This post originally appeared at The Infrastructurist back in June 2010, as an adapted excerpt from The King’s Best Highway. That fine site is now defunct and all its links broken, so to preserve the post’s posterity, I’ve copied it here in its original form.
The Office of Road Inquiry, seedling of today’s Federal Highway Administration, emerged from a feverish push to secure federal road reform known as the Good Roads Movement. In 1927 the Ford Motor Company took credit for this movement in the press. Such a claim raised few flags at the time, and it no doubt raises none today. Everyone knows the Model T changed the country forever. The notion that better roads followed a better car makes a lot of sense, which is precisely why it makes a great platform for revisionist history.
In actuality, the creation of the Office of Road Inquiry was authorized by Congress in February 1893. That’s more than half a year before Frank Duryea built what’s generally considered the first modern American gasoline car, and a full decade before Ford’s company even arrived on the automotive scene. In short, it wasn’t the promise of cars that inspired federal highway reform as we know it today.
It was the promise of bicycles.
With the exception of the National Road, the federal government didn’t concern itself with highway construction until the very end of the 19th century. Highways had long been local concerns, and most locales still subscribed to the colonial New England method of road upkeep: once or twice each year all the town’s men gathered on a few-mile stretch of dirt road with amateur tools—and, quite often, some alcohol—in hand for the occasion.
This inadequate approach persisted through the Civil War. In 1868 the Department of Agriculture released a report following a survey of the nation’s highways. “There is probably no public interest in which sound and intelligent legislation is more needed,” the department declared, “than in the enactment and revision of our road law.”
Strange as it seems today, the reason for the widespread neglect of common roads was the quality of the country’s railroads. Although “the railroads have not really lessened the importance of the wagon road,” wrote J.W. Jenks, a leading political economist, in spring of 1889, “they seem to have done so.” Steam engines ruled that day. Maybe electric engines would rule tomorrow. But some railroad engines, it seemed, would rule forever.
This flawed thinking was so pervasive that even the smallest request for road funding triggered sharp reactions by federal lawmakers. When a congressman from Texas noticed the line item that eventually led to the Office of Road Inquiry, for instance, he moved to strike it rather than please “a lot of ‘cranks’ in this country who are asking the Government to take the supervision of the dirt roads.” (Replace “dirt roads” with “health care,” and such a cry sounds painfully recent.)
The chief “crank” was an innovative businessman named Albert Pope. Largely forgotten today, “Colonel” Pope was an American entrepreneur of the first order. Pope first laid eyes on the velocipede—the ancestor of the modern bicycle, with a large front wheel and a small rear one—in 1876. During the two decades that followed, Pope’s Columbia bicycles not only popularized riding in the United States, but in many ways ingrained the idea of independent travel into the nation’s psyche.
Pope fought laws banning bikers from streets and parks, spending $8,000 alone to gain access to Manhattan’s young Central Park. As a riding culture emerged, Pope financed the publication of touring guides that fed the growing urge for suburban retreat. Soon city slickers shed crowded streets for weekends in the wilderness. Courtship habits changed, and fashion soon followed: ladies donned bloomers to keep from getting their gowns tangled in bike chains, causing a stir by exposing a then-scandalous bit of leg.
Several contemporary publications spoke of Pope’s cultural impact, but the boldest words were put forth by the 1900 U.S. Census. “It is safe to say that few articles ever used by man have created so great a revolution in social conditions as the bicycle,” the Census read. “Colonel Pope bears the undisputed title ‘Father of the American bicycle.’ ”
As bicycle outings surged in popularity, riders everywhere shared a common burden—hazardous roads. Soon Pope began speaking across the country about the need for good roads. “The high point to be aimed at,” he said back in 1889, “is the recognition of the importance of the whole situation by the national government.”
However logical such thinking seems now, it took years to convince federal lawmakers of their role in highway reform. Pope started magazines like Good Roads to bring the movement into the public eye. He donated $6,000 to M.I.T. for a new “highway engineering” program. Eventually he sent Congress a petition endorsed by powerful friends, including President Benjamin Harrison. Writing in Harper’s, Nathaniel Shaler of Harvard, head of the country’s first specialized road program, called Pope’s petition the last key step “to arouse the people to an understanding of the burden which their ill-conditioned highways impose upon them.”
On March 3, 1893, his final day in office, President Harrison signed the bill calling for the Office of Road Inquiry into law. Federal road reform had crossed the point of no return. Progress was slow, however. The office was given an initial budget of $10,000—a sum that could have paid to construct about three miles of road at the time. That is, if the office had been allowed to use its funds to build roads at all, which it was not. The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1916 did authorize funds for building roads, but only in rural communities.
It wasn’t until 1921 that significant funds, to the tune of $75 million, were committed to improving highways across the country. By then the automobile, led by the Model T, was dominating the world of personal transport, and Pope had been dead some twelve years. It was only a matter of time before Ford’s car was hailed as having “started the movement for good roads everywhere.” Sure enough, those words appeared in 1927 in the Hartford Courant—hometown newspaper of Pope’s Columbia bicycle factory, no less.
Michael Fein, author of the excellent book Paving the Way: New York Road Building and the American State, 1880-1956, has a very sharp review of The King’s Best Highway in the April 2012 issue of the journal Technology and Culture. He has some kind words for the book —
There is much to admire in The King’s Best Highway, Eric Jaffe’s “lost history” of the Boston Post Road (BPR). In brisk style, Jaffe whisks the reader in a tour of the signal events that have unfolded along this old route ever since the age of early British settlement. He has a strong feel for gripping anecdotes and the rich characters—ranging from John Winthrop Jr. to P. T. Barnum—whose lives intersect the road in intriguing ways.
— and closes with a thoughtful question: “What does it say about Americans that we look to the highway—with all that it conjures—and find our own reflection?”
Pleased to announce that The King’s Best Highway has received the 2012 Moroney Award for Scholarship in Postal History, given by the United States Postal Service. Glad to be among some great company. You can read more about the award, including a list of past winners, here.
This post originally appeared at The Infrastructurist on May 24, 2011; it’s reposted here in full, with that site now defunct, and backdated accordingly. Rolling Stone named it one of the best tributes to Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday. It has nothing to do with the Boston Post Road.
Today is Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday, an occasion that has inspired a variety of Dylan-related lists. Since Dylan often rasps about matters covered regularly by this site — namely, roads, trains, floods, and cities — and since, as those of you who follow me on Twitter know, the only thing I tweet about more than infrastructure topics is Bob Dylan, it seemed both festive and natural to join the jamboree with a list of Bob’s best infrastructure-related songs.
A brief introduction: Only those songs with direct titular and lyrical links to infrastructure were considered. So a number like “On the Road Again,” though nominally related to traveling, failed to crack the threshold because the song has everything to do with a repulsive household the narrator wishes to flee, and nothing to do with the course of the fleeing; similarly, a tune like the incomparable “Mississippi,” despite strong thematic ties to movement, fell outside the lines as well. Album titles in parentheses; except where noted, lyrics come from bobdylan.com. Now, to the list:
10. Down The Highway (The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, 1963)
In the liner notes to Freewheelin’, prepared by Nat Hentoff, Dylan says of this blues number: “What made the real blues singers so great is that they were able to state all the problems they had.” Dylan’s problem in this song is that his woman has left him, and he reflects on his down luck during a lonely walk across America, from the Golden Gate bridge to the Statue of Liberty, on the side of its highways. The trek itself provides his only sliver of solace: “I ain’t got much more to lose / Right now I’m havin’ trouble / Please don’t take away my highway shoes.”
9. Highway 61 Revisited (Highway 61 Revisited, 1965)
As both a road and a tune, “Highway 61″ clearly hits close to Dylan’s heart; he has only played two songs more often in concert — “All Along the Watchtower” and “Like a Rolling Stone” — and the actual U.S. Route 61 stretches south from his native Minnesota all the way to New Orleans. In the song the physical road plays a secondary role to the characters who convene upon it: from a rovin’ gambler trying to start a world war to Abraham and the seventh son. Rolling Stone’s recent countdown of the top 70 Dylan songs puts it at No. 14 and quotes the artist: “I always felt like I’d started on it, always had been on it, and could go anywhere from it.”
8. The Levee’s Gonna Break (Modern Times, 2006)
When Dylan released Modern Times in August 2006, a year after Hurricane Katrina crushed the Gulf Coast, some writers suspected the song could be a nod to the devastation. In all likelihood it has more to do with Dylan’s habit of commandeering old blues numbers — in this case, Memphis Minnie and Joe McCoy’s “When the Levee Breaks” — than with any attempt at cultural commentary. Still, many of the lyrics could serve as suitable captions to some of the images of those fleeing New Orleans: “Some people on the road carrying everything that they own.”
7. From A Buick 6 (Highway 61 Revisited, 1965)
The narrator of this twisted love tune might be addressing his “junkyard angel” from the driver’s seat of his ride — and then again he might be singing from inside the trunk. After all, he appears to be on the verge of both personal and automotive breakdown: “Well, when the pipeline gets broken and I’m lost on the river bridge / I’m cracked up on the highway and on the water’s edge / She comes down the thruway ready to sew me up with thread,” Dylan sings. What’s clear, at least, is how Ray LaHood would interpret the song: Fix America’s pipelines and bridges.
6. Marchin’ to the City (Tell Tale Signs, 2008 – Disc 1 version)
This track was released on volume 8 of the bootleg series but recorded during the Time Out of Mind sessions, and some of its lyrics can be found on that album’s ” ‘Til I Fell in Love With You.” Once again Dylan’s subject is a pretty girl who done him wrong; instead of hiking across the country like in “Down The Highway,” this narrator marches toward the city. The chorus suggests he has yet to arrive in town, but the random ramblings seem to fit the mind of someone walking city streets, and Dylan captures the strange solitude of urban life: “Loneliness got a mind of its own / The more people around the more you feel alone.”
5. Crash On The Levee (Down In The Flood) (Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits, vol. 2, 1971)
Dylan recorded a lesser version of this song in 1967 later released on the Basement Tapes, but for the greatest hits track he exchanged the overpowering organ for a plaintive harmonica and a mellow accompaniment. The result is a sort of confrontational lullaby directed at a woman being displaced by high waters: “There’s a crash on the levee / And, mama, you’ve been refused … If you go down in the flood / It’s gonna be your own fault.” In some sense the damaged levee reflects the gash between the narrator and the woman, who is challenged to both escape the flood and also find herself “another best friend, somehow.”
4. Dirt Road Blues (Time Out of Mind)
“Dirt Road Blues” is one of the more up-tempo songs on Time Out of Mind, but it cannot be called upbeat. On the contrary, it stays true to the spirit of Dylan’s other lovesick hitchhiker blues ballads: “Gon’ walk down that dirt road until my eyes begin to bleed / ’Til there’s nothing left to see, ’til the chains have been shattered and I’ve been freed.” Still, the actual tune (the only one from Time that Dylan has never played live) ends on a more hopeful note than the official lyrics would suggest: in the latter version, Dylan shrinks away from humanity, establishing a barrier between him and the world; in the real number he determines to walk on until he finds his love.
3. High Water (for Charlie Patton) (Love and Theft)
“High Water” describes a cast of colorful characters who have decided a bit too late to run from a flood: Big Joe Turner, Fat Nancy, Charles Darwin, and a lady who tosses her panties onto the dashboard of the narrator’s Ford Mustang. Dylan captures the mayhem of such a moment; the song is filled with images of destroyed shacks, lost possessions, and coffins sinking in the water like lead balloons. Some of his lines even work as a soundtrack to the recent flooding on the Mississippi: “Water pourin’ into Vicksburg, don’t know what I’m goin’ to do / ‘Don’t reach out for me,’ she said / ‘Can’t you see I’m drownin’ too?’ ”
2. Highway 51 (Bob Dylan)
Highway 51 runs north-south from Louisiana to Wisconsin (in Memphis, parts of it were renamed Elvis Presley Boulevard), passing along the way by the door of the girl beloved by the narrator of this song. As a result the narrator knows the highway well — ”Yes, I know that highway like I know the back of my hand / Running from up Wisconsin way down to no man’s land” — so well, in fact, he wants his body buried along it when he dies. Dylan’s inspiration for the melody was a blues tune by Curtis Jones, but the power with which he sings “Highway 51″ renders the song all his.
1. It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry (Highway 61 Revisited)
Dylan debuted the original version of this song, called “Phantom Engineer,” at his infamous 1965 Newport Folk Festival performance. In the Highway 61 version, Dylan wisely watched his speed; he rewrote the song (on a lunch break during the recording sessions, according to Rolling Stone) and emerged with a wistful tune heavy on the instrumentals and light on the lyrics — the four-minute song has only three verses. The narrator of “Train” rides a mail train and “can’t buy a thrill,” but by the end he seems, as the title suggests, as ready to laugh as to cry: “Don’t say I never warned you / When your train gets lost.”
Sunday’s Boston Globe recommends The King’s Best Highway as one of 14 books good for curling up in the armchair this winter:
In “The King’s Best Highway’’ (Scribner, $27.50) Eric Jaffe has performed a valiant rescue of the scattered stories of the Boston Post Road, which he boldly calls “the route that made America.’’ The original, of course, is really two main routes between Boston and New York — one that follows the coast and another that heads due west to Springfield, then follows the Connecticut River to the coast. In writing about either fork, Jaffe can send shivers down a reader’s neck by evoking the early years when the post road was little more than a barely beaten wilderness path.
See the others here.
In late November I gave a brief history of the Boston Post Road to an audience at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum, in Washington, D.C. The talk was webcast live but there were some technical difficulties, so I haven’t been able to post the video until today. Please excuse the rather abrupt transition after about the first five minutes — we were forced to re-record the opener, and experienced some predictable hiccups. Otherwise, enjoy:
This morning I talked King’s Best Highway on the Connecticut NPR show “Where We Live,” hosted by John Dankosky. You can listen to the show at the WNPR site, and download it there too.
I was joined by a great panel of Post Road voices, including Diana McCain of the Connecticut Historical Society; Chris Donnelly, Connecticut’s Urban Forestry Coordinator, who led an effort to plant trees along the road; Bryan Bentz, who’s exploring Post Road mile stones in Stonington; and Gary Denton, who is currently blogging about his post road travels.
I had the great pleasure to meet Gary a few nights ago when I spoke at the Boston Public Library, and corresponded with Bryan shortly after the publication of the book. Both are very knowledgeable about the post road — and I encourage readers to visit their sites.
Mark has a soft spot for the canal craze that swept across New England in the early 19th century—in particular, the disastrous Blackstone canal that connected Worcester and Providence—so a lot of our chat is about Nathan Hale’s successful mission to convince Boston to embrace an alternative, frightening, then-unproven form of transportation: the railroad.
Well played, Nathan.
Frank Juliano of the Connecticut Post has a nice write-up of my recent talk in Milford:
Eric Jaffe, the author of “The Kings’s Best Highway,” said in a recent lecture that the road known variously in this area as the Post Road, the Boston Post Road, the Old Post Road, Main Street and even King’s Highway was once, and for more than 200 years, the most important thoroughfare in America.
Two items of note: Juliano mistakenly calls the route through Durham and Middletown the “third” or middle Post Road, when in fact this was a branch of the main, inland highway that went through Hartford and Springfield en route to Boston.
He also writes that I said Teddy Roosevelt traveled the Post Road from Boston to New York in 1902; in fact, I pointed out that Roosevelt became the first president to travel in a motorcade while visiting Hartford.
I recently helped the Boston Globe “Ideas” section prepare an illustrated graphic of the Boston Post Road’s influence on the region over time:
To trace the Post Road through its history is to witness how important one connective thread can be to a growing region — and how it can still determine the shape of the city and state hundreds of years later.