Roads are so deeply carved into our landscape, so much a part of the scenery, that it’s hard to imagine North Carolina — let alone America — without them. It’s as if they have always been around, existing as naturally as the rivers and red-clay hills and tall pines.
Paved roads branch out like capillaries to every town, township, rural fire department, sanitation district, post office, and quick mart from Hothouse to Winterville. They frame farm fields and curve with the contours of the countryside. They climb mountains and span wide rivers with the grace of a cathedral. They let us get away from it all, and they let us come back home again.
Look at a modern road map of North Carolina. The state is identifiable not only by its long, lopsided shape but also by its tangles of red, black, and blue lines: the arc of Interstate 85 from Charlotte to Durham; the split ends of U.S. highways 64, 264, and 70 reaching coastward; the great stitching together of Triangle and Triad by Interstate 40.
Traveling by automobile through North Carolina these days is remarkably easy. Granted, it still takes about nine hours to motor from Manteo to Murphy (the state is more than 500 miles long), but a century ago, the journey in a Ford Model T could stretch for days. “It would have been a pretty rough trip,” says Walter Turner, author of Paving Tobacco Road: A Century of Progress by the North Carolina Department of Transportation. “I think they could have made it, but my guess is it would have taken three days.”
Sitting in his office at the North Carolina Transportation Museum in Spencer, where he works as the staff historian, Turner wonders aloud: How would a driver cross all the rivers? The Catawba? The Yadkin? There were few, if any, bridges. Travelers crossed rivers by ford or by ferry. And the roads were little better than wagon trails — dusty, sandy, muddy, rocky, devoid of signs, rife with risk. After a drenching rain, the roads turned to mush. Cars sank to their fenders in the ooze. Mules and horses often had to haul them out.
North Carolina, for a time, was where cars went to die.
Roads to nowhere
Before the 1920s, counties, not the state, were in charge of building roads, and they were sloppy at it. County crews used mostly clay, dirt, gravel, or macadam (crushed stone bound together with tar). The counties didn’t work together, so the state became a haphazard patchwork of roads to nowhere. “They didn’t always connect from one county to another,” Turner says in an interview.
By 1912, Turner writes in his book, North Carolina had roughly 48,000 miles of roads, nearly all of them dirt. Only 2,100 miles or so were surfaced with macadam or gravel. Counties had scant money for machinery, so making and maintaining roads was largely done with cheap manual labor. Prisoners on chain gangs performed most of the work.
Long-distance travel in those days was still firmly under the reign of the railroad, but the internal combustion engine was rapidly firing the public’s imagination. To drive somewhere on your own schedule, to escape the tyranny of the trains, to go where the iron and crossties don’t go — all this proved seductive for Americans. In a nation where mobility is considered a birthright, the automobile afforded unprecedented freedom to roam.
The lure of the automobile gained traction in the 1910s as mass production made the “horseless carriage” more affordable. But cars were not much good unless they had good roads to travel on. North Carolina, a thoroughly rural state at the time, puttered behind most other states in the construction and upkeep of roads. That’s why, in 1902, a small group of civic leaders banded together to form the Good Roads Association. They were fueled by the conviction that roads should bind us all together, mountainfolk to flatlanders. Their mission was to convince the legislature that the state needed to be in the driver’s seat when it came to constructing and caring for roads.
As the automobile shifted gears from rich man’s curiosity to everyman’s necessity, North Carolinians increasingly demanded decent highways — ones built with smooth, all-weather concrete or asphalt. And drivers were willing to lay down the money to get the roads laid out as speedily as possible.
This revving up of road ralliers ignited the “Good Roads” campaign. In 1912, Locke Craig was elected as the state’s first “Good Roads Governor.” During his four-year term, the legislature established the State Highway Commission, an acknowledgement that the state was duty-bound to blaze roads. By now, the number of cars in North Carolina was doubling every two years.
In 1919, the Good Roads Association proposed a bill that would develop a network of hard-top roads to connect all the county seats and principal towns. To pay for the project, the association recommended selling bonds and giving all the revenue from vehicle registration fees — not just a portion — to the highway commission.
Congress had already passed the Federal Aid Road Act, which set aside money to build paved roads across the country, but states also had to raise their own cash — a 50 percent match — to qualify for the funds. The association warned that North Carolina needed to act or risk losing those federal dollars.
The real horsepower behind the association was a woman from Hillsborough named Harriet Berry, regarded as “the best woman politician in the state.” She’d been secretary of the North Carolina Geological and Economic Survey, which worked with the Good Roads Association on how best to build highways. When her boss left for World War I in 1917, Berry became the acting director of the survey and, Turner says, was probably the only woman in the country so intricately involved in highway planning. “I think in 1917, she realized she could make the difference.”
For the next four years, she became a one-woman public relations dynamo and became known as the “Mother of Good Roads in North Carolina.”
“She didn’t have a dynamic personality,” Turner says. “But she was a great organizer. She did things like write press releases, organized petitions, influenced legislators.” She knew how to write, knew how to motivate, and knew how to hold her own in the men-only circles of business and bureaucracy. Today, the stretch of I-40 through Orange County is called the Harriet Morehead Berry Freeway. “She was someone who had a lot of integrity,” Turner says. “A lot of drive.”
That kind of drive was needed as a new governor took office, one who thought the state should take more of a backseat role in road construction.
‘Light into dark places’
In 1918, the president of the Good Roads Association, W.A. McGirt, wrote a letter to Gov. Thomas Bickett, who espoused local control of highway building and was averse to the cost. McGirt enclosed a resolution, drafted at the Good Roads convention that August in Wrightsville Beach, that listed 10 reasons why state government should be at the helm of road construction. To wit: “A complete system of State Highways will carry light into dark places, build up and improve the morals of our citizens, and induce good people to settle in our midst.”
The resolution spotlighted the unifying nature of roads, how they would make North Carolina one big neighborhood: “We must look beyond the County line. State construction and maintenance make for broad vision and high ideals. The West should be linked with the East, the North with the South, — we should know each other better.”
Despite this clarion call for the state to build, build, build, the legislature in 1919 rejected the “good roads” bill. One historian cited in Turner’s book reasoned that it was “an attitude which distrusted centralized and professionalized authority and valued local, non-professional control.”
It would be another two years before good roads advocates would get their breakthrough. In 1920, Cameron Morrison, a champion of better roads, was elected governor. History would christen him, more than anyone else, the “Good Roads Governor.” As Turner writes in Paving Tobacco Road, Morrison pledged during a campaign appearance, “I will use every faculty I possess to help put a policy through the General Assembly which will result in the speedy construction of a great system of highways.”
One of his first orders of business as governor was to reappoint the respected Frank Page as chairman of the State Highway Commission. “He was such an effective leader that people from all over the country tried to steal him away, and the legislature kept raising his salary so he wouldn’t leave,” Turner says.
Page joined Harriet Berry, Governor Morrison, and lawmakers in a series of meetings to draft legislation similar to what was proffered two years earlier: Develop a system of paved and numbered roads to connect all county seats and principal towns. The bill called for issuing $50 million worth of bonds (this was before the state required public referendums on bond issues) and levying a one cent tax on a gallon of gasoline.
Governor Morrison delivered a major speech to the legislature in early 1921, trumpeting the need for a new highway system as indispensable and worthy of investment. Newspaper editorials and our accelerating car culture only added velocity to the campaign. The General Assembly was resoundingly convinced. The House voted 102 to 14 and the Senate voted 32 to 6 to pass the historic Highway Act of 1921.
Despite such sweeping legislation, and the cost to taxpayers, Turner says it stoked little, if any, controversy. “People who had cars and people who had to travel, more and more they could see the very tangible benefits of what was happening,” he says.
In Paving Tobacco Road, Turner writes that in the 1920s, the state authorized an “astonishing total” of more than $175 million on road construction, including four bond issues of $115 million. The gasoline tax rose to five cents a gallon by 1929. “If that gas tax continued to increase, they were happy to pay it,” he says. “Because they saw that the roads every year were getting better and better, and it just made such a difference.”
By the end of the 1920s, the state had built 3,425 miles of concrete or asphalt roads and was in charge of more than 4,000 miles of less-improved roads. Look at a 1930 road map, and you’ll see something like the state we know today. The federal government around this time began numbering its own network of highways, the ones that crossed state lines, so road maps now displayed those recognizable federal shields. There’s U.S. 1 following its present-day course from Rockingham to Raleigh to the Virginia line. There’s U.S. 70 running from Beaufort to Morganton to Tennessee. There’s U.S. 321 shooting north through Gastonia to Hickory to Boone.
“The significant beginning was 1921,” Turner says. “But it took the whole decade. By 1930 we had an excellent system. We had connected all but one or two county seats and state institutions with 18-foot-wide concrete highways. That’s what made us have the reputation as the ‘Good Roads State.’ ”
In retrospect, it’s staggering to contemplate: the manpower and materials — the money — required to lay strands of concrete and asphalt on a terrain dense with woods and rivers, mountains on one side and enormous wetlands on the other. And look at us now: a state with sweeping bypasses and interstates that slingshot us at 70 miles an hour.
As public works projects go, few inspire us more than road building. You’re hard pressed to find much prose and poetry about dams or sewer systems, but bookshelves are heavy with paeans to the great American road. Roads are a defining — and enduring — feature of our landscape. They’re not age-old and natural like the rivers and hills.
But they might as well be.
Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in the July 2014 issue of Our State.