Ike's Turnpikes

Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways

America’s early and extensive development of its transportation systems is what helped it become a true world power in the decades leading up to World War I, after which the United States took its place amount the global élite of developed nations. 

Development of America’s waterways into a commercial and private transportation network of rivers, lakes, and canals was its first public works projects.  Railroads came later. 

However, with a brilliantly Machiavellian idea in mind, President Dwight D. Eisenhower envisioned and executed the construction of the crowning jewel of America’s overland transportation.

And “Machiavellian is the proper word—the true purpose of the United States Interstate Highway system is not to allow Americans to move leisurely and efficiently from place to place.

The real purpose of the network is a military one.  It is designed to do two things: 1) allow for the transport of military personnel and equipment efficiently for deployment to any corner of the United States, and 2) it is designed so that the same highways, occupied by military personnel, can be used to cordon off any section of the country, no matter how large or small, to contain and suppress the United States citizenry in times of social uprising or civil insurrection.

various miltary vehiclesCredit: public domain
The great transportation expansionist movements (canal digging and rail building) were always concerns on the ground, of having the ability to move people and freight overland from point to point, efficiently and economically.  Up until the early 20th Century almost all travel on roadways (such as they were) was either on foot or by some conveyance using draft animals.  For such primitive and low-speed locomotion, plain dirt—hard-packed by the pounding of millions of hooves and feet over decades—was enough.

The invention of the self-powered carriage, the automobile (by the French, perfected by Karl Benz, and brought to the masses by the United States), made many communities look at their local roads.  These were rough-cut dusty paths in the summer, turning into treacherous mires of mud in the winter and spring.  Improved roads, made of densely packed crushed rock, became standard, creating a somewhat durable and uniform surface.  These gravel roads dominated the countryside for decades; later improvements to the basic construction materials led to asphalt and concrete surfaced roadways. 

However, early improved road building was financed by local municipalities for the most part. Some cities and towns had better-funded roads’ projects than others, and many areas of the United States still were connected by dirt.  Connecting the nation door-to-door was a problem yet to be tackled.  The federal government had yet to invest itself in the nation’s roadway infrastructure.  There was no federal money to aid in building the world’s first transcontinental roadway.  The inspiration and financial funding for the world’s first coast-to-coast highway came from a remarkable man who today no one perhaps remembers. Carl G. Fisher (May 1909)Credit: Library of Congress, public domain

Carl Graham Fisher (1874–1939) had been born for speed.  By 1912, he had been a former bicycle and car racer.  For a brief time he held the world land speed record over a two-mile run.  He was the founder of the Indianapolis 500 Speedway.  He was also a bit of a daredevil.  As a stunt to publicize a new business venture, he once rode a bicycle on a high-wire stretched between two of Indianapolis’ tallest buildings.  His money came from his business of supplying powered headlights to cars.  Early vehicles had no integrated lighting so headlamps were bought separately and installed, and were powered independently of the car’s electrical system.

It was Carl Fisher’s vision of a truly uniform, well-maintained roadway to span America from New York City to San Francisco, California.  He proposed raising money by donations to build such a highway, and he believed it could be done for about $10 million.  President Woodrow Wilson gave $5 as a symbol of his patriotic support of the project; not surprisingly, the notorious contrarian Henry Ford never gave a penny for the project.

The road would be a gravel one writ large.  By 1915, Carl Fisher had enough money—though well short of the $10 million project budget—to start work on his dream highway.  He needed something to ensure a steady public interest in the project, a name that would make Americans proud and feel not only invested in the highway but also to feel galvanized into fund-raising.

He quickly tossed aside obvious names such as the Coast-to-Coast Rock Highway and the Ocean-to-Ocean Highway.  He similarly considered, and rejected, the American Road.  Finally, he liked the idea of naming it for a beloved American and thought about naming it the Jefferson Highway.  But Thomas Jefferson did not hold the mass appeal for the average American then that he enjoys today.  Fisher rejected him and went with another, more charismatic native son.  He decided to name his new road the Lincoln Highway.  Although this name alienated many Southerners the planned route of the road was strictly in the North so Fisher had no worries about not getting support where needed. 

It is in the building and financing of this road that Carl Fisher’s brilliance as a business savant came into play.  As he watched it grow, he knew he did not have enough money to cover the expenses of every one of the 3,284 miles the road eventually covered.  He thought of a way to make it happen quickly and without his having to exert himself in fund-raising. 

Fisher planted what he called “seedling miles” of road across the entire length of his planned route.  Instead of starting in a town and building outward, exhausting his funds while leaving most of his road ending outside one major city or another, he took a look at human behavior and used it to his advantage. 

Most roads were dirt then, and Carl Fisher went out to the unimproved roads connecting two towns.  Then, along that road roughly midway between the two destinations, he built exactly one mile of his improved gravel road.  On its face, building unconnected sections of road in the middle of nowhere may seem absurd, but his brilliance was immediately rewarded. 

The locals, driving along the dirt coming upon that one mile of Fisher’s nice, new, smooth roadway, could be nothing but disappointed to leave it as the road reverted back to the rutted dirt way at the end of that miracle mile.  Soon enough, communities began raising money, issuing municipal bonds, whatever it took to get Fisher to attach their towns to the single mile in the middle.

Lincoln Highway (completed route)Credit: American People's Encyclopedia map, 1963

The Lincoln Highway officially opened in 1923, and the last work on it was completed in 1927.  Carl’s vision of building it for $10 million, though, was way off the mark—in road-building alone the project took up $90 million!  Additionally, another $50 million was spent within city limits improving certain streets that would be part of the Lincoln Highway.

America loved the Lincoln Highway, though, and Fisher went on to other, similar projects. [He was the creator of The Dixie Highway connecting Miami to the North.  This was not motivated for the public good, however—he became obsessed with the idea that Miami Beach would one day become a major resort, and he wanted to move traffic efficiently to get to it.] 

Early freeway section (Newton, MA, 1935)Credit: public domain

The Lincoln Highway, the spawn of Carl Fisher, remains to this day.  However, it is now called US Route 30 and it has improved much from its humble beginnings of dirt and gravel.

Major Mileage
Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969) perhaps had to be one of the least likely Presidential candidates and successors to the Office of anyone who ever held it. 
He was not a politician.  He had never held a public office.  He was not a lawyer or professional in another area of expertise.  Eisenhower was a soldier, a career soldier, and that’s all he ever was.  He never held a regular job after entering the military in 1915, fresh out of West Point (he was not a brilliant student – he was sixty-first out of a graduating class of 168).  He never served in combat during World War I—he remained stateside for the duration as a trainer.

Ike plodded through the ranks, serving as an aide-de-camp for General Douglas MacArthur from 1932-1935.  He achieved the rank of brigadier general in 1941, and then was given command in 1942 of the Allied forces in Europe during World War II.  He acquitted himself well as a strategist, and after the war he went on to become the president of Columbia University from 1948-1950.  During the Korean Conflict, he was named Supreme Commander of NATO forces in Europe (1951-1952).

America moved into a period of hyper-conservatism at the beginning of the 1950s and Dwight D. Eisenhower’s gung-ho, Johnny-go-to-war machismo was exactly what a Communist-fearing country needed. Dwight D. Eisenhower (1919 in Wyoming, on left)Credit: Eisenhower Library

When elected as the 34th President of the United States, Ike was the first President without a political background.  [And he was surprisingly not as conservative as his adoring public thought—he was a supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment, resurrecting it from limbo where it had lain for years.  It was one of the disappointments for him in two terms of office that the ERA could not get through Congress to go to the states for ratification.]

Eisenhower’s military career bred in him a concern and natural interest in logistics, the movements of people and materiél along a frontier or to hot zones where needed.  Having traveled the United States in 1919 in a grueling cross-country military convoy (along some of the same rutted roads that would later form part of the Lincoln Highway) he understood the importance of efficient transport.  The roads were bad, there were no clear directions to the next town posted anywhere, and if one truly did not know already where one was going, it was easy to get lost.

Eisenhower, calling upon the booming prosperity of the US in the 1950s and a resurgent wave of jingoistic patriotism, managed to propose a federal program to create an efficient, well-constructed network of highways designed to handle high volumes of traffic.  These roads would be part of a national, interstate highway system.early interchange concept (1945, drawing)Credit: US Government, public domain 

Eisenhower’s objective in this project, however, was not to create nice parkways for average Americans to go from their homes to nice vacation spots (as Carl Fisher did).  Dwight D. Eisenhower was a military man; the project he conceived was born of a perceived military need, and it was a military one.

Ike felt that threats to the United States would most likely come through its borders and from the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.  By networking the country with good roads, not only could military personnel and equipment be moved rapidly with little resistance in terms of traffic control, but the interstates themselves could be fortification points from which the country’s borders could be defended.

As a military strategy this is brilliant.  Effectively, Eisenhower was creating tens of thousands of miles of concrete frontier that could be readily reached, traversed, and occupied quickly as a first line of defense for the nation.  Nowhere is this more clearly seen than on any map of the United States outlining its interstates: both the East and West Coasts are spanned by an unbroken north-south strip of interstate highway.  The border between the United States and Mexico and all along the Gulf Coast similarly has an unbroken interstate barrier as a defensible position.

More sinister, though, was his desire (in the face of a perceived, though never-to-be, Communist threat in America) to control the population in the event of a crisis.  The political witch-hunt of Joseph McCarthy (the Wisconsin US Senator who thought “communists” had not only infiltrated the US Department of Justice but were literally hiding under every bed and prowling every schoolyard in America) set the tone for the second purpose of the US Interstate systems.

This second purpose is to isolate or otherwise segregate, control access to, and put down any insurgent populations within the United States’ borders in the event of a civil insurrection.  This meant, for Eisenhower, that not only could America protect itself from foreign invaders it could also protect itself from its own citizens if necessary by a policy of containment within the borders of an interstate-highway defined perimeter. 

The most casual inspection of any interstate map bears out this second purpose.  The roughly regular geometric blocks formed by intersecting highways, combined with the strategic placement of their interchanges, not only insures military personnel can move from base-to-base quickly, but that entire sections of the country can be contained, the population suppressed and restrained within that military wall if necessary.

You May Use This . . . For Now
There is a persistent myth that one out of every five miles of interstate is purposefully built as a straight stretch so aircraft may use them as runways.  This is false.  Although, in an emergency, many straight sections of any given interstate might be used as a landing site or for an emergency take off the sloping of the crown of the road, combined with its less-than-ideal material, grading, thickness, and smoothness of surface do not make it even remotely practical for regular aircraft use.  Furthermore, even the straight stretches have slight grade changes to ensure water runs off properly—taxi ways and runways are built much flatter and smoother and to much denser ground compaction requirements and material strengths than interstates.

The interstates were not originally designed for commercial traffic at all.  Tractor-trailer combinations were not allowed upon them until years afterward, and only after much complaining and lobbying for access. 

The interstate system remains one of the military’s most valuable assets.  Those who have been involved in a natural disaster or other civil situations (such as a major riot) where the military occupies the interstates, closing them off from public use, has observed firsthand the real purpose of that road.  Access is always controlled by the military, usually the US Army or local National Guard.  Under stricter martial law situations, occupation of the interstates by the US military will result in death by gunshot for anyone venturing aggressively onto a closed interstate.


Map of US InterstatesCredit: US Govt., public domain

The United States has its wonderful interstate system, now over 46,000 miles, with a total cost exceeding $128 billion (when an estimate was finally made public in 1991).  The average American traveling upon these smooth, pleasant roads that cut across open lands with little population in many places, likely never gives any thought about why that particular stretch of road runs for miles in the middle of nowhere when there are towns nearby it could pass closer to.  It’s because those towns, in effect, are the “enemy”, and they need to be removed from the interstate’s access points as much as possible.

In 1990 President George W. Bush, to honor its visionary champion, signed into law the renaming of the US Interstate Highway system to its official name today: Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.

Make careful note of the fact the word “defense” appears as part of the title; the highways are only there for Americans to use until such a time as the US military needs them for their own purposes.


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