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United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation

Public Roads - Summer 1996

Three States Claim First Interstate Highway

by Richard F. Weingroff
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Missouri claims the first interstate highway project to begin construction
after the passage of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956.

 

Where is the first interstate highway? This seemingly simple question is actually quite complicated, as Missouri, Kansas, and Pennsylvania have staked their claims to the first interstate. The answer depends on how the term "first" is defined. The Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways is dated from June 29, 1956 - the day President Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. On Aug. 2, 1956, Missouri became the first state to award a contract with the new interstate construction funding. The Missouri State Highway Commission worked on three contracts that day, but the first signed contract was for work on U.S. Route 66 - now Interstate 44 - in Laclede County. As soon as that contract was signed, S.W. O'Brien, district engineer for the Bureau of Public Roads, called his headquarters in Washington, D.C., and confirmed that the contract was the first in the nation. So, that's one first, but Missouri also claims another first. Also on Aug. 2, Missouri awarded a contract for work on U.S. 40 - now I 70, the Mark Twain Expressway - in St. Charles County, and on Aug. 13, this project became the first interstate project to be awarded and to start construction after the signing of the 1956 act. Well, that's two firsts, and that should be enough for any state.

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Kansas claims the first interstate highway project completed
under the provisions of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956.

But, Kansas also has a claim. On Aug. 31, the Kansas State Highway Commission awarded a contract for concrete paving of a two-lane section of U.S. 40 (I-70) a few miles west of Topeka. The construction was under way before the enactment of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, but paving under the new contract began on Sept. 26. Because this was the first paving to be initiated after the 1956 act, First District State Highway Commissioner Ivan Wassberg wrote "9-26-56" in the fresh cement to mark the historic day. On Nov. 14, Gov. Fred Hall participated in a ribbon-cutting to open the newly paved road, and a sign was posted, identifying this section of I-70 as the "first project in the United States completed under the provisions of the new Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956."

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The Pennsylvania Turnpike opened on Oct. 1, 1940.

So, that's three firsts, but there's more. Of course, construction on some of the highways incorporated into the interstate system began before 1956. Considering this fact, perhaps the first interstate highway is really the 260-kilometer stretch of the Pennsylvania Turnpike between Irwin and Carlisle. When it opened on Oct. 1, 1940, the Pennsylvania Turnpike gave American motorists their first chance to experience what someday would be known as an "interstate." Pennsylvania calls the turnpike "The Granddaddy of the Pikes."

Well, that's three firsts and a granddaddy. So, I guess that the true first just depends on how you look at it.

Richard F. Weingroff is an information liaison specialist in the Federal Highway Administration's Office of the Associate Administrator for Program Development.