USA Banner

Official US Government Icon

Official websites use .gov
A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure Site Icon

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS
A lock ( ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

U.S. Department of Transportation U.S. Department of Transportation Icon United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation

Public Roads - Summer 1996

Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956: Creating The Interstate System (Sidebars)

by Richard F. Weingroff


The Inside Man

FRANCIS V. DU PONT francis v. du pontWhen Thomas H. MacDonald retired, Engineering News-Record commented that, "The Bureau of Public Roads is a monument to MacDonald." The man who took over that monument, Francis V. du Pont, had once before followed in the footsteps of a great man. His father was T. Coleman du Pont, president of the family's E. I. du Pont de Nemours Powder Company, a U.S. senator, and a leader in the good roads movement. Coleman du Pont built his own 160-kilometer highway from Wilmington to Selbyville, Del., and donated it to the state in 1924. The road, which is now part of U.S. routes 13 and 113. was partially constructed by the du Pont corporation, and the rest was constructed by the state mostly at du Pont's expense.

Francis, like his father, was a graduate of the Massachusett Institute of Technology, which employed him in the Aeronautical Division of the U.S. School of Military Aeronautics. He held a pilot's license issued in 1916. After World War I, he was employed by du Pont and General Motors as a research engineer.

In 1922, he became a member of the Delaware State Highway Commission and served on it until 1949. He was chairman for 23 of those years. In addition to converting a part of his father's highway, from Wilmington to Dover, into what one historian has called "the first important arterial highway to adopt the dual roadway technique," du Pont played a major role in planning the Delaware Memorial Bridge, the longest suspension span in the world when it opened in 1951. He was also active in hotel and building management as well as politics. Asked by a reporter why he was coming out of retirement to return to public life, du Pont replied, "I can assure you I'm not in it to make a living." Taking office in April 1953 as commissioner of public roads at the age of 58, du Pont began reorganizing the Bureau of Public Roads, which for so long had been structured around MacDonald and his top associates. A strong supporter of the interstate system from the start, du Pont resigned in January 1955 to devote his time to President Eisenhower's highway program. Historians ascribe a major role to du Pont in the internal debates, noting that he was particularly influential in shaping the president's views. After leaving public service, du Pont worked as a consulting engineer for two New York firms. He died in May 1962.

Steady Hand in Control

Charles D. "Cap" Curtiss charles d. curtissDu Pont's successor was Charles D. "Cap" Curtiss. He was born in Camden, Mich., on Dec. 23, 1887, and attended Michigan State College. After graduating in 1911, he went on to receive a master's degree from Columbia University and a degree in civil engineering from Iowa State College. After holding a variety of jobs, including bridge inspector for the Michigan State Highway Department, he joined the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and served in France during World War I. He rose to the rank of captain, resulting in his lifelong nickname of "Cap."

Following the war, he joined the Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) on July 30, 1919, as the assistant to Chief MacDonald. In 1943, he was appointed deputy commissioner for finance and management, the post he held when he was selected to be the commissioner in 1955.

In addition to representing the bureau in congressional forums in 1955 and 1956, he began to reorganize BPR to accommodate the big, upcoming interstate highway program. He initiated the program immediately after President Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. In a November 1956 speech to the American Association of State Highway Officials, Cap Curtiss captured the essence of the task ahead: "The future economic progress of our country depends in no small measure on the success of this program. We must not fail." Curtiss remained in charge of the bureau until October 1956, when the first federal highway administrator, John A. Volpe, took office. Remaining with BPR, Commissioner Curtiss was responsible for day-to day operations until he retired in December 1957. On Curtiss' retirement day, BPR's work came to a standstill when more than 500 present and past employees and friends joined in honoring the commissioner and his wife. Following his retirement, Curtiss served as a consultant to the International Road Federation and the American Road Builders Association. In 1963, he served as chairman of the Highway Research Board. He died on June 9, 1983.

Agent of Change

FRANCIS C. "FRANK" TURNERFRANCIS C. TURNER Francis C. Turner, a native of Dallas, graduated in 1929 from what is now Texas A&M University and immediately joined the Bureau of Public Roads as a junior highway engineer. By 1933, he was an area engineer in Little Rock, Ark.

In 1943, Turner was chosen to expedite completion of the Alaska Highway, then being built through Canada to provide a land link to Alaska. After helping to build the permanent highway, he stayed on to help the Canadian and provincial governments, which would assume responsibility for the highway after the war, to organize maintenance activities. In 1946, he was the last American to leave the completed Alaska Highway project. His next assignment was in the Philippines, where he was in charge of restoring war-damaged roads and bridges.

In 1950, Turner became an assistant to Commissioner Thomas MacDonald, who made him coordinator for the Inter-American Highway and projects in other countries. However, when President Eisenhower selected the Clay Committee, Turner was appointed executive secretary. He worked tirelessly to provide the information the committee needed in its deliberations. He then performed a similar function as liaison between the bureau and the congressional committees that wrote the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. From 1957 to 1969, as deputy commissioner, chief engineer, and then director of public roads, Turner played a major role in helping to resolve many of the project disputes during that time and in keeping the interstate system moving forward. In 1969, he was appointed the federal highway administrator, the only administrator who rose through the ranks. During these critical years, Turner was dedicated to keeping the interstate program moving. Turner retired in June 1972 but has remained active in highway transportation issues ever since. In 1994, American Heritage magazine celebrated its 40th anniversary by naming 10 people who, although completely unknown to the public, had changed the way we live during the past 40 years. Frank Turner was one of the 10 "agents of change."

Co-author of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956

SEN. ALBERT GORE SR. SEN. ALBERT GORE SR.Born on a hard-rock Tennessee farm on Dec. 26, 1907, Albert Gore attended a one-room school in Possum Hollow. After graduating from high school, he began teaching while earning a degree from Middle Tennessee Teachers College. After winning the post of superintendent of education for Smith County, he enrolled in law classes to secure the legal background he felt he needed for a career in politics. For three years, he drove 170 kilometers from his home in Carthage to Nashville and back, three nights a week, for his classes. He received his law degree in 1936 and was married in 1937.

He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1938 and served for 14 years before successfully challenging Sen. Kenneth McKellar, an entrenched veteran with 35 years of service in the Senate. Taking office as a senator in 1953, Gore was assigned to the Public Works Committee, becoming chairman of the Subcommittee on Roads when the Democrats gained control of Congress in 1955. In this position, he played a pivotal role in rejecting the Clay Committee's proposals and drafting the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. He retained a strong interest in the interstate system even after transferring to the Foreign Affairs Committee in 1959. In 1956, Gore was a contender, along with senators John F. Kennedy and Estes Kefauver, for the Democratic vice presidential nomination under Adlai Stevenson. Ultimately, Kefauver won the nomination, but the Stevenson-Kefauver ticket had little chance against the incumbents, President Dwight Eisenhower and Vice President Richard Nixon. Gore's son, Sen. Albert Gore Jr., became vice president in 1993. Described as "a maverick, a populist who regularly voted against the wishes of his constituents when he felt the broader national interest required it," the senior Gore opposed the Vietnam War, refused to sign the Southern Manifesto opposing integration, and voted for civil rights bills. In 1970, he was defeated in his bid for reelection in what has been described as "one of the meanest races the state has ever seen." He went on to a successful career in law and business.

Albert Gore Sr. and his wife reside on their farm in Carthage, Tenn.

Co-author of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956

REP. GEORGE H. FALLON REP. GEORGE H. FALLONRep. George Fallon, chairman of the Subcommittee on Roads in the Committee on Public Works, was sometimes called "The Big Man From Baltimore" partially because he stood 1.88 meters (6 feet 2 inches) tall. Even while serving in Congress, he lived in Baltimore, commuting daily to Capitol Hill via the Pennsylvania Railroad. Although he played a pivotal role in creation of the interstate highway system, he disliked driving, especially freeway driving.

After attending Johns Hopkins University, he worked in the business his father founded in 1904, the Fallon Sign Company. However, following his election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1944, he devoted little time to the family business, which was later dissolved.

Highway construction was an important issue to Fallon. He was described as a "mild-mannered legislator who rarely ventured onto the floor of the House to speak for any other cause in his 13 terms." He was a vigorous proponent of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, but his greatest contribution was his major role in the drafting of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. Shortly after President Eisenhower signed the act, Fallon stated that nothing in his career had given him as much satisfaction. "Not only will every person in the United States benefit from it, but the favorable impact on our economy already is felt." The most unusual moment of his congressional career occurred on March 1, 1954. Three Puerto Rican nationalists in the House gallery interrupted a debate on Mexican immigration with gunfire. Fallon was one of five representatives hit by the burst, taking two bullets in the hip before he even heard the shots. In 1970, Fallon lost his primary bid for reelection to state legislator Paul S. Sarbanes (now a U.S. senator). Sarbanes attacked Fallon on several fronts, including his age and health, what Sarbanes called Fallon's remoteness from his constituents, Fallon's close ties with the highway and transportation lobbies, and Fallon's support of the Vietnam War. Fallon retired the following year. He died at the age of 77 in March 1980.

The Last Piece of the Puzzle

REP. HALE BOGGS REP. HALE BOGGSThe man who helped solve the interstate highway funding mystery, Thomas Hale Boggs, was born in Long Beach, Miss., on Feb. 15, 1914, but he grew up in Jefferson Parish, La., just west of New Orleans. When he entered Tulane University on a scholarship, he had just $35 in his pocket. During a fraternity dance his freshman year, he met Marie Corrine Morrison "Lindy" Claiborne of New Roads, La. While they were dancing, he told her, "I'm going to marry you someday," and he did in 1937. After receiving a degree in journalism, he earned a law degree from Tulane Law School.

In 1941, when he entered the U.S. House of Representatives at the age of 26, he was the youngest man in Congress. After serving in the Navy during World War II, he returned to the House in 1946. As a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, he was in a pivotal position in 1956 to solve the highway funding puzzle. He worked with Rep. George Fallon on tax provisions in 1955, but the resulting bill was rejected by the House. They took a different approach in 1956. The new Fallon bill contained the program details to build the interstate system, but the Boggs bill contained the funding mechanism. At the suggestion of Treasury Secretary George Humphrey, Boggs incorporated the concept of a "Highway Trust Fund" that provided the funding for the interstate system and other federal-aid projects. Boggs would later be described as a "fiercely determined man, an ear-shattering orator, a masterful politician, [and] a sternly partisan Democrat." In January 1971, he rose to the position of House Majority Leader. However, in October 1972, while on a political trip to Alaska, he lost his life in a plane crash. Neither the plane nor his body has ever been found. He was survived by his wife, Lindy, and three children, Thomas Hale Boggs Jr., Barbara Sigmund, and Mary Martha Corinne Morrison Claiborne Roberts (better known as Cokie Roberts, the nationally known television journalist). Lindy Boggs won the special election to fill the vacancy left by her husband's death, becoming the first woman elected to the House from Louisiana. She represented the district with distinction for many years until retiring after the 1990 session.

The Catalyst Who Changed America

PRESIDENT DWIGHT DAVID EISENHOWER PRESIDENT DWIGHT DAVID EISENHOWERPresident Eisenhower's role in the creation of the interstate system has often been slighted. Historians and biographers, with the exception of Stephen B. Ambrose, either pass over it or ignore it altogether, but Eisenhower never had the slightest doubt that it was one of the most important things accomplished during his two terms in office. He took an active role publicly and behind the scenes to make it happen.

Even before the 1952 election, he told Hearst Newspapers, "The obsolescence of the nation's highways presents an appalling problem of waste, danger and death." Eisenhower also said that a modern network of roads is "as necessary to defense as it is to our national economy and personal safety." He never wavered from these views.

By early 1954, Eisenhower was frustrated by the bickering among his advisors about how to finance and construct the interstate system. In April, he told his staff he wanted a "dramatic" plan to get $50 billion worth of "self-liquidating highways" - highways that would not add to the national debt - under construction. In July, he decided to announce the electrifying "Grand Plan" for an articulated highway network. He chose retired Gen. Lucius Clay, a trusted friend, to head the main advisory committee on the interstate program. In early 1955, he met with members of Congress to promote it. When the House defeated all the highway bills before it in July - largely because of financing issues - the president expressed his frustration: "Adequate financing there must be, but contention over the method should not be permitted to deny our people these critically needed roads." He began 1956 with message after message stressing the urgent need for better highways - the State of the Union Address, in separate remarks that same day, in his annual budget message, in his annual economic report. In a Jan. 31, 1956, meeting with Republican legislative leaders, he announced a key change by breaking with the Clay Committee and endorsing the pay-as-you-go method of financing. One participant explained why: "We want the roads as fast as we can get them." Even after enactment of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 and after leaving office, Eisenhower maintained an abiding interest in the interstate system. In recent years, historians have begun to upgrade their view of Eisenhower, often citing the interstate system as one of the reasons.