- Associated Press - Sunday, February 15, 2015

CISCO, Texas (AP) - Does the Bankhead Highway follow Interstate 20? Not quite, according to Dan Smith.

“I prefer to say it the other way around, that I-20 eventually follows the same route as the Bankhead,” he said.

Smith is a retired meteorologist and the author of “Texas Highway No. 1: The Bankhead Highway in Texas.” The spiral-bound travel book, published in 2013, details the history of one of the first transcontinental roads in the United States with pictures, maps and other information.

For roughly 3,000 miles the Bankhead ran from Washington, D.C., down through Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi before hooking up to Memphis. It slanted down through Arkansas to cross Texas, where a third of its length went from Texarkana to El Paso. From there it continued west to San Diego.

At the beginning of the 20th century, as the country got bigger and horses were traded in for Model T’s, people realized driving a car from one town to the next sometimes was easier in theory than in practice. What worked great on a four-legged conveyance turned out to be quite a different experience inside a four-wheeled one.

Groups such as the United States Good Roads Association sprang up. Building roads not only meant jobs constructing them, it also meant transporting goods from one town to the next without having to use the railroad.

Because of his role in authoring a 1916 bill that gave federal aid to states for building and maintaining highways, Alabama Sen. John Bankhead became known as “The Father of Good Roads.”

Smith writes in his book that a key feature in the bill was that states receiving federal money must create a state highway department by 1920. Accordingly, the forefather of the Texas Department of Transportation, the Texas Highway Department, was established in 1917. The state would receive $4.6 million to build highways.

“They quickly got busy and laid out where they would build the longer-distance roads in Texas,” Smith told the Abilene Reporter-News (https://bit.ly/1ybwuoF). “One of those roads, Texas Highway No. 1, was projected to go from El Paso to Texarkana.”

John Asa Rountree was the senator’s man on the ground, so to speak. Also from Alabama and a publisher, he organized the United States Good Roads Association and later the Bankhead Highway Association.

Rountree wanted the Bankhead to be a southern route for two reasons, the first being the most obvious: The nation needed an all-weather road that wouldn’t get snowed in like the Lincoln Highway that connected New York City to San Francisco.

The other had to do with the lingering effects of the South’s loss in the Civil War. Rountree saw creating an interstate highway system as a means of reinvigorating the economy of the South.

“Asa was a pusher and a wheeler-dealer, to some extent,” said Smith. “John Bankhead was more than willing to lend his name to the highway, thank you very much, and even be president of the association.

“Notice I didn’t call them friends, it was sort of a loosey-goosey relationship. But (Bankhead) was a politician, which is enough said.”

Rountree saw an opportunity for his Bankhead Highway when the Texas Highway Department began planning a route from Texarkana to El Paso and convinced the state to combine the two. By the early 1920s the road was completed and eventually it would take on the name of U.S. 80 after the federal government went from naming highways to numbering them.

In some places the road was paved in concrete, in others it was just dirt. But in Eastland County, as well as farther east in Fort Worth and elsewhere, Thurber brick was the roadbed and, in places, it has stood the test of time.

“The original, earliest route - the brick road - is basically still there all the way across the county,” Smith said. “I consider that a treasure.”

It’s along that route where Smith’s favorite stretch of the old highway can still be found.

“It’s East 16th Street coming into Cisco,” he said. “The original brick is still there. It’s got the curbing along the side, that’s pristine Bankhead Highway.”

Where Texas Route 6 curves to the right about a mile from the city limits, a distinctively deep red brick lane can be seen descending from a bluff where it joins the modern road.

“People in Eastland drive out of town this way on Commerce Street every day and probably never notice the bricks they are driving on,” he said.

The bones of the old highway still lie along the surface of the road, for those who care to look.

“When you can see the curb and the brick road right out here, you realize how old those roads are,” Smith continued. “They were part of the ‘Broadway of America,’ that’s what’s fascinating.”

U.S. Route 66 gets all the glory. Is John Steinbeck to blame for that?

In 1939, Steinbeck referred to the road in his novel “The Grapes of Wrath” as “the mother road, the road of flight.”

Steinbeck described the highway as the main artery of westward migration during the Great Depression. The only problem, Smith said, is the numbers tell a different story.

“When the Depression years came and all that business about Tom Joad and the family going west to California, Woody Guthrie and his music, they focused on the ‘mother road,’” he said. “When you really look at the data, far more people went west hoping for a better life on the Bankhead Highway.”

Both roadways were absorbed by nearby Interstate highways long ago. But where the Bankhead languished and faded into memory, Route 66 gained a second life.

“The folks that did all that restoration along Route 66 in Tucumcari, New Mexico, for example, got federal grants and other people to (pay for) all that,” Smith said.

Arguably the biggest reason for Route 66’s dominance isn’t Steinbeck’s pen but Bobby Troup’s road trip. Driving cross-country with his wife to California in 1946, the couple rhymed town names along the road after picking up Route 66 in St. Louis. Since then, his song “(Get your kicks on) Route 66” has been recorded over 200 times by the likes of Nat King Cole, The Rolling Stones, Buckwheat Zydeco and Depeche Mode.

But composing a pop tune about the Bankhead dead-ends once you rhyme Atlanta with Texarkana. But at least the road’s got a catchier nickname.

Back in 1929, people out west felt “Bankhead” was nowhere cool enough to describe their highway. Most people by that time were calling it U.S. Route 80, anyhow.

“In 1929, the good folks in El Paso got this brainstorm to raise more money and tourism,” Smith said. “They laid out what would be called the ‘Broadway of America.’”

The campaign was so popular cities such as Sweetwater, Roscoe and even San Diego name-swapped Bankhead for Broadway where the highway passed through town.

While it’s obvious the Bankhead and the Lincoln highways would boost interstate commerce, this wasn’t the only reason for their creation. Some in the government believed the clock was ticking for America.

In 1920, the Army organized a military convoy to travel the Bankhead. The year before, a similar convoy rode the Lincoln where a young lieutenant named Dwight D. Eisenhower began thinking about an interstate highway system that wouldn’t be built until he was elected president 33 years later.

“Visibility was a major reason for that convoy,” Smith told the Reporter-News (https://bit.ly/1Ajkabu). “Think about this, the Great War, as World War I was called back then, was only a couple of years gone.”

He reasoned most people had never seen a military vehicle, much less a convoy of them.

“All that equipment the taxpayers bought and sent to Europe had never been seen,” he said. “They loved that convoy as it went across the country, they just ate it up.”

The drive also highlighted the sorry shape of the nation’s infrastructure.

“If they learned one thing in Europe during the Great War, it was how bad America’s roads were,” Smith said. “The military needed the convoy to show just how bad they were, because everyone knew that sooner or later America was going to be invaded. We were going to be in a world of hurt without better roads.”

To commemorate that 1920 journey, on Sept. 19 a convoy made up of at least 75 vehicles from the Military Vehicle Preservation Association will attempt a second trip along the Bankhead route. Leaving from Washington, D.C., they expect to arrive in Texarkana by Oct. 1. and hope to cross Texas in nine days.

That’s a lot quicker than the month it originally took 95 years ago.

“Because 1920 was arguably the worst summer for rain in Texas history,” explained Dennis Boots, one of the coordinators for the convoy. “It took them 31 days to cross Texas because of the mud and rain.”

The convoy’s path across the nation will remain mostly true to the original Army route. The sights along the remnants of the Bankhead will be quite different from those of Route 66, however.

“One of the things that makes Route 66 so neat is all the neon and the glitz, the millions of dollars that have gone into restoring old motels,” Smith said. “For the most part, those places are gone along the Bankhead.”

Most of what’s left are in varying states of decay.

“If you’ve been through Strawn you’ll see the old Bankhead Hotel. That’s the most obvious Bankhead artifact in Texas, but inside it’s a wreck,” Smith said.

He mused that it might take a multimillionaire to spearhead restoration along the road.

“Theoretically, you could do that along the Bankhead Highway, certainly in Eastland County where you’ve got the old road there that can still be driven,” he said. “But why do that? You’ve got to have some return on your investment.”

___

Information from: Abilene Reporter-News, https://www.reporternews.com


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