EDITOR'S NOTE: Before interstates and federal highways, the Dixie Highway was built between Michigan and Miami Beach. College of Charleston professor Tammy Ingram has studied this highway for 10 years, and her new book, "Dixie Highway, Road Building and the Making of the Modern South, 1900-1930," comes out March 3. She talked with reporter Robert Behre, and here are some excerpts.
P&C: In this age of interstates, most people probably don't know there was such a thing as the Dixie Highway. What drew you to this story?
Ingram: "I was trying to figure out how we got from local roads, which were almost entirely administered locally, to federal interest highways administered by federal and state governments. ... The story of the Dixie Highway overlaps perfectly with the time period where that political transformation took place."
P&C: The Dixie Highway grew out of the Good Roads Movement in the early 20th century. How did that movement come to be?
Ingram: "It was started by urban bicyclists, who wanted to be able to go out to the countryside on roads, but they couldn't. Paved streets stopped at the city limits. Country roads were in terrible condition. Most of them were dirt roads."
P&C: How would you describe what the Dixie Highway was?
Ingram: "The biggest misnomer is it was not a single highway. It was actually the first modern interstate highway system in the country, even though it was limited in that it did not cover the entire United States. ... Originally, when Carl Fisher proposed it, it was going to be a highway from Chicago to Miami Beach, just a single route. But there was an eastern division and western division, with links in between ... Very little was new construction, that's why it was such a winding route."
P&C: The highway went through Greenville, Augusta and Savannah. Why didn't it come closer to the South Carolina Lowcountry?
Ingram: "The Carolina division was not added until a few years later, after the route was chosen in 1915, but during the routing competition, South Carolinians were writing to the Dixie Highway board members constantly asking them to route it through South Carolina even though it was a little out of the way. ... Mostly (Charleston) was just out of the way. It was so expensive and so difficult."
P&C: How did the South change when the highway opened the region up to more people?
Ingram: "It changed in a lot of ways. The South itself became a tourist destination. Originally, it was just kind of an obstacle to rich automobile people in Chicago and Detroit who wanted to go down to Florida, specifically to Miami Beach ... One of the really smart things Southern businessmen did along the route was to start pitching their local resources and attractions to tourists. Northern tourists had never seen cotton. They'd never seen peach trees or crape myrtles."
P&C: How did the highway affect race relations in the South?
Ingram: "There are sort of two ways to answer that. One, having greater mobility was incredibly important to the Great Migration, to getting African-Americans to these staging areas, to major cities where they could get out of the South ... The flip side of this is along with this enthusiasm for road construction came this idea that we should use convicts to do it. ... At the very same time that they're trying to modernize the South with these automobile highways they're recommitting themselves to this really primitive form of labor."
P&C: Given today's maze of interstates snaking through Atlanta today, how ironic is it that Georgia was home to the backlash against this road building effort?
Ingram: "It's not really that surprising. Atlantans voted down a special options sales tax a year and a half ago. They were making some of the same arguments my guys were making a century ago ... There was this real battle over who gets how much of the pie and when. Those were the same debates that shaped the Dixie Highway and made this process so difficult and yet so remarkable that they actually completed it."
P&C: When did the highway's relevancy end?
Ingram: "By the mid-1920s, the Dixie Highway had been absorbed by state highway systems and first by U.S. highway system. Literally absorbed, pieces of it were chopped up ... Within about a decade of its origins, the Dixie Highway literally just was erased. It was absorbed into these other highway systems and the signs were taken down."
P&C: How would you describe its legacy?
Ingram: "The process of building the Dixie Highway helped establish not only a model for modern highways, making this movement from local roads to interstate highways, but the process of building that highway also was responsible for the development of the modern highway bureaucracy, for better or for worse. The reason we have the local-state-federal system of roads we have today is because in the 1910s and '20s, the people who were building this highway were hammering out the laws that still provide the basic framework for infrastructure today."
P&C: As you researched the book, what surprised you the most?
Ingram: "How much they were able to do in such a short period of time. This went from just a daydream of Carl Fisher's in the fall of 1914 to a mostly complete highway by the mid 1920s. Within 10 years, not only had they finished the Dixie Highway - not all of it was paved, mind you - but we also had gone from a mostly local system of roads to the basic outlines of a local-state-federal cooperative bureaucracy that we have today."
P&C: And were the issues involved in building the Dixie Highway the same sort of political issues we're grappling with today?
Ingram: "Absolutely ... Everybody wants access to good roads and public transportation, but nobody wants to pay for it, and no one wants it to inconvenience them in any way. Really, at root, they're the same debates that people were having a century ago, but back then, people were so desperate for roads they were less picky about where they went."