The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways
- By Earl Swift
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
- 384 pp.
- Reviewed by Michael Causey
- July 5, 2011
A different kind of road trip chronicles the greatest public-works project in U.S. history.
The lure of the open road, the thrill of discovering what’s around the next bend or reexamining our own lives as we make tracks is woven into the American DNA as surely as is baseball, capitalism and apple pie. Countless books, movies, songs and poems try to evoke the joy of crisscrossing the United States by foot, wagon or most often by car.
The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways doesn’t contribute much to that side of the experience, though I wish it did. The book is at its strongest when author Earl Swift focuses on long road trips with his teenage daughter, or how average Americans fought superhighway encroachment into their lives and neighborhoods.
Instead, Swift devotes much of his energy and enthusiasm to a somewhat long back story about how America’s superhighway system came to be built. Another issue is that Swift takes side trips into numbing National Geographic-type statistics; for example, that the system is “nearly forty-seven thousand miles long and … incorporating nearly three thousand hundred million cubic yards of concrete” probably was fun to come across, but such information tends to slow down the narrative.
Along with the expected setbacks, successes, stops and starts he describes, Swift makes a good case for Franklin Delano Roosevelt as the real father of the system and downplays the credit generally given to Dwight D. Eisenhower. In a world with any justice, Swift might maintain, America’s superhighway system should be named not after Ike, and not even Roosevelt, but rather a low-key engineer named Thomas MacDonald, who arguably contributed more than any other individual to the greatest public works project in history.
However, while their achievements are commendable, MacDonald and the other engineers and entrepreneurs who figure prominently in this story are not particularly interesting personalities, at least as portrayed in the book. The Big Roads itself becomes a bit of a narrative slog over slow-going terrain when Swift gets bogged down in agency battles, state versus federal agendas and other legislative subplots of the bigger story.
Swift is on much stronger and more compelling ground when he focuses on the more human side of the superhighway system. “I was overdue for a road trip,” he writes in the introduction. “It had been years since I’d last embraced that most cherished of American freedoms: to slide behind the wheel of a car equipped with a good stereo and comfortable seats, and head out into the country, beholden to no particular route, no timetable.” Here and elsewhere, Swift’s infectious love of the open road raises the energy level of the book.
Swift is also on strong terrain when he discusses his own road trip experiences, and his mixed views on whether the modern highway system is more a blessing or a curse. That ambivalence winds through the book like an interstate. Swift quotes John Steinbeck’s famous observation in his own 1962 road trip book, Travels with Charley: In Search of America: “When we get these thruways across the whole country, as we will and must, it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a single thing.” Yes, the “modern” journey is much faster and more efficient, but it can also bypass local flavor so that a drive across America can become a series of predictable fast-food joints that look, feel and taste the same whether you are in Baltimore, Birmingham, Butte or Biloxi.
The sections of the book focusing on Joe Wiles, an African-American in Baltimore who fought the system to a standstill in the late sixties to protect his and nearby neighborhoods, could have been expanded into a compelling separate work. A scientist and WWII veteran, Wiles helped galvanize a movement that Swift persuasively argues forever shifted the course of urban planning, in part by showing some otherwise ordinary citizens how they could make their voices heard and stop a seemingly inevitable project from cutting through their communities.
To say that the Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways changed this country is almost an understatement. They “changed the face of America” Ike himself said after he left office. And he, too, wasn’t sure if this was an entirely good thing. The issue can still be debated today. No one can fault Swift for not definitively answering this complex question. But a book with a bit more about the why of the roads and a little less of the how might have made a stronger read.
Michael Causey, a past president of American Independent Writers, has written extensively about the automobile dealership and gasoline service station industries, and has enjoyed several cross-country road trips in his day.