The Grim Reaper of Small Towns

iiif service pnp highsm 26800 26806 full pct 25 0 default

In 1956, Congress approved the Federal-Aid Highway Act with the promise to construct 41,000 miles of highway system to connect 42 state capital cities and link 90% of American cities with populations over 50,000. It was to be the largest infrastructure project in the world, a great feat that would drastically change the shape of our country.

Design standards for interstate highways made it so traffic could only enter and exit on designated ramps to keep traffic flowing. While this was great for efficiency and speed, many small towns with a population under 50,000 were bypassed. Over time, these small towns were forgotten. 

A little place that a traveler may have once stopped for a pause in their travels became a few houses in the distance, far out of the way from a primary destination. Those traveling on the main interstate highways would likely need to detour onto other roads to make a visit, which would generally not be very cost effective for the individual, especially as gas stations and fast food chains popped up around exits. Without the presence of travelers stopping at a local diner or gas station, many small towns withered and were abandoned by their residents for bigger cities with better opportunities.   

Interstate highways didn’t just affect small towns, urban communities were destroyed as huge cement slabs tore through cities, displacing thousands. A system that was designed to connect America came at the cost of dividing America. New York University law professor Deborah N. Archer noted that these highways uprooted primarily black communities in her article “White Men’s Roads Through Black Men’s Homes: Advancing Racial Equity Through Highway Reconstruction.” 

Minnesota governor Tim Walz commented that the highway expansion “wasn’t just physical—it ripped a culture, it ripped who we were.”

Bulky concrete highways cut through neighborhoods and disrupted the already established pedestrian landscapes. Places of worship were lost, green space was replaced with asphalt for fast-moving cars, and homes were torn down. Small businesses were destroyed by the expansion, meaning jobs and crucial, locally circulated money was eradicated. 

Amidst all this destruction within cities and the death of many small towns, this progressive expansion of highways created a more travel-worthy United States by connecting local economies and individuals across the nation. Before building interstate highways it was a true and dangerous adventure to travel across the country by car. Only a brave few would leave the comfort and stability of a train to voyage on uncertain roads. 

President Dwight Eisenhower claimed this intensive infrastructure was “essential to the national interest.” In many ways, it truly was. Dwight D. Eisenhower (at the time a Lieutenant Colonel) reported on a cross-country trip in 1919 where 79 military vehicles set out to determine just how difficult driving from coast to coast would be for military logistics purposes.

You May Also Like