Getting on the Map: Alabama’s Good Roads Pathfinding Campaigns, 1911-1912
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Getting on the Map:
Alabama’s Good Roads Pathfinding Campaigns, 1911-1912

In the united states, good roads make modern life possible. They allow relatively safe travel at high speeds on our own schedule and relatively inexpensive haulage of goods to places railroads and airplanes cannot go. Since the mid-twentieth century, “good roads” built of hard-but-pliable surfacing, engineered for durability and safety, and going to almost every conceivable place have been so ubiquitous that we notice them only when they fail.

In the early 1900s, however, such roads simply did not exist. How we changed our relationship with roads over the first thirty years of the century is the subject of my larger research interest, but this essay is narrower. It discusses the pathfinding tours of 1911 and 1912 organized by the Birmingham Ledger and other newspapers in support of the highway-building mission shared by the Alabama Good Roads Association (AGRA) and the newly-created Alabama Highway Commission. The newspapers’ tours sought to convince rural residents to support trunk-line highways in general and its proposed routes in particular, pressure county commissions to fund those highways, and get the Alabama Highway Commission to include the proposed routes on its legislatively mandated 1913 highway map.

These newspapers not only reported events but also made them into spectacles that generated excitement and made the papers into important good roads boosters. The Ledger and its collaborators [End Page 3] perfected a schema for managing the tours that made them easier to accomplish. They also developed a relatively new way to report the tours to make them more exciting. Human interest stories in 1912 replaced dull recitation of factoids in 1911 as reporters understood that the tours were not about automobile performance and technical details but about the people in the cars and their experiences on the road.

The Alabama press neither initiated the good roads movement nor devised the pathfinding tour. Almost thirty years earlier, national and state-wide agitation had begun in an effort to improve roads and road systems neglected over the nineteenth century. The 1911 and 1912 pathfinding campaign followed a decade of transcontinental trips and annual long-distance Glidden Tours designed to test automobile reliability but which also exposed the extent of poor road conditions. Even in areas untouched by the Glidden Tours, residents began to clamor for better roads. Alabama county governments had been responsible for building and maintaining roads since 1820. Impecunious, disinclined to fund infrastructural projects, and unconvinced that roads should link counties to their neighbors, county governments and residents built “farm-to-market” roads that extended only a few miles from the countryside into market towns and were suitable for slow wagons after harvest. While better drainage and surfacing with a sand-clay mix, gravel, chert, or oyster shells improved a few roads, many more were deeply rutted or so boggy in places that travel was possible only in dry seasons. While it is true that the federal government built long-distance roads in the nineteenth century for military or postal reasons, travelers over the Federal Road through Alabama often wrote about severe problems with road maintenance.1 Riverboats and, after mid-century, railroads provided most longdistance travel. [End Page 4]

Historians trace the beginnings of the nationwide good roads movement to the League of American Wheelmen, founded in 1880 to support pro-bicycle legislation and road improvements that let urban bicyclists ride on countryside jaunts. The League created model legislation in 1889 that favored bicyclists and road improvement, but no state adopted it. In response, the League began a public education campaigns that, according to Otto Dorner writing in 1899, “did much to lay the foundations for the Good Roads movement on a large scale” and certainly influenced the ways Alabama’s early good roads advocates approached the issue.2 The League had only seventy-nine members in Alabama in 1897, so it was not a formidable leader in the state’s movement. Rather, Alabama good roads supporters began to organize in 1898 after Governor Joseph Johnston failed to win legislative approval for the state to centralize road building. That year, future senator John H...