Thursday, April 12, 2018

Oregon's First Paved Roads

As I noted in the last post, the 1914-1925 period saw a dramatic increase in the number of cars on the road. If you've visited the Circa 1920 Exhibition at the Benton County Historical Museum, then you've seen photos and read a story about what an adventure it was to travel, given the condition of Oregon's roads.  Getting flat tires or becoming stuck in the mud were commonplace, for as David Peterson Del Mar notes in his Oregon's Promise, “In 1914, 86 percent of the state's thirty-seven thousand miles of rods consisted of dirt and mud.  Just twenty-five miles were paved, 232 planked.”

Interestingly, it was bicyclists, not automobile drivers, who were the first to organize to improve roads. They formed the League of American Wheelmen in 1880 and began publishing Good Roads Magazine.  They formed state Good Roads or Highway Associations in many states such as the Oregon Good Roads Association, established in 1902. The increasing number of automobile drivers joined with bicyclists to show that better roads benefited  everyone, not just “rich playboy bicyclists” and drivers.  They also supported research on road construction methods, and advocated for political candidates sympathetic to the cause. Their work began to pay off.

In 1905, the state began requiring vehicles to be licensed at a one-time cost of $3.  The revenues were dedicated to roads construction. Beginning in 1911, the state began issuing license plates yearly, increasing revenues for roads. The Oregon Highway Commission, established in 1913, distributed these state funds to the counties under a plan developed by new state highway engineer Major H. L. Bowley.  This plan called for construction of 8 state highways. As this map shows, by 1925, Oregon's basic highway system was in place but most roads were still gravel or dirt.

1925 Oregon highway map
Passage of the 1916 Federal Road Act matched state funds with federal money for paving of roads.  Work was limited once the U.S. entered World War I but was revived after passage of the Federal Highway Act of 1921 which provided aid for paving roads that linked with others in adjoining states to form a federal network. The Good Roads Associations in Washington, Oregon, and California had for many years worked together on common problems and toward the similar goal of a continuous highway running all the way from Canada to Mexico. The photo shows a button from the joint group's meeting in 1914 which was attended by Benton County judge, Victor Moses.
1914 Tri-State Good Roads Association membership pin
This road, known as the Pacific Highway (Highway 99) was started in 1913 and completed in 1923.  It was the first state border-to-border paved highway west of the Mississippi. Adding in the miles in the neighboring states, the total length of 1,687 miles made it the longest continuous stretch of paved road in the world at the time. 

By Martha Fraundorf, Volunteer for Benton County Historical Society, Philomath, Oregon

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