Forgotten Highways and Historic Preservation

The Spokesman-Review recently had an interesting story and accompanying photo essay about attempts to revive interest in the the historic Three Flags Highway. Later known as US 395, this "Mother Road of the West" was first laid out in the 1920s and connected Canada to Mexico via eastern Washington, Oregon and California. The route was heavily promoted in the early days of auto tourism, particularly in California, with the saying "three countries one road." Today, according to the Spokesman, "historians in southern California are trying to revive the name as part of an effort to reclaim the motoring past."

The story got me thinking about how many economic revitalization schemes depend on history, and the role that historic highways can play in the process. As little towns across America look for some way to brand themselves and establish a public identity, they often reach into their past and heritage tourism. And there are so many historic highways that can be promoted. We all know about Route 66 but that route was a relative latecomer compared to the Lincoln Highway (see above, the first automobile route across America, established in 1913), the Jefferson Highway (Winnipeg to New Orleans, 1919), the Dixie Highway (Chicago to Miami, 1915) and a host of others.

Coordinating the interpretation of a historic highway is necessarily a difficult feat, involving hundreds of communities and their small museums and historic societies, multiple state historic societies, and city and state tourism offices. For the same reasons it makes a good grass roots public history project--markers, displays and commemorations can come into being one community at a time, with or without any broad formal plan.

Writing this post reminded me of a visit a few years ago to the surprisingly excellent Great Platte River Road Archway Museum in Nebraska. The innovative museum covers the history of transportation and travel along the river corridor from pre-contact times to the present.  The exhibit I liked best was a section depicting an auto campground along the Lincoln Highway in the 1920s. I wish I had taken more pictures:

This aspect of American history--life and travel along the early pre-war highways--seems relatively under-interpreted to me. I don't know of a major museum or museum exhibit on this fascinating era.