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The Bankhead Highway -- Broadway of America

A long highway with a famous past remains hidden in the Lone Star State. Although it has changed names many times, it is remembered as the "Route 66 of the South." It was originally designated the Bankhead Highway, and carried travelers from Washington, DC to San Diego, California. After the Lincoln Highway, it was the second largest highway project undertaken in the early twentieth century.

Once nicknamed the "Broadway of America," it was the first true interstate highway in the United States. It is the main street of many cities and towns, and to this day retains its original name in some areas. More famous roadways such as Route 66 have come and gone, and have been replaced by modern interstates. Yet it is still possible to traverse most of the original route of the Bankhead Highway in Texas.

This coast-to-coast highway idea began through a group of citizens and politicians, known as the Good Roads Movement. Officials in the automotive industry also were active in the movement, lobbying for a means to make their products more usable. Due to the poor condition of roads in most rural areas, long-distance travel across the U.S. was difficult, if not impossible for most Americans. Trains were always reliable, but did not have routes to every location where people did business. As automobiles became more affordable, the need for better roads came to the forefront of public awareness. The Good Roads Movement was embraced by most, especially farmers, who needed reliable roads to transport their goods to market.

An effort spearheaded by Senator John Hollis Bankhead of Alabama brought the highway into reality when his bill was approved by the Senate and House of Representatives, then signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson as the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916. Although slowed by the country's involvement in World War I, the project gained momentum and sections of the highway began to appear across the states. Hundreds of miles of roadway were built in the 1920's, and many people were rescued from devastating poverty during the Depression by working on the Bankhead Highway. Bricks manufactured in Thurber were used to pave parts of the highway.

On the Texas segment, going from east to west, travelers would pass through Texarkana, Mt. Vernon, Terrell, Dallas, Fort Worth, Mineral Wells, Abilene, Midland, and El Paso. Commerce developed at all points in between, thanks to easy access provided by the highway. Businesses sprang up overnight to cater to the needs of millions of people who passed through on their way to somewhere. By the 1940's along the Bankhead, every town's main street stretched from sea to sea.

Capacity issues eventually doomed the famous highway. Two-lane roads were not designed to handle the increased traffic in postwar America of the 1940's and 50's. With passage of the Interstate Highway Act of 1956, older highways soon became less traveled. As traffic decreased, so did the commerce it brought to many towns across the country. Businesses closed, and people moved to more populous areas with greater opportunities for careers and success. Such is progress.

The Bankhead Highway lives on, at least in many parts of the South. Recent interest in travel and roadside nostalgia has partly revived some thoroughfares, such as the Dixie Highway and Route 66. People gather to reminisce about times when things didn't move quite so fast. Others gaze at transportation museum exhibits and remember things as they once were. For the Bankhead Highway, it is business as usual. Renamed Highway 80 then U.S. 180 in most areas of Texas, it is still a thriving and necessary part of life, still a "Broadway" for many Texas towns.

©2004 Joe Defazio


Sources: U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration; Texas Forest Trail Region.