History of Roads


The development of roads for human transportation has a rather uneven history. Historical records document several roads constructed by the Assyrians to aid troop movements at approximately 700 B.C., and there have been other minor accounts of paved city streets in Egypt and elsewhere. The system of roads built during the Roman Empire is the first recorded account of the construction of a network of roadways. Rome was the first major civilization to develop a system of passable roads that would link even distant corners of the Empire. During its peak, the Roman system consisted of 11,000 miles of 29 separate roads throughout the Mediterranean region, some even reaching the Middle East and Great Britain. One of Rome’s most vital links, the Appian Way “Via Appia” (named for Appius Claudius Caecus, a Roman consul responsible for its construction), was started in 312 B.C., and measured 350 miles between Rome and present-day Brindisi in southern Italy. Road building was virtually abandoned after the fall of the Roman Empire until approximately 1800, as travel by water remained the most available and economical means of transportation.



History of Roads in America


As Europeans emigrated to North America, they found a vast, sparsely-populated wilderness. From the Appalachians to the Rockies, the first roads were bison paths, which were useful since they connected water sources and followed the most level routes. Early settlers encountered a network of Indian trails, which also used lines of least resistance, following mountain passes and shortcuts when necessary. Early colonists referred to these trails as “trodden paths”. Indians helped the American colonists blaze trails, which gradually were widened to accommodate wagons.


The oldest highway in America dates to 1673, when a post rider delivered mail from New York City to Boston. The trip took two weeks, but the route was improved and eventually became the Boston Post Road. Benjamin Franklin, the deputy postmaster, established a system of postal roads, as mail service was an extremely important means of communication in those days. Franklin personally toured the 500 miles of the upper, middle and lower Boston Post Road to mark the route with milestones. Eventually, a system of Post Roads connected the major cities in the 13 colonies.


In 1775, the Ohio and Transylvania Company, with the help of Daniel Boone, built a wagon trail called the “Wilderness Road” through a pass at Cumberland Gap and across Kentucky to the Northwest Territories. In one month, Boone’s party of 30 ax men cleared a 209-mile path through Kentucky. Other roads were built during this period. Over 175 turnpike companies were formed, constructing approximately 3,000 miles of roads in the early 1800s. One notable main highway, the “National Road”, also known as the “Great National Turnpike”, was approved by an act of Congress providing for an east-west road from Cumberland, Maryland, through the Midwest, and ultimately to St. Louis. The road started prior to the Revolutionary War, and was later improved and lengthened from the original “Braddock’s Road” in southern Pennsylvania through Wheeling, West Virginia, then further west to Columbus, Indianapolis, and ending at Vandalia, Illinois.

Due to politics and other factors, progress was slow and construction halted in 1852. However, for almost 50 years, the National Road was the busiest thoroughfare in America.




The federal government acknowledged the necessity of road improvements as the 19th century was about to end. The railroads had already reached most areas of the country, but could only serve people living nearby the rail line. In 1892, senator Charles R. Manderson of Nebraska introduced a bill calling for a National Highway Commission to study future road improvements. The measure was an idea proposed by General Roy Stone, who saw the need for construction of more reliable roads for both military and civilian purposes. The final bill ultimately became the Agriculture Appropriations Act of 1894, which President Benjamin Harrison signed into law just prior to leading office in March 1893. The Act appropriated only $ 10,000 and authorized the Department of Agriculture to study the feasibility of better roads. In October 1893, Agriculture Secretary J. Sterling Morton established the Office of Road Inquiry, the first federal agency responsible for highway improvement. Secretary Morton appointed General Roy Stone as its first special agent and engineer of road inquiry.



The Office of Road Inquiry (ORI) began studying different types of road surfaces early on, and established a road materials laboratory in 1900. After the turn of the century, General Roy Stone left the ORI and was replaced by Martin Dodge. More states were starting their own state aid road programs, while the US Post Office was soliciting congressional support for better postal roads. The Office of Public Road Inquiry (OPRI) continued despite the lack of federal support.



President Roosevelt got his opportunity to make his permanent contribution to the American highway when he signed the Agriculture Appropriations Act of 1905, which terminated the OPRI and created the Office of Public Roads (OPR). On July 1st, 1905, the OPR became the first permanent federal road agency, with an annual budget of $ 50,000.


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