History of the US Highway System

From Dirt Paths to Superhighways


. . . And I was born on the back seat of a Greyhound bus /
Rolling down Highway 41.

Allman Brothers Band, "Ramblin' Man"

[Old Style Mississippi US 51 Shield ]Route 66. The National Road. The Lincoln Highway. Highway 41. What do all of these have in common? They are all part of the US Highway system, the world's first nationwide network of numbered highways. It is an integral part of 20th Century American history and culture and has been the catalyst for much of it. Since its inception, this system has found its way into the American psyche and has been the subject of things ranging from songs and TV shows to being the stage for American innovations such as the motel or fast food restaurant. It has also been viewed as a continuation of America's frontier spirit as it enabled people to easily from one part of the country to another. saw the rise of the automobile that so changed the course of our history. It was also the system that saw California's wagon roads and trails evolve into the most magnificent system of highways in the world.

The US Highway System was created by the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1925 as a response to the confusion created by the 250 or so named highways, such as the Lincoln Highway or the National Old Trails Highway. The first was the Lincoln Highway and it revolutionized auto travel by taking previously disjointed roads and combining them into a more significant whole. It also introduced other innovations that formed the basis of the US highway system such as pilot sections of concrete road, showing the benefits of paved year-round highways. In short, these highways were the direct predecessor to US highways and were what made the latter possible.

The creation of the US Highway System represents the first time in history a nationwide highway system was brought into being, and represented the most comprehensive road system since the Romans. It is difficult to overstate what a revolutionary concept this was. Where named highways relied on their names and colored bands on telephone poles to be recognized, this new system would use uniform numbers for interstate highways and a standardized shield that would be universally recognizable; the early Mississippi US 51 shield at the right is all but identical to ones that appeared in California. The most important change was that this new system would be administered by the state governments, not by for-profit private road clubs. Many organizations routed their named highways through cities that would pay them the most or which had the most active civic boosters. Oftentimes these highways did not follow the most direct route and sometimes followed two or three. The federal government designated the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO - today's AASHTO) to be the umbrella organization to administer the system. Even then, people decried the idea of giving roads numbers since they felt numbers would make highways cold and impersonal.

The Automobile

At the beginning of the Twentieth Century, automobiles were a novelty that only could be enjoyed by the very rich. Most Americans continued to content themselves with either using the horse and buggy or another "newfangled" contraption - the bicycle. Longer trips required taking the railroads, which had revolutionized traveling long distances and changed the face of the nation. Even though it is hard to believe today, especially in California, it was generally thought the automobile would never catch on; after all, weren't bicycles and trains more than enough? Getting around in large cities was relatively easy due to comprehensive networks of streetcars and later, subways. The fact that cars were incredibly expensive and that there were other forms of transportation that could take one any distance meant that in the early part of this century, there was simply no need for a good system of roads.

During this time, the road system in America was anything but good. Most roads at the time were little more than glorified wagon ruts. Many followed old wagon routes and even Native American trails. Virtually every road was unpaved. When the surface was dry, they were passable. However, rain turned them into impassable mud bogs laden with sinkholes. Even today's four wheel drive vehicles surely would have had difficulty going over these roads. Roads in the cities were better, but not by much. For example, only half the roads in New York City were paved. The pavement varied from asphalt to cobblestone, bricks and even wood planks. Early bridges, even in California were built for wagons, not cars. While these roads functioned very well for horse drawn carriages, there was no way they could stand up to the wear and tear of the automobile

Above: This was typical of an outing on California highways
in the early 20th Century. This picture was taken on what is now
US 101 in Ventura County, 1913.

Henry Ford changed the status quo with his revolutionary production line techniques. He took the idea of standardization and applied it to creating uniform parts for automobile manufacturing. Previously, cars were manufactured by having one person or a team of persons assemble everything from the bottom of the tires to the top of the roof, which cost labor and cost intensive. Thanks to the assembly line, workers would specialize in and become very proficient at one area. As a result, cars could be produced cheaply, although a few sacrifices had to be made. Ford once said, "You can get the Model T in any color you like as long as it's black." For one of the first times in history, workers in a factory could afford the products they manufactured. The Model "T" soon became a common sight throughout the United States. A testament to their popularity is that over 16.5 million were sold, a record which was not broken until 1972 when the Volkswagen Beetle surpassed that mark. Needless to say, this created a huge demand for good roads.

The presence of cheap oil literally helped fuel the automobile revolution, especially in California. The California of the early 20th Century was a completely different looking place than it is today. For example, in Orange County, instead of a sprawl of suburban housing developments, there was a sprawl of oil rigs. Huntington Beach was a forest of these rigs, bearing more resemblance to modern day Oildale north of Bakersfield rather than a beach town. Southern California had a cheap and abundant supply of oil which helped make automobiles popular. Automobiles had a huge impact in the 1920s. For example boulevard stops, lane striping, traffic islands, stop lights, motels, etc were all California firsts.

The Concrete Breakthrough


Concrete improved roads from mud bogs into passable, all-weather highways as shown
in the photographs of the same section of state highway in Colusa County, before and after
paving in 1918.  From the First Biennial Report of the California Highway Commission. 

The invention of concrete was just as important to the advent of modern roads as the automobile. Technologies such as asphalt have been around since at least ancient Egypt. Many roads in New York City were paved with asphalt imported from Trinidad

The Rise of Named Highways

Lincoln Highway Marker

Colored bands like this were placed on telephone poles to mark the named trails.

At the beginning of the century, the supply of good roads was nowhere near the growing demand. Most roads at the time were little more than improved wagon trails. In fact, many of the major "highways" were actually vestiges of old trails, such as the Oregon Trail or Santa Fe Trail. There were paved highways, but most were cobblestone and almost all were in major cities. Good road organizations appeared to remedy this situation. The American Automobile Association and the Automobile Club of Southern California (they were separate organizations originally) were formed in California to promote better roads. Additionally, many trail associations were created to address the need of having marked interstate highways; this was the birth of the named highways. The Lincoln Highway, from New York to San Francisco was the first and by the early 1920s many highway organizations were formed which placed and promoted their own routes. By 1925 there were over 250 named highways, each with their own colored signs often placed haphazardly, a fact which created great confusion.

The Lincoln Highway was the first push toward an Interstate highway. It was a major turning point in highway history as it was the first continuous transcontinental highway. The highway was the predecessor of and the model for the later system of numbered highways. 

While the named highways greatly aided travel, several problems arose with them. The lack of a central organization to dictate the placement of interstate highways left the door open for self-serving organizations to "relocate" the famous named roads so they would pass through their cities.  More frequently, though, the lack of coordination between states through which the transcontinental routes ran caused confusion since the route was often not even straight. The need for a system of standardized interstate highways had evolved.

The Birth of the US Highway System

By 1924 it became clear that a single, unified system of highways was necessary. In that year, the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO, today's AASHTO) passed a resolution requesting the Secretary of Agriculture (the Bureau of Public Roads was in this department at the time) to investigate the possibility of creating a system of standardized highways. Giving highways throughout the United States a standard numerical designation was a radical idea but at the same time fit in with other innovations of the time. Several states including Michigan and Wisconsin already had a system of signed numbered routes and these were to be the model upon which the US Highway system would be based.

An interesting fact about the US Highways is that it was the states, not the Federal Government that actually built them. The system is so named then, not because the Federal Government built them, but because they were and are a nationwide system of highways. The government's involvement was in financing the construction and maintenance and providing guidelines and regulations for their construction. On the books, they are state highways. For example, in California, US 101 is funded in exactly the same manner as State Route 1; both are called "Federal Aid Primary" routes. The difference is that State Route 1 does not continue north into Oregon, whereas US 101 does. Even though the Interstate highway system is funded 90% by the Federal Government, their construction and maintenance is left to the states' highway departments.

In the same way that numbering highways would standardize highway routing, by the 1920s road building was also becoming a standardized process. Road building technology advanced in a logarithmic manner, allowing good roads to be built just about anywhere. Of course, by today's standards these roads are inadequate in all aspects, including width, sight distance, grade, etc. At the time, having a paved road going through places such as the Cajon Pass and over the Ridge Route was an incredible boon.

The Beginning of the End

The passage of the Interstate Highway Act in 1956 would spell the end of the California US highways as the primary highway system. The proposed system would supplant many of the US routes with divided Interstate highways, a fact that obviated the need for them. California, since the late 1930s had been pushing for creating divided highways and a comprehensive freeway and expressway system and by the late 1950s, many of the US routes had already been converted to freeways and expressways or were slated to do so. It appears the original plan was for the Interstate Highways to be co-signed and routed with their corresponding US highway and from about 1960 to 1964 this is exactly what the Division of Highways did.

Despite this effort, it was clear that there was no object in maintaining many of the old US highways.  Legislation was enacted that would change the face of California's highway system. One thing that was changed was that all highways would have the same sign and legislative number. For example, US 99 was Legislative Routes 3 and 4 but was Sign Route US 99. This legislation also eliminated over half of the existing US highways and renumbered and adjusted many state highways. Portions of US 99 became Legislative Route 5 and were signed as Interstate 5, while about half of its length became Sign Route CA 99 and was Legislative Route 99 in the books.

Almost half of the US highways in California were taken off the map. The list below shows their disposition.

More US highways were to be decommissioned or shortened, although most of them remained signed until their corresponding Interstate highway was completed. The end date for each is in parentheses.

Another major route renumbering occurred in 1972 that set in stone what the remaining US highways in California would be. The most significant item, to the US highway buff, is the elimination of US 395 south of Adelanto, which was replaced in whole by I-15E and I-15. It appears that initially (in 1963) there were no plans to eliminate any portion of US 395, so it would have continued all the way to San Diego with I-15 ending at I-10 in Colton. The State of California pulled off a major coup in 1972 by having unconstructed state routes 31 and 71 (slated as 6-8 lane freeways) designated as I-15. This meant that the State saved hundreds of millions of dollars by having I-15 transferred from an already existing freeway to almost entirely new alignment. This also meant that the proposed US 395 freeway south of Temecula could also be built with federal, not state dollars by giving it the I-15 designation. Consequently, US 395 no longer served a real purpose and was truncated.

In a decade, the face of signed highways in California changed dramatically. In 1962 there was but a handful of Interstate highways and 23 US highways. In 1972, only eight truncated US highways remained with over 20 Interstate highways either completed or well on their way toward completion. In no other state has there been such a dramatic change in highway numbering and highway types.

The Highways Today

I have traveled over many of the old highways in California and was surprised to find out how much of the old highways still exist. Some of these highways have been easy to find, such as old US 80 in the mountains east of San Diego or US 6, the Sierra Highway north of Los Angeles. In other cases, the old highways have been actually paved over or modified, like old sections of US 99 buried under I-5. Others, such as the old sections of US 99 that go through bypassed towns, have been swallowed up, transformed to match their surroundings. Many more, such as 99W in northern California, have been relegated to the status of frontage road.

No matter what, I encourage finding these old highways. As time and development march on, they are vanishing.


As mentioned above, seven US highways still exist in California. These are routes: 6, 50, 95, 97, 101, 199, and 395. Three of them, routes 95, 97 and 199 have remained unchanged while US 6 has been all but eliminated, save for a short stretch between Bishop and the Nevada border. The other three, routes 50, 101, and 395 have more or less been completely transformed into modern superhighways. Old alignments have mostly been bypassed and covered over, just as they had on the Interstates. Essentially, a lot of modern US highways in California bear little resemblance to their forebears and show the evolution of highway building in California. Modern US 101 Shield

The modern style US highway shield, in use since 1956.

The history of US highways is a reflection of the history of 20th Century America. In the 19th Century, the railroads shaped the country, enabling people to travel to and settle in distant places. However, in the invention of the automobile gave everyone unprecedented mobility. The US highway system, itself a reflection of the Progressive Era, shaped the nation by allowing easy access through standardized routes to all parts of the nation.

If you have any comments, or if you would like to give any additional information
please send mail to me at: casey@gbcnet.com.
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