The Good Roads Movement was an effort organized at the beginning of the twentieth century to promote modern roads and to push local, state, and federal governments to fund their construction and maintenance. The movement prompted changes in Alabama state law to ensure regular funding and the creation of a state highway commission in the early 1900s. It achieved its greatest successes in the 1910s, when the federal government began authorizing millions of dollars in spending to assist state efforts, and the 1920s, when the first of numerous long-distance highways were built in Alabama.
In 1820, following Alabama's elevation to statehood, the state legislature made county governments responsible for routing, building, and maintaining roads. Citizens could petition their county to build a road, and these usually served farmers who wanted to bring their crops to a river port or, later, a railroad station. Long roads of the nineteenth century, such as the Natchez Trace and the Federal Road, were postal or military roads built by the federal government that were rarely maintained, leading many travelers to complain about their terrible condition. With little money and almost no ability to raise funds through selling bonds, counties built only short roads and maintained them by requiring all adult men to work on them for up to ten days per year. Building roads meant cutting trees and pulling stumps and grading and leveling; maintaining them meant shoveling eroded dirt from roadside ditches onto the dirt surface. In the summer, roads were deeply pitted and dusty, and in the winter they were muddy and impassible.
The first incarnation of a "good roads" movement in the United States began in the 1890s, prompted by a boom in bicycling. The effort gained traction in Alabama after the state legislature rejected Gov. Joseph F. Johnston's proposals between 1896 and 1898 to centralize road building at the state level. Over the subsequent three decades, farmers, town boosters, politicians, journalists, professionals, merchants, postal workers, and reformers organized to convince voters to spend tax money on road routing and improvements. Wealthy automobile owners argued for "all-weather" roads that connected towns and counties in a network.
The North Alabama Good Roads Association, founded in 1898 by then-Congressman John H. Bankhead and publisher John Asa Rountree in Birmingham, was Alabama's first such group. Bankhead would be one of the most significant figures in improving transportation at the federal level, and Rountree became one of the most prominent "good roads" advocates in the state. Rountree's stature in the good roads movement began with his cofounding of the Alabama Good Roads Association in 1906 with John Craft of Mobile, John O'Neill and H. Key Milner of Birmingham, and Morgan County Probate Judge William E. Skeggs. They all wanted good market roads but directed their primary attention to a system of state highways paid for by state money and administered by a state highway commission. In 1913, Rountree organized the United States Good Road Association, the only national good roads group ever founded in the South. Three years later, he formed the Bankhead Highway Association to promote an interstate highway that would connect county roads from Washington, D.C., through the South to San Diego, California.
In 1907, Alabama voters amended the constitution to allow the state to support road building with state treasury funds acquired from leasing convicts to mines, mills, and farms. It was not until 1911, however, that the legislature created the Alabama Highway Commission, which provided engineering services to counties, map three major state highways, and help counties pay for local roads that connected with those highways. State Highway Engineer William S. Keller traveled and personally mapped many potential routes between 1911 and 1914, telling county leaders that counties completing their sections were more likely to be connected to the highway.
Ironically, as the state began mapping out its planned highways, other groups began calling for nationwide interstate highways. The Alabama chapters of the Daughters of the American Revolution, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and the Daughters of 1812 proposed an interstate called the Jackson Highway to honor Gen. Andrew Jackson. It largely followed his army's route from Nashville to New Orleans during the War of 1812 and the Creek War. Alma Rittenberry of Birmingham spearheaded the project. In 1915, she created the Jackson Highway Association, and, when it split in 1917, founded the National North-South Bee Line Highway Association. By 1920, more than 250 named highway associations had emerged.
Agitation for named highways was part of a strategy by good roads advocates to push the federal government into helping states build roads. This effort posed a problem because the U.S. Constitution allowed the federal government to finance only postal and military roads. Nevertheless, the federal government signaled its willingness to help states by creating the Office of Public Road Inquiry in 1893, and after 1903 Congress was deluged with bills to provide states with road funds. In 1909, Bankhead, now a senator, introduced a bill requiring the Post Office, the Office of Public Roads, and states to fund roads cooperatively. In 1912, he sponsored another bill that granted federal money to states for the construction and maintenance of post roads, and in 1916 he gained direct federal aid for state roads with his Federal Aid Road Act. Called the "Bankhead Act," this law provided millions of dollars in matching grants to states that pledged to build "first-class" highways connecting to neighboring states. Although World War I interfered with road construction, money and surplus equipment began to reach states by 1919.
Following the war, Alabama improved its road management capacity. The 1919 legislature reorganized the Highway Commission into the Alabama Highway Department, giving it a larger board of directors and more resources. In 1920, an overwhelming majority of Alabama voters approved a constitutional amendment to raise funds to match the federal money available from the Bankhead Act, but the state Supreme Court struck it down on a technicality. Counties contributed to secure federal money until Alabama even more overwhelmingly passed another funding amendment in 1922. Opponents did not object to improved roads, only to incurring debt to pay for them. The Good Roads Movement had succeeded in convincing the people of their benefit.
When the 1916 Federal Aid Road Act came up for re-authorization in 1921, it was opposed by a minority of legislators who wanted the federal government to build and operate its own nationwide highway network. They argued against a majority who favored giving federal money to the states to build their own sections of interstate highways. Alabamians fell on both sides of the issue. Rountree supported the federal plan, but Alabama senator J. Thomas "Cotton Tom" Heflin and Rountree's friends John Craft and State Highway Engineer William Keller supported federal aid to states. Congress rejected direct federal control of highway building and firmly established state aid in the 1921 Federal Aid Road Act, which provided enough funds for Alabama to increase its mileage of improved roads by more than 400 percent by the end of the 1920s.
Keller had published a map of three state highways in 1915 that became the basis of Alabama's federal aid road system. In November 1925, the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved the first of the numbered routes familiar today: U.S. Route 11 angled from Chattanooga, Tennessee, through Birmingham to Meridian, Mississippi; U.S. Route 31 bisected the state north-south, and its spur, U.S. Route 231, went from Montgomery through Dothan to Florida. The Bankhead Highway became U.S. Route 78 connecting Atlanta, Birmingham, and Memphis, and U.S. Route 90 passed through Baldwin and Mobile counties. Other U.S. highways were mapped and constructed as time passed.
The state continued to build its own road network, and counties did the same. As automobiles and trucks slowly replaced wagons and railroads for moving passengers and goods, Alabama changed its laws to provide more resources for road improvement and maintenance. In 1927, voters approved another multimillion dollar bond issue, and within the year the state abolished the convict-lease system, so hundreds of state prisoners were tasked with working on roads.
The Good Roads Movement effectively ended with the Great Depression, which slowed economic activity and dried up funds for
road construction and maintenance. But it laid the groundwork and established a system for funding and implementation of road-building.
Indeed.the good will fostered during the era of the Good Roads Movement made possible Gov. James Folsom's road improvement efforts during his two terms in office between 1947 and 1959. Many more years and changes in county, state,
and federal law were required to build the interconnected, paved network of roads today.
Grady, Alan. "Aunt Babe, Uncle Simp, and the Origins of U.S. Highway 31." Alabama Heritage 47 (Winter 1998): 8-21.
Olliff, Martin T. "The Most Famous Good Roads Woman in the United States: Alma Rittenberry of Birmingham." Alabama Review 63 (April 2010): 83-109.
Preston, Howard Lawrence. Dirt Roads to Dixie: Accessibility and Modernization in the South, 1885-1953. Knoxville, Tenn.: University of Tennessee Press, 1991.
Martin T. Olliff
Published June 23, 2014
Last updated July 9, 2014