Posted by Acting Federal Highway Administrator Brandye Hendrickson
All week, we at the FHWA and the USDOT are celebrating Infrastructure Week with our state and local partners. This weeklong observance is an opportunity to highlight not only the significance of America’s infrastructure but the people who made it possible.
Those involved in the design, planning, construction and maintenance of America’s 4.1 million miles of roads and bridges are too numerous to count, but a few notables stand out. For example, though he is not known for engineering, President Abraham Lincoln is the only U.S. President to have a patent – for, of all things, a transportation improvement that expanded access to previously unnavigable waterways.
But among the contributions to America’s infrastructure, none are more significant than those of President Thomas Jefferson. While not an engineer, it was Jefferson who made possible our young nation’s first federally funded road project – what has since come to be known as “The National Road.”
Construction of the National Road began on May 8, 1811. Authorized by Congress in 1806 and signed into law by Jefferson, the road connected the Potomac River at Cumberland, Maryland, and the Ohio River at Wheeling, Virginia – which is now in West Virginia. Settlers hoping for better lives in the American frontier headed for Ohio, which had only recently become a state. By opening the door for thousands migrating west through the Appalachian Mountains, the National Road strengthened trade and communications lines from the East Coast to Ohio and beyond.
The National Road was the start of what was to become the world's largest and most sophisticated highway system. When Indiana and Illinois joined the Union in 1816 and 1818, respectively, the National Road was extended, reaching nearly 800 miles long. The road reached Vandalia - then the capital of Illinois - but plans to extend it across the Mississippi River were abandoned due to disputes over whether to cross the river at Alton, Illinois, or St. Louis, Missouri.
In 1912, the road became part of the National Old Trails Road and its popularity grew in the 1920s as automobiles became more common. In 1926, the road became part of U.S. 40 as a coast-to-coast highway. In short, though it has had many names, America’s modern transportation system is the living legacy of that original interstate, strengthening regional economies and connecting communities in each state.
This week, all of us at the FHWA encourage you to reflect on the massive infrastructure that gives our nation a quality of life that remains the envy of the world. The open road is an enduring symbol of our personal freedoms. America’s mighty superhighways, colossal bridges and a network of rails, ports and airports serve as the economic backbone of the free world, and keep us bound as a people. Infrastructure unites America.