It all started with muddy footprints in the house ?

It all started with muddy footprints in the house ? by Bob Karolevitz Thank goodness for hardtop!

Roads are like water: you don't appreciate them until they're not there. Or they're a morass like the La Brea Tar Pits.

Most of us older folks remember driving through South Dakota gumbo, that gooey, sticky stuff which stuck to the tires like glue.

And woe be it to the guy or gal who got it on their shoes. It was like walking in newly mixed plaster as it got heavier with each step.

Mud was a way of life back then, and cars were always getting mired down on roadways which had never seen gravel, macadam or concrete. That, of course, gives me a good excuse to write a bit of history on how we got out of the quagmire and onto pavement.

You've probably heard about those historical corduroy roads of George Washington's time. Revolutionary War pioneers split half-logs longitudinally to give their trails a jarring, spine-rattling cover. It didn't work because axles were splintered and wheels broken.

Then came turnpikes in which private companies were authorized to build and operate roads � mostly dirt � using a toll system. A pike or pole guarded each entrance to the primitive highways; and when a traveler paid the necessary fee, the pike was turned to permit his carriage to pass.

Thus the term "turnpike" was coined. Get it?

Through most of the 19th century, road-building became the function of local government. In many cases farmers worked out their tax bills; and with crude scoops pulled by horses they dug out highways � such as they were � to provide marketing routes to small towns. Engineering niceties were negligible; sharp turns were commonplace; and it was not unusual for a two-laner to be split around a tree or a giant boulder.

Wheelmen, as bicyclists were known, called attention to the miserable shape of the country's roads; and when the earliest automobiles appeared after the turn of the century, a Federal Good Roads bill � the first of its kind � died in a congressional committee in 1903.

By 1914 with more than 3,500,000 cars up to their hubcaps on U.S. roads, the country had something like 15,000 miles of hard-topped highways. The motorists demanded more, and two years later President Woodrow Wilson signed the Federal Aid Road Act, the first legislation to establish a nation-wide system of interstate highways.

World War I then intervened, but shortly after the Armistice, the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads was established. Sometime later 25,000 surplus Army trucks and other equipment were distributed to state highway departments for road-building purposes.

That was the beginning; and although mud existed for decades after that � especially in the Dirty Thirties � motorists persisted and survived under deplorable conditions. Needless to say, the roads of today can't be compared to dirty, bridgeless byways of the past.

I could have told you more � including President Dwight Eisenhower's contribution to the Interstate Highway System � but Phyllis says to knock it off.

"If your readers wanted a history lesson, they could go to school." Then she adds: "Your column is supposed to be entertaining, and all those facts turn people off."

She's just mad because I tracked mud in the house, which is how I got on this subject in the first place.

© 2005 Robert F. Karolevitz

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