Games Learning Resources Visit the Museum
America on the Move
Collection Exhibition Themes
Transportation in America before 1876 Community Dreams: Santa Cruz, California, 1876 Delivering the Goods: Watsonville, California, 1895 A Streetcar City: Washington, D.C., 1900 City and Suburb: Chicago and Park Forest, Illinois, 1950s Suburban Strip: Sandy Boulevard, Portland, Oregon, 1949 On the School Bus: Martinsburg, Indiana, 1939 Family Camping: York Beach, Maine, 1930s Roadside Communities: Ring's Rest, Muirkirk, Maryland, 1930s The People's Highway: Route 66, 1930s-1940s Lives on the Railroad: Salisbury, North Carolina, 1927 Americans Adopt the Auto Crossing the Country: Somewhere in Wyoming, 1903 The Connected City: New York, New York, 1920s People on the Move Transforming the Waterfront: San Francisco and Oakland, California, 1960-1970 Going Global: Los Angeles Introduction Grand Plan Stop the Bulldozers! A New World for America's Auto Culture The Interstate Economy See the U.S.A. Crawl and Sprawl Safety
16: On the Interstate:  I-10, 1956–1990

Grand Plan

Starting in the late 1930s, politicians debated and engineers studied the idea of linking America’s cities by a system of high-speed national highways with access limited to a few interchange points. The plan became a reality when President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. The federal government was to provide 90 percent of the funding—mostly from gasoline taxes—and each state would provide the rest. Originally, Congress called for 41,000 miles of limited-access roads designed for speeds up to 70 miles per hour, to be completed by 1972.

“Interstate Highway System and Turnpikes,” American Automobile Association, 1959
“Interstate Highway System and Turnpikes,” American Automobile Association, 1959

Beginnings of the System

In 1938 Congress requested the Bureau of Public Roads to study the feasibility of a system of superhighways. Its 1939 report, Toll Roads and Free Roads, was the beginning of the concept for the Interstate Highway System. Throughout the 1940s additional studies addressed the way new highways would support defense and economic growth. The limited-access design of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, which opened in 1940, became a model for future superhighways.

Blue Mound Road, Wisconsin’s first divided highway, 1946
Blue Mound Road, Wisconsin’s first divided highway, 1946
The first superhighways, like Wisconsin’s Blue Mound Road, were built in the 1920s and 1930s. Unlike the later interstates, travelers had direct access to businesses located along most of these highways.
Sign along Highway 40, now Interstate 70, St. Charles County, Missouri, 1956
With the influx of federal funding, states began planning and building new road projects. Motorists and truckers eagerly awaited the new highways.
Sign along Highway 40, now Interstate 70, St. Charles County, Missouri, 1956

Reworking the Landscape

The Interstate Highway System changed the American landscape. Workers cleared large swaths of land, demolished buildings, built bridges, and blasted through hills. The interstates would shape decisions made by individuals, governments, and businesses: roads dictated the location of housing developments, commercial buildings, factories, and truck terminals. Across the country, the interstates contributed to urban decline and suburban growth.

Interstate 10 southeast of Casa Grande, Arizona, 1967
Interstate 10 southeast of Casa Grande, Arizona, 1967
Early highways provided access to residences and businesses along the roadside. The new interstates restricted access to a few interchanges to keep traffic moving. Some motels, restaurants, and gas stations relocated near the interchanges. Others, bypassed by the new road, went out of business.
Construction workers on bridge, New Mexico, 1967
Construction workers on bridge over Alamosa River, I-25, north of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, 1967
Construction workers on bridge, New Mexico, 1967
Construction of East Portland Freeway (I-205) bridges over Tualatin River, Oregon, 1970
Construction of East Portland Freeway (I-205) bridges over Tualatin River, Oregon, 1970
Earlier highways tended to follow the landscape. The new superhighways cut wide, straight swaths through the countryside, flattening hills and bridging valleys.
Continue
National Museum of American History About This Site | Sponsors | Buy the Book | E-mail Signup | Credits