gravel bases. This method of construction followed along with Page's preferred way of working: creating a solid base and adding to the top of it when funding allowed. Under the Office of Public Roads the experiments were a good training ground for the engineers and physical scientists who later did soils engineering and pavement design for the agency. [28]


At the time that Logan Waller Page took control of the Office of Public Roads (1905) transportation patterns and methods were beginning to change. During that year only 78,000 automobiles existed in the United States, and nearly all of them were in the cities. Most of the country's roads were traversed by steel-wheeled, horse-drawn wagons that moved along at about 6 miles per hour. Automobiles, however, had started to push far beyond the boundaries of the cities at considerably higher speeds. The numbers of automobiles increased dramatically, too. By 1915 there were 2.33 million automobiles on the road, and that number nearly doubled three years later. [29]

As the numbers of vehicles increased, so did the interest in expanding their territory. The first time an automobile went entirely across the United States was in 1903 when Dr. H. Nelson Jackson and his chauffeur Sewell K. Crocker drove from San Francisco to New York. They were the first of millions to do the same. [30] Although Dr. Jackson and his chauffeur shunned publicity, word of their exploit spread quickly. As more well-to-do people acquired automobiles, they quickly adopted the recreational aspects of driving, and they began constructing a political base to support their auto-touring and road-racing habits. The Automobile Club of America, for instance, started as a social club of people who enjoyed touring in their vehicles and participating in long-distance road races. They worked hard at protecting themselves from any legislation that might restrict their driving freedoms. Another group formed just after the turn of the century was the American Automobile Association (AAA), founded in 1902. AAA furthered the cause. of auto-tourism and worked with the National Automobile Chamber of Commerce to standardize motor vehicle laws in the different states and to improve road access. [31]

The problem of providing some type of regulation for the ever-increasing numbers of vehicles was difficult. In 1901 New York began charging registration fees for automobiles, and it was the first state to do so. Although others followed suit, most states did not allow reciprocity in licensing fees. As a result drivers who traveled cross-country had to carry individual licenses for each state through which they passed. Also automobile driving regulations could vary from county to county in the same state. Rural areas often were notorious for speed traps that provided a large percentage of support for small town or county treasuries. [32]

By 1920 support continued to grow for touring the countryside by automobile, and the federal agency charged with providing technical support on roads projects — the Bureau of Public Roads — was starting to recognize the need for different types of roads. Often the early roads that had been upgraded from wagon roads to paved roads had rights-of-way that were too crooked and narrow to be upgraded to the modern highway standards of the time. As a result new construction of the period often adopted straighter lines (tangents) and more direct routes. At the time the Bureau of Public Roads distinguished between two classes of roads: those within parks that were intended as scenic roads; and commercial and industrial roads that provided the most direct routes between towns and cities.

The bureau at the time saw that the straight routes as being the most economical. A report of the period noted:

Where there are costly influences entering the problem that make it impossible or impracticable to follow the straight line then the alignment should approach the straight line, and become a compromise of line, grade, and cost of construction. [33]

The use of tangents was typical of the design preferences of the Bureau of Public Roads: directness rather than aesthetics.


Federal involvement in road construction started early in the 19th century, and part of money from the sale of federal land went toward building roads. Concern with the aesthetics and design of park roads and their impact on the landscape made tremendous progress during the 19th and early 20th centuries in the works of Andrew Jackson Downing and Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., who worked at blending roads with the landscape through a variety of means.

The establishment of a federal roads agency to provide guidance on road construction advanced the engineering aspects of road building; yet implementation of aesthetic concerns lagged behind. The most significant impact on roads at the turn of the century, though, was the development of the automobile. Because of that new machine, more and more people wanted to travel across America.

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