Finalizing the plan
Changes requested by various entities expanded the network of U.S. numbered highways to 96,626 miles. AASHO had to act, adopting the Joint Board’s proposal (as modified) before additional changes took place. Over the 18-month period of disputes about the numbered highway network it had nearly doubled in length.
E. W. James spoke to the AASHO annual meeting, stating, “I urge the immediate adoption of the system as now laid out. It is not perfect. After 18 months of almost continuous experience with the work I am convinced that to leave the case for further consideration will not improve it. So far as it contains errors of arrangement or selection, the worst ones are due to efforts to meet narrow local viewpoints, and this condition has become more and more pronounced as the requests for changes have come from the states.”
He added, “The fact that 32 states have the work [marking the highways] far advanced indicates the reception which the plan has had and argues well for its ultimate complete success.” On November 11, 1926, AASHO adopted the U.S. numbered highway system.
The U.S. numbered highway system almost immediately made the named trails and their booster associations obsolete. The most influential of the trail associations – the Lincoln Highway Association – decided to end its formal operations on September 1, 1928.
AASHO made this statement in 1927: “Probably there is no single item which shows the value of federal and state cooperation more than the work of the officials of the state highway departments and the Bureau of Public Roads in the selection of a limited system of roads to receive national numbers, so that people may travel across the continent following the same number.”
The named roads legacy
The named trails and roads had a valuable purpose prior to the U.S. numbered highway system. Their remnants are now scattered across the map of the contiguous United States. A motorist can still travel on stretches of the Bankhead, the Dixie, the Jefferson, the Lee, the Lincoln, the National Old Trails Road, and many others. However, for many of the residents of the towns and cities they pass through or near, the origins of the names have often been lost in time.
However, the desire to name our highways has never disappeared. Maps show roads and highways that “memorialize our great men and women of history, our beloved heroes, and our valiant soldiers.” But while that is true, it is also true that the numbered U.S. highway system has endured for nearly 100 years. While the numbered U.S. highways are now of secondary importance to the Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways (which uses a similar numbering system), across the United States, the U.S. highways are known, understood and accepted. That is a tribute to the work and perseverance of the Bureau of Public Roads, the Joint Committee, AASHO and its member agencies, and to the men who were part of the original effort – as well to the men and women who have followed, sustaining the U.S. numbered highways as a key part of the U.S. transportation network.
FreightWaves Classics thanks the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library, the American Automobile Association, the Federal Highway Administration, americanroads.us, routemarkers.com and other sources for information and photos that contributed to this article.