At the turn of the twentieth century, good highways eluded most Americans and nearly all southerners. In their place, a jumble of dirt roads covered the region like a bed of briars. Introduced in 1915, the Dixie Highway changed all that by merging hundreds of short roads into dual interstate routes that looped from Michigan to Miami and back. In connecting the North and the South, the Dixie Highway helped end regional isolation and served as a model for future interstates. Tammy Ingram describes the role the Dixie Highway played in shaping U.S. transportation system as it is today in her new book Dixie Highway: Road Building and the Making of the Modern South, 1900-1930.
In trying to explain why roads—and specifically the Dixie Highway—were so important, she writes:
I have a hard time explaining to people why I write about roads. That’s right: roads. Highways. Routes. Thruways. Paths. Arteries. After nearly a decade of writing about the history of road building in the South, I know every synonym there is, but I have never developed a corresponding list of answers for scholars, students or, even worse, family members when they say, somewhat disingenuously, “Oh … roads? How interesting. … Um, why?”
So here’s a shot at answering that question, once and for all.
I’ve always loved to drive. My dad taught me how when I was 6 or 7 years old and then turned me loose with his old one-ton flatbed Ford when I was 8. With the tattered bench seat pushed all the way forward, I toured the back roads around our south Georgia farm with Scooter, my Chihuahua, perched on the seat next to me. When I was older (and legal), I ventured farther, this time with a stack of maps by my side.
My best memories are from those road trips – my first solo long-distance drive when I went off to college, a cross-country journey with an old boyfriend in his grandmother’s Buick Le Sabre and speeding across the Tappan Zee Bridge at 4 a.m. on the 1,000-mile drive home from grad school (when I looked to the left, I could see New York City lit up against the dark night sky). These days, I prefer two wheels: Along with my nerd posse – a small group of local chefs, photographers and videographers who let me tag along with them – I explore the flat, curvy back roads around Charleston on weekend motorcycle rides.
While this doesn’t fully explain my decision to write a book about road building in the early 20th-century South, I’m certain that it has helped me to understand how vitally important roads were – and still are – to farmers, businessmen, factory workers, schoolchildren and mere joyriders like myself. At the turn of the 20th century, roads dominated everyday life. They determined where people could and could not travel, as well as whether or not other people, goods, services and even ideas could reach them. Roads dominated conversations around the ballot box and the dinner table, but good roads eluded most Americans and virtually all Southerners. In their place, a jumble of muddy dirt routes blanketed the region like a bed of briars, full of dead ends and treacherous mud puddles just waiting to ensnare even the most careful traveler.
How did roads determine the outcomes of elections? How did people conduct commerce prior to a nationally linked road system? Ingram explores these ideas and much more. Read Ingram’s piece in its entirety at the College of Charleston Magazine.