'Big Roads': From Tire-Killing Paths To Superhighways Every day, Americans travel on the largest public works project in history. Author Earl Swift tells the story of America's interstate highway system in his new book, The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers who Created the American Superhighways.
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'Big Roads': From Tire-Killing Paths To Superhighways

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'Big Roads': From Tire-Killing Paths To Superhighways

'Big Roads': From Tire-Killing Paths To Superhighways

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GUY RAZ, host: Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Our book today, "The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the American Superhighways." Author Earl Swift chronicle's the drama behind the huge project to build the interstate system, a system that was actually completed over six decades; the last part put in place just a few years ago.

And here's another thing you might find surprising. Earl Swift says the construction of the U.S. interstate system was the largest public works project in world history; bigger than the Panama Canal, more challenging, even, than the Egyptian pyramids.

EARL SWIFT: If you were to take all of the concrete that was poured in the interstate, you would be able to fill the Louisiana Superdome 64 times to the rafters...

RAZ: Wow.

SWIFT: ...of concrete, 300 million cubic yards. You could probably come close to paving Massachusetts with that.

RAZ: Earl Swift, there are five characters, main characters in this book. Among those five main characters, there is one, I thought, glaring omission, but I guess not, Dwight Eisenhower. This is the Dwight Eisenhower Interstate system. I mean, you go on interstates all over the country and you see those five stars, symbolizing, of course, his five stars. He was a general. And everyone thinks Dwight Eisenhower, Father of the American Interstate Highway system. That's not true.

SWIFT: Well, I thought the same thing. And it's a myth that has been perpetuated not only by the late historians, but was by Eisenhower himself. He did a casual autobiography called "At Ease: Stories I Tell My Friends." And he repeats the story that two events in his life inspired him to get behind the Interstate Highway System.

And those two events were a coast-to-coast trip he made as a young Army officer, and then later, when he was leading the advance across Europe towards Berlin in World War II, his first encounter with the autobahns.

RAZ: So he - even says he was inspired to pursue this for the United States because of these two pivotal moments in his life, but in fact, this is a system that is actually begun long before Eisenhower ever becomes president.

SWIFT: Oh, it was a done deal before he even decided to run for public office.

RAZ: In fact, you say that Franklin Roosevelt should really be considered the Father of the Interstate System, if you are going to talk about a president.

SWIFT: Right. If you're going to put it in the White House, then absolutely FDR requested the report that really was the blueprint for what we got. And in effect, the way he requested the report speaks to his role in the thing, too, because he took a map of the United States and with a blue pen drew six lines on it and then handed it to Thomas McDonald, this bureaucrat, and said...

RAZ: And he said let's do it.

SWIFT: Yeah. See if you can make this work.

RAZ: I want to go back earlier than that. First of all, describe what it was like. If you wanted to take a long-distance road trip before the interstate system was built, what would you have to pack? What would you have to bring?

SWIFT: Well, if you were to do it in, say, 1910, you'd have to set aside about a week for the journey. You'd bring along planks of wood because you would undoubtedly get mired in mud, and you'd have to use this wood to help extricate yourself. Some pretty stout rope, multiple spare tires, because back in the day, driving meant changing tires on almost every trip out. Just keeping the car running would've taken half of a garage's worth of tools.

RAZ: Earl, you talk about some of these pioneers, these people who made this system of arteries sort of all across and to all corners of America possible, and it starts with somebody named Carl Fischer. Tell me about him. Who was he?

SWIFT: Carl Fischer was a sixth grade dropout who grew up in Indianapolis, became enamored of bicycles, opened a bike shop, gradually became bored with bikes, and when the first horseless carriages turned up at the turn of the century, moved into...

RAZ: Motorized cars, obviously. Yeah.

SWIFT: Mm-hmm - moved into selling those and was by reputation the first guy in Indianapolis to have a car. And he did very well with it. And to make a long story short, he became frustrated with the state of roads in and around Indianapolis, and he proposed to her group of automaker friends they finance a coast-to-coast highway from New York to San Francisco. And he got it done.

RAZ: You write about somebody else named Benton MacKaye, who I guess was sort of responsible for not only coming up with the superhighways, the four-lane superhighways, but also the Appalachian Trail.

SWIFT: Yeah. It is. It's strange that the guy who was among the first inspirations for limited access expressways also inspired the trail to get away from them. But MacKaye was one of a number of visionaries who in the early '30s contributed pieces of what we now know as the interstates. He came up with the first idea that if you want to make highways safer and more efficient, you got to keep people from being able to get on them whenever they want to and wherever they want to, and thus kind of birthed the idea of exits.

Right after him came a number of others who contributed little pieces of it: The name freeway came along in 1931. The notion that a median should separate the lanes came along in 1931. And really looking back on those now, it's as good a place as any to kind of mark the birth of modern highways.

RAZ: It's hard to imagine trying to do this today because many people were displaced, were - I mean, neighborhoods were literally just demolished...

SWIFT: Bulldozed.

RAZ: ...places like Seattle, Baltimore.

SWIFT: Nashville, Memphis, St. Louis, Chicago, Philadelphia. You name pretty much any major older city in the country and there were some serious clear-cutting of the human forest that made this possible.

RAZ: You essentially had a Democratic Congress, a Republican president who really got this moving. Do you think - and this is back in the '50s - could this - if we didn't have a system today, do you think we could build it today?

SWIFT: I don't think there's any way in a million years we could build it today. No. This just wouldn't fly.

RAZ: That's author Earl Swift talking to us about his new book. It's called "The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways." Earl, thanks so much.

SWIFT: Hey, thank you so much for having me.

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