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August 14, 2007

Before the Interstates

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

From time to time I'll post an article on life in the era circa 1945-65 -- the Fifties, with a little elbow room on either end.

Why? Because eventually my generation will die off [Sniff] and I think it is useful for history that members of each generation leave some records of how things seemed to those living through the events they experienced.

Moreover, I'm definitely excluding reports by journalists, other professional writers and academicians. I can't say with certainty how reports on eras such as the Twenties and Thirties have been distorted by such paid observers, but much of what I read about the Fifties doesn't ring true.

For example, supposedly the decade was one of fear caused by rampant McCarthyism. Sure, there was the Cold War and the Korean War, but on a day-to-day basis, life was fun for many of us. When I mentioned this last point to an academic, he immediately retorted "But the racism! It was everywhere!" So I suppose life in the Fifties really was intolerable: I was a victim of various forms of false-consciousness, it would seem.

One thing about those days that wasn't so hot and that did affect me personally was the highway system in its pre-Interstate form. First, some background. The Twenties and even the depressed Thirties were the time when most cities in the USA were linked by hard-surface paved roads for the first time. Most of these were two-lane roads (one lane for each direction), often with little or no shoulder.

The situation in 1950 was roughly as follows. The population of the United States was about half of what it is now -- slightly more than 150 million, according to that year's census. The number of cars and other road vehicles was much less than half of today's count. Few families had more than one car back then and trucks were relatively fewer because long-distance land-based hauling tended to be by railroad.

The legislation that launched the Interstate system was six years in the future. Population was more concentrated in the northeastern quadrant of the country than now. Although four-lane highways tied some cities in that region together, there was a perceived need for a more effective kind of highway -- the freeway. (The term "freeway" refers to free-flowing traffic -- no stoplights or other impediments -- not toll-free.) Germany and Italy had some freeways in place before 1940 and people such as industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes had proposed a national freeway system in the 30s.

The need and the solution were first manifested here in the form of the turnpike freeway. Financing was by bond sales and revenue was furnished by tolls. The first major long-distance freeway was the Pennsylvania Turnpike, whose first section (along the route of an uncompleted rail line) opened in 1940. By 1950 other turnpikes were planned or under construction in New York, Ohio, Indiana, New Jersey and elsewhere in that region.

It was different in the sparsely-populated Pacific Northwest, where I was growing up. At the end of World War 2 the Seattle area had the following four-lane highways: (1) U.S. Highway 99, from Everett to Seattle, from Seattle to Tacoma and from Tacoma to Olympia at the south end of Puget Sound. (2) U.S. Highway 10 heading east from Seattle across the original Lake Washington floating bridge for another 25 or 30 miles to a point a few miles west of North Bend, gateway to Snoqualmie Pass. (3) Bothell Way, from northeast Seattle to the town of Bothell near the north end of Lake Washington, a springboard to U.S Highway 2 and Stevens Pass. And that was pretty much it.

Once one left city streets it was possible to zoom along at 50 or 60 miles an hour on stretches of the four-lane roads, which I though was just great. This was in contrast to the two-lane roads which tended to be slow-going unless one was in the flat, desert-like part of central Washington.

As nearly all drivers know, two-lane highway traffic is shaped by the speed of the slowest vehicles using the road. Faster vehicles zip along until they encounter the slowpoke. Then they must queue up behind and await the chance to pass, that chance dictated by the amount of oncoming traffic, presence of curves and other impediments to sight-distance, presence of cross-roads and other factors.

When I was a boy, every March or April the family would pile into the car for a trip to Longview, Washington to visit friends of my parents. City streets in Seattle and Tacoma and low speed limits kept the pace down; otherwise the trip as far as Olympia was seldom a problem. But the remaining 65 miles could be hell.

Please realize that nowadays two-lane highways in many parts of the country are relatively traffic-free if there is an Interstate highway nearby to siphon off cars and large trucks trying to get from one place to another quickly. This might give you a deceptive picture of what driving was like, pre-freeway. Back around 1950 you were sharing the road with just about everything trying to drive between points A and B, not to mention points between. I remember heading to Longview in 1952 or '53 when the Korean War was raging. Coming north was a large Army convoy -- truck after truck, jeep after jeep. Not only did it slow the traffic behind it, it held up southbound traffic because it denied its lane to passing: no gap in the traffic.

My rule of thumb is that, in the west at least, what takes a day to drive now on an Interstate took two days to drive on pre-Interstate two-lane highways with all the aforementioned traffic and the need to hit the brakes every time one entered a town large enough to impose a speed limit and the discipline of stopsigns and traffic lights.

In the middle and late 1960s, when the Interstate system still had many significant gaps, I drove coast-to-coast eight times. Before each trip I would study the latest available road atlas to select the route that would take me across the county with the least amount of that oh-so-frustrating two-lane driving.

I'll close with an anecdote. When the turnpikes came on-line it was discovered that some drivers were being lulled to sleep driving on the fast, smooth, impediment-free lanes. This potential danger was publicized in the press. About that time, June of 1956, we picked up our new DeSoto at the factory and crossed through Canada to Buffalo to see Niagara Falls and visit friends. The next morning we were off to Syracuse to visit a cousin, an Army officer working on his MA at Syracuse University. That was our first-ever turnpike encounter -- the almost-new New York State Thruway. We made it to Syracuse, had our visit and lunch, and continued east towards Albany. Sure enough, the car drifted to the right edge of the highway when my dad began his doze someplace between Syracuse and Utica. We got on the nearest parallel two-lane highway once we bailed at the next exit. He swore he'd never drive a freeway again -- an oath broken by the time we reached the Pennsylvania Turnpike on our way back west.

(Note: In a related post I deal with long-distance drives I've made.)



posted by Donald at August 14, 2007


"Sure, there was the Cold War and the Korean War, but on a day-to-day basis, life was fun for many of us. When I mentioned this last point to an academic, he immediately retorted "But the racism! It was everywhere!" So I suppose life in the Fifties really was intolerable: I was a victim of various forms of false-consciousness, it would seem."

This may be the most obtuse thing yet written on this blog.

Posted by: BP on August 14, 2007 10:46 AM

The 1962 Seattle World's Fair, Century 21, was held before the Interstate was constructed through Kellogg, Idaho. The two lane highway cut right in front of our family home.

What a great summer that was! Aside from the long waits to cross the street to walk to the Little League field to play sandlot baseball, it was enchanting to watch lines of cars on their way to Seattle.


The license plates. I was only eight years old, but I found it magical to think about how these hundreds of cars had started in Montana, Minnesota, Indiana, Pennsylvania, New York, Maine and other points east to make their way to Highway 10 and come through Kellogg, Idaho on their way to the World's Fair, and then back again.

That summer of the World's Fair and the two-way highway opened my eyes to a much larger world outside of Kellogg.

When the freeway went in, taking with it that Little League field, and Kellogg's two or three houses of prostitution, efficiency was gained, but a certain romance for this little kid vanished.

Those cars from far away whizzed through Kellogg rather than crawling through for my wide-eyed inspection.

Posted by: raymond pert on August 14, 2007 10:49 AM

Great post Donald - you brought back a lot of memories - I remember driving hywy 99 w/family from Everett to Seattle to see my granparents; as a 4 or 5 year old I liked it - it was full of things to look at - wax museums and restaurants or gas stations with airplanes on top of them; motels with some kind of roadside attraction (there is still a motel out on a stretch of 99 on Auroa Ave that has an elephant under the sign); when the interstate went in I remember feeling disappointed - nothing to look at but other cars and the planted tree dividers...

Posted by: Doug Anderson on August 14, 2007 11:06 AM

Thanks for jogging my memory, not half as good as yours, of those days.
Now that you mention it, I do remember the significantly greater number of Army convoys you would see, and be affected by trafficwise, on the roads back then.

I grew up in NYC and one of the great summer trips in the '50s was the odyssey, all of 90 miles, to the Catskill Mountains, or Ketskills as my family called them. You took Route 17 to reach Sullivan (Solomon) County: the Borscht Belt. The tremendous hurdle was the Wurtsboro Hill. This was, and is, a steady climb of about 5 miles at a 30 degree incline. Route 17 is now a six lane smooth paved road at that point. Back then it was a four lane rougher paved road, and I believe in some spots a two lane road as it climbed the Hill. Many cars overheated, more than once, making that ascent. You would pass cars pulled over to the side, whole families piled out, staring at the paterfamilias as he stared at the boiling radiator. Making the top of Wurtsboro Hill was an achievement! I guess this is more a comment on the quality of the cars back then than of the roads but the quality of the roads didn't help matters.

Posted by: ricpic on August 14, 2007 11:22 AM

Great post. Yes, for many of us, the late 40s and 50s were a good time to grow up. The Fifties were not at all grim, and were a time of great postwar optimism. The one thing I remember most was not McCarthyism or racial separatism, but the constant strikes of muscular unions. Labor unrest probably marked the era more than anything else. We children had road games to while away the time we sat in the back seats of sedans. One was the alphabet game. My brother and I would each take the billboards on one side of the road and then try to find every letter of the alphabet as we sailed by. Qs and Xs and Zs were always tough, but even they could be found. Another thing moderns don't realize is that there were virtually no motels, as we know them. There were a few roadside "courts" but mostly one headed for a hotel in a town to stay overnight.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on August 14, 2007 12:37 PM

I was a kid in the late '60s/early '70s, and the Vietnam War and Watergate didn't make much of an impression on me either. Not false consciousness -- just kid consciousness.

Posted by: Steve on August 14, 2007 12:45 PM

Donald wrote:

. . . I think it is useful for history that members of each generation leave some records of how things seemed to those living through the events they experienced . . . . I'm definitely excluding reports by journalists, other professional writers and academicians. I can't say with certainty how reports on eras such as the Twenties and Thirties have been distorted by such paid observers, but much of what I read about the Fifties doesn't ring true.

Benjamin writes:

Interesting project! I agree with your observations on how accounts of an era by academics and the "literati" sometimes appear to not ring true. My thinking is that there is inevitably going to be some over simplification in any one person's account and also that, as with any group, academics and the publishing community are going to have their own interests, viewpoints and obsessions.

By the way, in the New York City area, the inter-state highways were preceded, at least to a certain degree, by the area's "parkways" -- some of which date from the 1920s and have some, but not all, of the attributes of the later interstates.

Although I did get a chance to experience the pre-interstate era a bit -- my foster father used to love to drive all around the region -- my recollections are somewhat fuzzy though because I was just a kid.

One the differences between interstates and local main roads (two- and four-lane blacktops) that I recall noticing as a kid was that the local roadways, at least out in the countryside, were less likely to be lighted at night.

However, at least in the NYC region, even some of the modern day "highways" (pre-interstate, locally built "highways"?) were also not lighted at night! I recall a number of times riding home very late at night and realizing that we were almost home because the "highway" was changing abruptly from a non-lighted "highway" to a lighted one at, what I now assume, was the city line.

Not being a driver, let alone a driver who's been all over the country, I wonder if lighting is a pre-requisite for a "highway" being an interstate? I would think so, but then again I do remember in the mid-1970s being driven into Dallas from DFW on a modern highway one night and noticing, if I remember correctly, that at least for one long stretch, that the highway wasn't lighted and that the lanes were illuminated instead by reflective patches set into the roadway (which I assume is also a great money and energy saver, when feasible).

From a kid's perspective, one of my favorite local country roads, probably upstate, was one where the roadway would be twisting and turning in the dark and then there would appear, seemingly out of nowhere (from behind a small hill?) on the right side of the road, a small island of light -- a kiddie amusement park!

While the modern "highways" (the Garden State?; the Pennsylvania Turnpike?) didn't have kiddie amusement parks, some of them had beautiful, airy, modern (yet still rustic) restaurants to look out for.

And while this may have been true of both local roads and highways, I associate it more with the local roads: occasionally, for what seemed to be a number of minutes, our car would drive in the dark though a cloud of an all pervasive smell of burning rubber -- a nearby oil refinery? a skunk?

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on August 14, 2007 1:58 PM

Loved this post Donald! A real contribution.

I'm a boomer but a fair bit younger than you I think.

Great details on the road system.

As well, I agree with your meta point, the fifties and early sixties were a great deal more benign and less meanly or exaggeratedly racist or sexist than is now often portrayed. Besides, is everything now (other than the increase in wealth and technology) a clear improvement?

Posted by: dougjnn on August 15, 2007 2:21 AM

I have been through Kellogg, Wallace, and Mullen many many times.

Both "Lolita" and "On the Road" are road novels at the transition between the old slow system and the new system, but more on the old side. In biographies of the Beats, Denver was a distant, faraway place, whereas nowadays it's easy to get to but (for many people) only a speedbump on the way to the coast.

Posted by: John Emerson on August 17, 2007 5:51 PM

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