It's easy to take interstate highways for granted these days. Sometimes we even associating them with traffic, ugly construction, and even lower quality of life. But there was a time when the lack of a freeway system kept people and things from getting where they were supposed to go.

It wasn't until after Congress passed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 that interstate building was off to the races, so to speak. The legislation, also known as the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act, sparked a 35-year infrastructure project that transformed America from a collection of remote hamlets into the interconnected superpower it is today.


Think about it. When was the last time you drove any long distance without traveling most of the way on the freeway? The interstate system affects everything we do, especially since most of the country's goods move by truck. Without the 47,000-mile-long network of pavement criss-crossing the country, it's doubtful the U.S. economy would be where it is today.

Naturally, freeway projects weren't without opposition. Since this film was sponsored by asphalt-producing Dow Chemical, the pros win out over the cons by the time the end credits roll. But people had legitimate concerns about the installation of freeways near their towns — many of which turned out to be actual problems as the years wore on. Freeways isolated some communities from commerce, divided others, facilitated urban sprawl, and had unforeseen wildlife habitat impacts.

On the other hand, driving from coast to coast now takes a matter of days rather than weeks. Shipping goods by truck is cheaper than loading them on trains. Plus, as the military found out during World War I, it's difficult or impossible to mobilize the men and materiel needed for a massive war effort using only rails.


Perhaps the biggest champion of the interstate highway system was the guy it's named after: former President Dwight D. Eisenhower. During his presidency, the retired Supreme Allied Commander's memories of the German Autobahn were still pretty fresh. He had also been one of the officers who led an army truck convoy on a grueling slog across America's dubious network of unpaved roadways in 1919. With more than 300 men in 81 vehicles, the party took 573 and a half hours to travel 3,250 miles, spread over 56 days. As they wound their way from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco, they experienced 21 injuries and dozens of breakdowns and accidents. I recently made the same trip, and it only took me four days — sans injuries and breakdowns — thanks to thousands of miles of smooth interstate tarmac.


So even though it may be a little heart rending to see the same crappy chain stores at bleak, who-cares service clusters near truck stops in the middle of nowhere, those mom and pop joints in the small towns the freeways forgot died so that we could travel farther faster. This old film touches upon that, and it also gives you a good idea about how public meetings for development projects work. I used to cover municipal government meetings in Santa Barbara, Calif., and that's how a lot of the meetings went: the developer tells people why the project will make life better, his opponents (often) indignantly rattle off their reasons for not wanting it, and, more often than not, whatever it is ends up getting built anyway eventually. Who's to say whether it's right or wrong. All we do know is that generations later, people will have gotten used to it and, maybe, will have come to rely upon it.

Such is the case with interstate highways. So next time you're on a long road trip or cross-country move, consider what your travels would be like without those massive ribbons of asphalt. I-90, I-70, I-10, and many of the other long interstate routes are only a couple of decades old — and cross some otherwise difficult-to-traverse terrain — so that concept might not be too difficult for some of you to conjure.


Photo credit: Associated Press; Benjamin Preston

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