Flashback Friday: Nebraska’s Good Roads Movement

“A chain is no stronger than its weakest link and a road is a little better than its deepest mud hole.” – Isaac B. Potter, The Gospel of Good Roads, 1981

A car with a Nebraska license plate is stuck at an unidentified location.

 

Nebraska’s earliest roads were unmarked trails across the countryside. While railroads received large government subsidies of public land and substantial private capital, public roads were seen as the concern of individual locales rather than of the state or federal government. As a result, roads remained in a primitive condition. Until the 1880s a grass-roots movement began demanding for better roads.  The full article is presented in the winter 2015 edition of Nebraska History.

            Years before the automobile, a nationwide bicycle craze led to the birth of the Good Roads movement. Mass production of bicycles made people believe they were less dangerous and more suitable for transportation. Bicycling became a national obsession for the next two decades. The biggest challenge for the wheelman (what bicyclists were known as) was the primitive condition of the roads.

The road into Belfast, Nebraska, circa 1905-1915. Today few traces remain of the town, located about seven miles northwest of Greeley, but at one time a spur of the Burlington railroad ran from Greeley to Ericson by way of Belfast. Local farmers hauled their grain to the town’s elevator.

 

            As bicycling became more popular, they began to agitate for better roads. The most influential national group was the League of American Wheelman, also known as LAW.  They were founded in 1880 by Albert Pope, a bicycle manufacture in Boston. The league launched a national campaign for better roads in 1888. It promoted the idea that farmers had much to gain with better roads with a book entitled, The Gospel of Good Roads; A letter to American Farmers by Isaac Potter.

In 1892 the LAW was pushing for federal legislation. Its first proposed bill was drafted by General Roy Stone, a prominent civil and mechanical engineer. The bill called for a national highway commission that would “inquire and report whether any form of national aid is desirable and practicable. It will especially consider the feasibility of co-operation by national state and county authorities in a general system of road making.” The bill was introduced by Charles F. Manderson from Nebraska. Manderson, a Republican, served as president pro tempore of the Republican-controlled Senate. He represented a state where road improvement had languished. In July of 1892, LAW held their annual conference in Washington. Their 3,000 members staged a huge parade. Stone testified on behalf of Manderson’s bill, which passed the Senate, but failed to mention federal aid. The bill died when the session ended in August.

Despite the legislative defeat, a new organization called the National League for Good Roads was organized in Chicago in October of 1892. Manderson and Stone were chosen as president and vice president, respectively.  During their meetings Manderson believed that the group’s effort needed to be focused on two things. The best approach to legislation and suggesting some uniformity in state legislation.

The Decatur (Nebraska) Bicycle Club, August 20, 1898.

 

A bill was made by the Congress Department of Agriculture that stated “inquires in regard to the system of road management throughout the United States, to make investigations in regard to the best method of road making, to prepare publications on this subject suitable for distribution and to assist the agriculture colleges and experiment station in the disseminating of information of this subject.” The League of American Wheelman and the National League for Good Roads paved the way for roads by going to the Congress Department of Agriculture, who provided this 10,000 dollar bill. Although the bicycle craze did not “go on and on” as the LAW had predicted, other factors would keep the Good Roads movement alive in the coming years. — Brittany Hamor, Editorial Assistant

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