- “Kentucky Was Ignored Completely”:Governor William J. Fields, the Midland Trail, and the Numbering of Highway 60
Between 1920 and 1925, the nine million cars and trucks on U.S. roads ballooned to more than twenty million.1 Automobiles seemed to be everywhere. Good roads, on the other hand, were not. Mud was a never-ending problem. Bad or nonexistent signage caused drivers to get lost, and unpaved roads were as likely to dead-end as continue past county and state lines. That meant that in late 1925, when the country’s first national highway system was approved by a coalition of federal and state highway officials, it was widely seen as an important step towards bringing the nation “out of the mud.” However, when the new map was forwarded to the highway departments of the forty-eight states for endorsement, it was not well received in Kentucky. As was first noted by Lexington Automobile Club manager Frank Dunn, Kentucky had been overlooked.2 Among the country’s soon-to-be major cross-country highways, not a single [End Page 3] one was routed through Kentucky.
Within days, Governor William J. Fields denounced the map and then sought changes that would put a prestigious zero-ending number, specifically U.S. 60, on Kentucky’s major east-west highway instead of on an upstart road that led only from Los Angeles to Chicago. In the ensuing months, Fields squared off against the Oklahoma highway commissioner and Missouri state highway engineer over the coveted number, and their dispute entangled the Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) and several members of Congress. Other state highway officials voiced their opinions, and before it was all over the whole national highway system was threatened. Besides Fields, various officials and highways promoters in other states also challenged the new national highway map, but, as historian Earl Swift has noted, the “Kentucky disagreement was by far the toughest, and the longest-lasting.”3
Yet the battle waged by Kentucky officials to change the map and have U.S. Highway 60 traverse their state has not been examined in detail. Why did Governor Fields and other state leaders believe a highway number was worth fighting for? After all, the original route numbered 60, the road that stretched from Los Angeles to Chicago—later changed to 66—would be far more important than the Kentucky road that came to be designated as U.S. 60. At the time, however, all things involving highways carried enormous significance, and for Fields this particular battle was about state pride and economic progress.
In particular, many state leaders believed greater commercial benefits would come to states with major cross-country highways. Fields and other southern state officials like him were “highway progressives”—in the words of historian Howard Lawrence Preston, “business-minded southerners [who] were able to transform the good roads movement from an effort to construct rural farm-to-market roads into a well-funded, highly visible, and sustained effort to build tourist highways.”4 In the modern age of the automobile, Fields and [End Page 4] other Kentucky leaders did not want their state to be left behind.
For a state like Kentucky, the issue of better roads was no small thing in the 1920s. In 1915, there were twenty thousand cars registered in Kentucky; by 1921, there were 127,000.5 By 1925, the year that the national highway map was created, there were over 233,000 registered motor vehicles in the state.6 Yet, travel, whether with an automobile or team and wagon, was an ordeal. Outside of the cities—and a higher percentage of rural Americans owned cars than urbanites—roads were dusty and rutted in warm weather, frozen and rutted in mid-winter, and deep quagmires of mud the rest of the time.7 Getting from one place to another required that drivers have tools, spare tires, and a willingness to call on local farmers to help pull stuck cars out of the mud or back onto the track.8
Kentucky organized a state highway commission in 1912. In 1914, to further promote better roads, Kentucky highway officials, along with those from the various...