During the 19th century, cities usually had decent roads, but rural roads were often little more than muddy trails. Bicyclists and railroad companies began calling for good roads in the 1880s, but American road building really took off in the 20th
century as a response to rising numbers of cars and trucks. Some of these new roads were private initiatives, such as the Lincoln Highway, but after 1916, federal law and government money fueled much of the country’s road building.
Pamphlets such as this one promoted support for good roads in the late 1800s. The League of American Wheelmen—an organization of bicyclists—distributed about 5 million tracts calling for road improvements.
The Gospel of Good Roads: A Letter to the American Farmer, 1891
Washington-Richmond road, 1919
Washington-Richmond road, 1920
Washington-Richmond road, 1947
Roads that had been improved for bicycles in the 1890s were often ruined by automobile traffic, and dirt roads remained impassable for much of the year. Early cars—particularly the Ford Model T, which sat up high—were designed to cope with rural roads,
but roads had to change to accommodate cars. In 1904 only one-sixth of rural public roads had any kind of surfacing. By 1935, more than a third of rural roads were surfaced, and many were paved with concrete and asphalt for motor traffic.
Although the Good Roads Movement began in the 1880s, it continued into the twentieth century. In North Carolina, activists called for a hard-surfaced road network, built and managed by the state, to replace an ineffectual district-by-district construction
program. In 1921, the General Assembly passed a good roads bill. Supporters claimed that roads would help connect the state’s textile industry and local farmers to national railroad and waterway networks. By 1925, funds raised by a gasoline tax, automobile
license fees, and federal government highway bonds paid for 7,680 miles of improved roads.
Magazine cover showing Highway 10 near Asheville, North Carolina, 1928
With the influx of public money, North Carolina began to build roads to connect all its county seats. Improved road networks and improved road surfaces allowed year-round automobile travel to become a reality.
Like railroads, trolleys, buggies, horses, and ships, automobiles kill and injure people. In 1913, more than 4,000 people died in car accidents. By the 1930s, more than 30,000 people died every year. In an effort to lower accident and death rates, safety
advocates stressed the Three Es: engineering, enforcement, and education. Since most safety advocates—like most Americans—assumed that careless people were the cause of wrecks, early safety efforts focused on educating drivers and pedestrians, rather
than designing and producing safer automobiles and highways.
“Beware Little Children,” sheet music, 1925
“When you’re playing in the street don’t forget the dangers near With the noise of scrambling feet you can’t hear the cars appear And soon the little friend you loved lies in pain You may never see him again …”
Images of wrecks were used in advertising and safety campaigns and sometimes became a source of humor. Cars did not have turn signals, seatbelts, or many of the other safety features we now take for granted. Still, accidents were often seen as the
fault of reckless drivers and witless pedestrians, rather than problems with automobile or highway design