Simanaitis Says

On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff


AS PART of the U.S. Sesquicentennial in 1926, the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads  assembled an historical exhibit on American roads. Its dioramas evolved into a book published in the U.S. Bicentennial year of 1976. And here, almost four decades later, the book still delights.

Where’s America’s first iron bridge? What’s the Camel Express? Why ride a “Safety” bicycle? And who established U.S. Interstates?


Historic American Roads by Albert C. Rose, illustrated by Carl Rakeman, Crown Publishers, 1976.

Author Albert C. Rose and artist Carl Rakeman both worked at the Bureau of Public Roads (predecessor of today’s Federal Highway Administration). Rose’s historical interests earned him the penname The Old Road Builder in BPR documents. Rakeman has paintings in the U.S. Capitol, the Ohio State House and the Hayes Memorial Museum. (President Rutherford B. Hayes and Rakeman shared Fremont, Ohio, as their hometown.

1839—Our first iron bridge. Brownsville, in southwestern Pennsylvania, is the site of America’s first metal arch bridge constructed of cast iron. It was built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, completed on July 4, 1839 (58 years after Iron Bridge, in Shropshire, England).


Conestoga Wagons, stagecoaches and farmers driving stock were the traffic over Dunlap’s Creek on America’s first iron bridge, 1839. This and other images from Historic American Roads.

Located on Main Street of the Brownsville Commercial Historic District, the bridge is still in use.

1857—The Camel Express. The idea of beasts of burden equipped by nature for desert travel led to the 1857 Camel Express. This trek began in Indianola, Texas, where about 75 camels arrived from the Middle East. Both Dromedaries, known for their speed, and Bactrians, known for their load-carrying capability, were there.


American cavalry and teamsters conflicted with camel stubbornness and aggressiveness. Camels won.

The caravan traveled northwest through Texas, north to Albuquerque, New Mexico, then west, where it followed the 35th latitude, what’s now U.S. Route 66/Interstate I-40. The $30,000 investment (more than $800,000 in today’s dollar) was all for naught. The camels had a strong smell, a tendency to bite, and they frightened horses. All were released along the route, descendants being sighted in the American Southwest a century later.

1885—The “Safety” bicycle. Englishman Harry J. Lawson devised the “Safety” bicycle as an alternative to the “ordinary” or penny-farthing two-wheel transport. The idea was to eliminate “headers,” in which riders tumbled forward over the tall front wheel, which was also the driving wheel.


Headers were frequent hazards of penny-farthing propulsion. The “Safety” layout lessened this dramatically.

Comfort and speed of what we now consider the standard bicycle overwhelmed the penny-farthing craze by 1890. Pneumatic tires helped too.

1925—Adoption of uniform signs. Until 1925, roads had a hodge-podge of names throughout the U.S. That year, the American Association of State Highway Officials appointed a Joint Board to remedy matters.


Standardized designs replaced old signs, a result of a Joint Board of state and federal officials in 1925.

Our familiar standards for road signs evolved from this. Generally east-west routes are assigned even numbers, the major ones, multiples of 10. North-to-south, U.S. Route 1 hugs the Eastern Seaboard; U.S. Route 101, the West Coast. Also standardized were size and shape of road signs.

1945—Rural and Urban Interstates. In 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed a National Interregional Highway Committee to consider a system of interstate highways. A report titled “Toll Roads and Free Roads” was incorporated into a Federal Aid Highway Act of 1944.


A pastoral rural interstate, above; a recessed urban expressway, below.


Though FDR initiated the concept, President Dwight D. Eisenhower was its chief proponent more than a decade later. American interstates were authorized in the 1956 Federal Aid Highway Act, with the Federal Highway Administration replacing the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads in 1967. Formally, today’s U.S. Interstates are the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.

Artist Carl Rakeman’s illustrations portray a gentle, utopian point of view. Even recalcitrant camels don’t completely detract from this. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2015

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