The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways
By Earl Swift
Hardcover, 384 pages
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
List Price: $27
It started with mud, and manure, and Carl Graham Fisher.
Today, that name is virtually unknown outside of a couple of far-flung American cities, and it's not well known in those; but a century ago, Fisher was a regular in the sports and business pages of newspapers from coast to coast and, for a spell before World War I, close to a household name. He was a man of big ideas and the energy to see them through, and one of his inspirations was ancestor to the great tangle of highways binding the continent. Trace today's interstate highways back to their earliest incarnation, and there stands Fisher, pushing the idea while Dwight Eisenhower was still at West Point, a full forty years before he gained the White House.
When Fisher was born in Greensburg, Indiana, in 1874, the automobile's American debut was still two decades away. Overland travel was the province of the train. Look at any map of Indiana from the period — or any other state, for that matter — and you'll see tangles of thick black lines converging on the major cities; smaller settlements are reduced to dots on those lines, indistinguishable from those marking their neighbors, the size and character of each less important than its status as a station stop. Most of the old maps don't depict a single road.
They were there, but hardly in the form we think of them. The routes out of most any town in America were "wholly unclassable, almost impassable, scarcely jackassable," as folks said then — especially when spring and fall rains transformed the simple dirt tracks into a heavy muck, more glue than earth. In Indiana, as elsewhere, people braved them to the train and back, or to roll their harvest from their farms to the nearest grain elevator. For any trip beyond that, they went by rail.
Such was the world into which Carl Fisher arrived, the son of a hard-drinking country lawyer and his tough, determined wife. The couple separated when Carl was young; Ida Fisher moved her three boys forty miles to Indianapolis, where the boundlessly energetic Carl quit school at twelve and set out to make a fortune. He was bright-eyed, talkative, a natural salesman. And he was disciplined: at fifteen he landed work as a news "butcher," hawking newspapers, books, candy, and tobacco aboard intercity trains; at seventeen, he'd squirreled away $600, a goodly sum at the time, and decided to open his own business.
Choosing a line of work came easily, because for a couple of years Fisher had been caught up in a national craze for bicycles. The streets of Indianapolis, like those of every major city in the country, were busy with "safeties," the forerunners of modern beach cruisers, and with older, far more dangerous "ordinaries," which had enormous front and tiny rear wheels, and saddles perched as high as five feet offthe ground. Fisher opened a shop to fix both.
He advertised the business by spending a lot of time on an ordinary himself and developing a reputation as borderline crazy. He'd always been an athletic, daring kid, handy at walking tightropes, able to sprint backward faster than friends could do it face-on, and enthralled by speed, especially by the hell-for-leather, white-knuckle speed of an ordinary, which was essentially brakeless. On steep downhills, the best a rider could do was brace his feet on the handlebars, so that if he crashed, which seemed a good bet — the bike stopped cold, with calamitous results, if that big front wheel encountered an obstacle — he'd at least go flying right-side up.
It didn't much faze Fisher that he was half-blind with astigmatism and had so many wrecks that his friends dubbed him "Crip." Just climbing onto one of the machines gave him a thrill. Racing them was intoxicating. In short order he landed a spot on a traveling race team led by a speed demon named Barney Oldfield and toured county fairs throughout the Midwest. The shop thrived.
By and by, Fisher decided to branch into sales. Impressed with Pope-Toledo bikes, he took the train to Toledo and asked their maker, Col. Albert A. Pope, to make him the brand's Indianapolis distributor — and to help get him started by parting with a boxcar of bikes at cost. Pope agreed, which provided Fisher enough of a profit margin to give away fifty. He had a friend make a thousand toy balloons, then took out newspaper ads announcing that the balloons would be loosed over the city, fifty containing numbered tags that could be exchanged for a new bike. The stunt created a sensation. The sale of Popes spiked across the state.
Fisher was just getting started. He built a bike so big he had to mount it from a second-floor window, then rode it through the city's streets. Indianapolis ate it up. He announced he'd ride a bike across a tightrope strung between a pair of downtown high-rises and, against all reason, actually did it while a crowd watched, breathless, from twelve stories below.
Now a minor celebrity, Fisher put out word that he'd throw a bike off the roof of a downtown building and award a new machine to whoever dragged the wreckage to his shop. This time the police tried to stop him, planting sentries outside the building the morning of the stunt. They were no match for the budding showman; Fisher was already inside and at the appointed hour tossed the bike, then escaped down a back staircase. When the cops showed up at his shop, a telephone call came in. It was Fisher, with word that he was waiting at the precinct house.
As sixth-grade dropouts go, he was doing well. But not well enough to suit him: aiming to have the grandest showroom in Indianapolis, he called on another leading bike maker in Columbus, Ohio. George C. Erland was so charmed by the brash young man that he bankrolled Fisher to the tune of $50,000, a fortune then, and sure enough, Fisher soon had the biggest store in town, with all brands for sale up front and a dozen repairmen working in the back. It became a gathering place for the city's cycling fraternity — members of the local Zig-Zag Cycle Club, among whom Fisher had several close friends, and of a national organization called the League of American Wheelmen. And on any given day, the conversation came around to cycling's most urgent need: roads on which to ride.
A spin on even a safety bike was likely to be a jarring experience in the 1890s, when city streets were paved, assuming they were paved at all, with cobblestone, brick, or uneven granite block and snarled with carts, buggies, and horsemen. Outside the business districts, roads dwindled to little more than wagon ruts. In suburban Indianapolis, as out in the sticks, a sprinkling of rain could turn them to bogs; their mud lay deep and loose, could suck the boots off a farmer's feet, prompted travelers to quit the established path for the open fields. Some swallowed horses to their flanks; the unfortunate buggy that ventured down such a muddy lane soon flailed past its axles in the ooze. Even on hard-packed roads, mud formed dark rooster tails behind surreys, spattered long skirts, caked shoes. American business was conducted in mud-soiled suits, as were law, medicine, and church services.
And mixed with the mud was a liberal helping of manure, for city and country alike were dependent on the horse. The situation was grim enough in small towns, where the population might number a few hundred humans and a few dozen animals. It was far nastier in Fisher's Indianapolis, which despite bicycles and electric streetcars was home to a horse for every 14 people, or Kansas City, which had a horse for every 7.4. Boston's Beacon Hill, one observer recalled, had a "rich equine flavor."
Crossing a street could be an unsavory affair. In New York City, by one estimate, horses left behind 2.5 million pounds of manure and sixty thousand gallons of urine every day. That amounts to roughly four hundred thousand tons of manure a year — enough to float three Nimitz-class nuclear aircraft carriers and a half-dozen navy destroyers. Forget the smell and mess; imagine the flies.
Cyclists thus found their hobby not as pleasant as it could be, to say the least, and the League of American Wheelmen committed to doing something about it. A year after Fisher opened his store, the league launched a magazine, Good Roads, that became an influential mouthpiece for road improvement. Its articles were widely reprinted, which attracted members who didn't even own bikes; at the group's peak, Fisher and more than 102,000 others were on the rolls, and the Good Roads Movement was too big for politicians to ignore.
Yes, the demand for roads was pedal-powered, and a national cause even before the first practical American car rolled out of a Chicopee, Massachusetts, shop in 1893. A few months ahead of the Duryea Motor Wagon's debut, Congress authorized the secretary of agriculture to "make inquiry regarding public roads" and to investigate how they might be improved.
So it was that in October 1893, agriculture secretary J. Sterling Morton created the Office of Road Inquiry and appointed to head it one Gen. Roy Stone, a Civil War veteran, civil engineer, and vociferous good roads booster from New York. His appointment was the sort of circular affair — a lobbyist pushing for government action that he winds up leading — that wouldn't fly today but was business as usual in the nineteenth century.
Stone considered it "settled" that Americans "have the worst roads in the civilized world," and that their condition was "a crushing tax on the whole people, a tax the more intolerable in that it yields no revenue." Spending nothing on bad roads cost more than spending money to make them better, he argued, in squandered productivity, spoiled crops, high food prices. A chorus joined in. Prominent magazine editor and opinion shaper Albert Shaw noted that bad roads "are so disastrously expensive that only a very rich country, like the United States, can afford them."
The solution, Stone believed, was a national drive to improve roads financed with "very long loans," so that "a large share of its cost should fall upon its future beneficiaries." He had few resources with which to make this pitch; Stone's staff numbered two, himself included. His budget was $10,000. Still, he was ready with advice and data when the post office inaugurated Rural Free Delivery in 1896, which promised home mail service on roads passable enough to permit it — a mighty popular idea among rural farmers, who until then had viewed good roads and the taxes they required as schemes favoring big-city dandies on their bikes. He launched a program of "object lesson roads" a year later, in which short, scattered pieces of byway were fixed up. Locals reached these good stretches after laboring over unimproved roads, which made their merits all the plainer; their smoothness was broadcast up through a buckboard's plank seat.
All of this was background noise to Carl Fisher, who had a business to run and publicity stunts to plan. The shop survived the economic depression that began with the Panic of 1893, and racing remained popular; his friend Arthur Newby built a quarter-mile wooden oval on the north side of town in 1898 and managed to regularly fill its two thousand seats. But by late in the decade, Fisher was becoming a bit bored with selling safeties. New machines were gaining his attention, carriages and bikes fitted with lightweight gasoline engines. He tinkered with motorcycles, rode them himself, sold a few. And about the time the owners of another popular bike shop, across the Ohio line in Dayton, began to experiment with gliders and propellers, Fisher bought a three-wheeled, French-made horseless carriage, a 2.5-horsepower De Dion-Bouton. It was reputedly the first automobile in Indianapolis.
Excerpted from The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways. Copyright 2011 by Earl Swift. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.