United States Road System: Are We There Yet?

By Art Sommers, Washington County Museum Archives Volunteer

2629 (2)This used to be a common and constant question issued from the back seat when the family was on a road trip. With all the portable entertainment options (mobile phones, IPads, tablets, and even TVs in cars) available now, this question might not be asked as much as it once was.

Road trips of course require actually being on a road. Where did all these roads come from and why are they numbered the way they are?

The National Road (also known as the Cumberland Road) was the first major improved highway in the United States built by the federal government. Built between 1811 and 1837, the 620-mile road connected the Potomac and Ohio Rivers and was a main transport path to the West for thousands of settlers.

Throughout history, commerce was typically the motivating factor for improving roads. Many early roads were toll roads built with private monies. An interesting point though is that the growing demand for adventure among the middle class in America led to the formation of bicycle clubs in the 1880s. Members of those bicycle clubs desired better roads for their excursions. Bicycle clubs were the impetus for the formation of “Better Roads Associations” across America. A National “Better Roads Association” convention was held in Portland in 1902. Then a little later more and more people were buying automobiles and like the bicyclists before them, the auto enthusiasts wanted better roads for their autos. Leisure came to be the new catalyst for improving roads in America.

The first transcontinental automobile roads were built with private funds. Communities large and small would buy a mile’s worth of concrete to pave the road passing through their town and the concrete companies donated concrete for an additional mile. These early transcontinental roads were then given names. The Lincoln Highway was named after President Lincoln and ran from New York City to San Francisco. It was touted as the route to take by automobile people to get to the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco in 1915. In those days, a cross country trip by automobile was an adventure that took weeks.

In 1926, the Federal Government took over responsibility for the transcontinental named highways and assigned numbers to the Lincoln and Victory Highways. Much of the Lincoln Highway was assigned the number 30 and its west coast terminus was moved from San Francisco, California to Astoria, Oregon.

President Eisenhower’s personal experience with roads led him to signing the road act of 1956. Eisenhower was a Captain in the Army’s first military convey across the U.S. in 1919. The Army convoy was made up of over 80 cars, trucks, and motorcycles. It took 62 days to cross the U.S. using the Lincoln Highway. As the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during World War II, Eisenhower saw the value of efficiently moving troops and equipment. He saw the German autobahn first hand. These two experiences with roads were the catalyst for Eisenhower to want to improve our nation’s interstate highway system. The new interstate freeway system used even numbers for the freeways running east to west. The odd numbered freeways ran north to south. If you are on Interstate 10, 70, 80, or 90 you are heading east or west. If you are on Interstate 5, 15, or 75 you are heading north or south. The term “freeway” came from fact that roads crossing the freeway were routed over or under the freeway and access to the freeway was achieved by using on-ramps creating controlled access. The cars were free to drive on-and-on with no interruption.

lp19720056In Washington County, we have a long history of road development. The earliest roads were of course dirt and what with all the rain in the northwest, people had a difficult time using wheeled vehicles to move people and goods. The idea of creating a plank road between Portland and the rich farmlands of Tualatin Valley was first proposed in 1851.
Using wooden planks cut from the abundant trees was used back east to improve the roads in the 18th century. Our own plank road wasn’t finished until 1856, but it helped cement Portland as a major inland port for moving foodstuffs down to San Francisco and up the Sacramento River to supply the gold rush miners in the foothills of California.
The Portland to Tualatin Valley plank road eventually took on the name of Canyon Road. Canyon Road was named for its passage through Tanner Creek Canyon. Highway 26 now passes through Tanner Creek Canyon by way of the Vista Ridge Tunnels near the Oregon Zoo. Traveling on the even numbered highway 26 lets you know you are traveling east and west. In 2015, a road widening project in Beaverton uncovered remnants of the plank road but the wooden planks were not salvageable.

The internal combustion engine triggered a frenzy of road building. As new highways were built and businesses sprang up along them, established town cores sometimes suffered. Both Tigard’s and Sherwood’s old business districts were bypassed when the new Capitol Highway (Route 99) was built in the 1920s. The same was true of Beaverton and Hillsboro when the Tualatin Valley Highway (Highway 8) went in a few years later. However, Hillsboro welcomed a new highway when the Wolf Creek Highway (now the Sunset) was on the drawing board in the early 1930s. Leaders in Hillsboro reasoned that the new highway would bring jobs and prosperity to their community.

Baseline Road – here in Washington County our “Baseline Road” runs east to west as do all baseline roads throughout the west. The baseline roads are generally straight roads running east to west. The term “baseline” comes from the township and range public land surveying system (PLSS). The Baseline Road running through Washington County generally parallels the actual baseline used by surveyors and is also known as Main Street in the town of Hillsboro. Sections of land on the northern side of the surveyor’s baseline are assigned Township numbers with a “north” designation. Sections of land south of the baseline are assigned Township numbers with a south designation. The official baseline for Oregon is known as the Willamette Baseline. It intersects the Willamette Meridian (the north-south line). The Willamette Baseline and Meridian intersect at the Willamette Stone State Park near Skyline Boulevard. All of the real property in Oregon has been measured from that intersection following the Donation Land Claims Act of 1850.

This map shows the Willamette Meridian running north and south, while the Willamette Baseline runs east and west, intersecting with the meridian just west of Portland. The meridian and baseline for the state of Idaho can be seen at the right edge of above map.

Want to learn more about Washington County History? Return to our History Page.