Sunday, December 11, 2016

From the Archives: ‘Big Roads’ author Earl Swift brings interstate story to Charlottesville

Publisher's note: This article was originally published on on March 24, 2012. The publishing platform was discontinued July 1, 2016, and its web site went dark on or about July 10, 2016. I am republishing this piece in an effort to preserve it and all my other contributions to since April 6, 2010. It is reposted here without most of the internal links that were in the original.

‘Big Roads’ author Earl Swift brings interstate story to Charlottesville

By coincidence, on March 24, the same day that President Barack Obama used his weekly radio-video address to urge Congress to pass a transportation bill, pointing out that “after World War II, we connected our states with a system of highways,” author Earl Swift spoke at the 2012 Virginia Festival of the Book about his history of the U.S. interstates, The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways.

In his remarks, Swift noted that “movies do a bad job of showing what American life was like before the car.” Cities were notoriously dirty at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, and one reason people pushed for greater use of automobiles was that “they were less polluting than horses.”

Tons of manure

As an illustration, Swift pointed out that in New York City in 1900, there were “2.5 million pounds of manure deposited each day” as well as 60,000 gallons of horse urine. That amounted to 400,000 tons of horse manure each year in New York alone.

In an interview with the Charlottesville Libertarian Examiner as he autographed copies of his book, Swift said that other cities were as bad or worse. Kansas City had a ratio of one horse for every 18 persons. Boston, he said, “stunk to high heaven and ‘had a rich equine flavor.’ That’s the way people described it back then.”

Before automobiles, Swift explained, “there was mud everywhere” and businessmen would show up for their meetings spattered with mud and excrement.

For that reason – and for many others – the “car has transformed society,” Swift told the audience of about 75 book lovers who showed up in the Charlottesville City Council Chambers on a rainy Saturday morning.

No mountains or rivers

Swift came to the idea of writing The Big Roads, he said, while watching a weather report on television.

The meteorologist, he recalled in an interview, “was standing in front of a map of the lower 48. As I watched, I realized that it featured no topography. It had been stripped of topography altogether. In place of mountains and rivers were the outlines of the states, a scattering of cities, and most prominently, interstate highways. The country had been reduced to a grid. I realized at the same time that that’s pretty much the way I had come to see the place, and this was a bit of revelation.”

Over the weeks that followed that morning, Swift said he had “a number of ‘mini-epiphanies’” that he came to see as related. For instance, he was able to find fresh asparagus, clementines, and strawberries in the supermarket at the same time of year, even though these fruits and vegetables have widely varied growing seasons.

“I realized that this was a relatively recent phenomenon,” he said -- a result of improved road transportation that could bring produce from farm to market quickly.

“One thing led to another,” he explained. “The effects of the roads, I guess, became more apparent to me than the roads themselves.”

Unique highway system

While other countries – even large ones like Canada, Russia, and China – have extensive road networks, Swift said, “no other region of the world has a system so damn big that required so much effort to build and that requires so much dedication to keep operational.”

While the legend is that President Dwight Eisenhower was inspired to build the interstate highway system after seeing the Autobahn in Germany during World War II, in fact the system's basic features were already in place, in terms of planning and legislation, long before Eisenhower was elected in 1952. What’s more, there was a cross-pollination of road-building techniques between the United States and Germany.

“It’s really a chicken-egg question as to which came first” with regard to the Autobahn or the interstate system, Swift explained, “because the superhighway network we have definitely was inspired by the success of the Autobahns but the Autobahns were built with the help of insights gained in tours of American engineering facilities. There’s a lot of shared parentage there.”

Swift traveled extensively around the country in the four years it took him to research and write his book. He naturally has thoughts about the best and worst stretches of interstate highways.

Good, bad, and ugly

I-77 and I-64 through Virginia and West Virginia, he said, are both “awfully pretty.”

Stretches of I-70 through Glenwood Canyon in Colorado and all through eastern Utah, he said, are “just phenomenal, while “I-80 across Utah and Nevada is beautiful in kind of a desolate, forbidding way” as is I-80 in Wyoming.

“There are lots of reasons to dislike stretches of highway,” he pointed out. I-35 between Fort Worth and Austin is “just trashy. It’s just ugly.” The Indiana Toll Road is an embarrassing eyesore.”

In addition, “pretty much all the interstates in Illinois are terribly maintained and just beat the crap out of you as you drive. The Long Island Expressway is the most harrowing three miles of road in America. Some people might like driving the Beltway but I-495 around D.C. is never pleasant. It’s a great highway but the people on it are nuts [and] it’s always crowded.”

Despite that, Swift has some grudging admiration for the Capital Beltway, one of the busiest roads in Virginia and Maryland.

“The Beltway was almost too easy to build,” he said. Building it “forced very few people out of their homes.”

One reason was foresight. “They bought it early enough,” he explained. “They bought the right-of-way way early,” about 1950. (The first stretch of the Beltway opened in 1961 and the road was completed in 1964.) As a result, “it predated the spread of D.C. into an ever-widening stain on the landscape.”

In addition to The Big Roads, the Norfolk-based Swift is author of Journey on the James: Three Weeks Through the Heart of Virginia, The Tangierman's Lament: and Other Tales of Virginia, and Where They Lay: Searching for America's Lost Soldiers. He has written for the Virginian-Pilot and other newspapers, as well as for Parade magazine, notably a 2009 feature on America’s decaying highway infrastructure.

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