19 December 2011

History of Highway Construction in Texas - TSLAC Exhibit

The Texas State Library and Archives Commission (TSLAC) has a new online exhibit. One of many freely offered on their website.
"Put the Money Under the Rubber: The Texas Highway Department Transforms Texas 1917-1968" is a new online history exhibit from the Texas State Library and Archives. Historians have called the construction of the Texas highway system one of the greatest building projects in world history. Now history lovers, engineering buffs, and travelers alike can discover this epic story with TSLAC's extensive new online exhibit. Dozens of vintage photographs and documents from TSLAC's collection of Texas Highway Department project files tell the story of Texas's journey from frontier backwater to transportation power player.
The exhibit has interesting photographs from rural areas and small towns as well as big cities. It also has biographies of the state engineers and a lot of history. One page has a great Dallas map and indicates:
In developing this 1943 map, planners used a ratio of one car for every three Dallas residents, creating a plan to accommodate between 190,000 and 222,000 vehicles by 1970. The actual number proved to be closer to 367,000. Also note the estimated "possible limits of future urbanization."
Having lived in Dallas for my first thirty years and visited almost every year thereafter, I can tell you that by the early 1960s Dallas had exceeded the estimated possible limit of future urbanization. By 1970 urbanization would have been off the map (no pun intended, but I'll take it). I can estimate where my childhood homes were situated using the roads and waterways illustrated on the map even though residential streets are not shown.

My original interest in this exhibit (and in other road building history and records) was because my grandmother told me her grandfather built roads in East Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana, and that he died while working on a road in Arkansas when a snake spooked his horse. Grandpa fell and was killed, perhaps from a broken neck, when the horse reared in panic. My grandmother was only seven when this happened so I am not sure how much she remembered or how often her memory may have been refreshed by discussions at family gatherings after she grew up. Her memories of getting soaked while traveling from Dallas to Smackover, Arkansas, in an open-top vehicle in a rain storm in August 1923 seemed pretty vivid.

One of my back-burner to-dos is to find out more about who this grandpa worked for and try to find records about this work. Many of the family members worked for timber companies in this piney woods area of East Texas where they lived most of the time. I've never known if Grandpa built roads for the timber companies or for county or state governments or maybe even other companies.

I am thankful for all of the historical and genealogical societies, archives, university and public libraries, GenWeb volunteers, and other good people who place information and records online freely available to all. Think of this the next time your state government is cutting the budget for the groups that support historical preservation. Some of my reasons to be thankful:
  1. While viewing the exhibit I received clues of several sets of records I can now search.
  2. While viewing the exhibit I learned general history and background information that helps me understand my family history better.
  3. Viewing something like this exhibit with your older relatives at a holiday gathering may generate some wonderful family stories. When I saw a photo of the Dallas-Fort Worth Turnpike it reminded me of my uncle who would speed down the road then pull over and wait. When the toll booth clocked his arrival time they could not tell he had driven well in excess of the speed limit between the toll booths. We were always told you could get ticketed for speeding based on the timestamps at the beginning and ending toll booths. I'm not sure if that was true, but obviously my uncle believed it was. I wonder when we'll discover the gene that makes some people incapable of driving at the posted speeds?
Thanks to TSLAC I have more interesting reminiscences to add to my family narrative before I forget again and I have potentially productive record sets to add to my to-do list.

Update 20 Dec 2011: See "Henry Everett Johnson (1871-1923) - East Texas Road Builder?" for more on Grandpa Henry and photos of what I think is his road crew.

© 2011, Debbie Parker Wayne, All Rights Reserved


  1. Great idea by TSLAC! It will typically highlight works of art online. Unlike physical exhibitions, online exhibitions are not restricted by time; they are not forced to open and close but may be available 24 hours a day. Thank you for this!

  2. I agree, Ann. TSLAC has so many wonderful documents in their possession. I hope to see many more of these digital exhibits that expand our understanding of our unique Texas history and that we share with all Americans.