Local photographer shares history of Bankhead Highway at Museum Moments

Horse-drawn carriages, gravel roads, and the advent of the American road system were the topics of conversation and discussion at last week’s Museum Moments program.

Museum Moments is held at the Union County Heritage Museum on a monthly basis and New Albany native and photographer Lowry Wilson was the speaker of this program that was based on the history of the Bankhead Highway.

Wilson started out by talking about the history of roads in Mississippi. He said, “In 1856, Mississippi made some highway rules. One of the rules was that horse-drawn carriages could only cross bridges at the speed of walking. There wasn’t much upkeep on the roads at that time.”

In 1885, the trail associations were formed and soon after the American Road System was founded. 

The first named highway was named Lincoln Highway and the second named highway was named Bankhead Highway.

Wilson stated that in 1925 there were over 250 named roads. For example, the Mississippi Valley Highway, Dixie Overland Highway, Lee Highway, Bankhead Highway, are a few examples.

The Dixie Overland Highway, also known as Highway 80, is part of Bankhead Highway. Bankhead Highway eventually became Highway 78 and the Bankhead Highway system became part of the Good Roads Movement.

“The Federal Road Aid Act was passed in 1916, which was an act sponsored by John Hollis Bankhead, who was a senator from Alabama. He became known as the father of good roads,” said Wilson.

The Bankhead Highway was a United States cross-country automobile highway that connected Washington, D.C. and San Diego and was part of the National Auto Trail system. This was founded in 1917. The road was named for Alabama politician John Hollis Bankhead, who was a leader in the early national road building movement. In later years, several stretches of U. S. 78 in northwest Alabama were renamed for Bankhead’s son, former U.S. Representative and Speaker of the House William B. Bankhead.

Wilson said, “The Bankhead Highway System was founded in October 1916. Mr. Bankhead said that a good road could withstand all kinds of different weather conditions.”

In 1918, the road was established from Memphis to El Paso, Texas and in 1919, a road was established from El Paso, Texas to San Diego, California.

“The Bankhead Highway went along the way bypassing towns and created a series of connected roads. It was 3600 miles long. It created a quicker route for cars to get from place to place without having to slow down while driving through individual towns,” said Wilson.

The highways and routes were designated by homemade printed signs. Highways with odd numbers ran North and South and highways with even numbers ran East and West.

In the Peppertown community was the first concrete road, which was nine feet wide and dead ended. “The original one-lane Pony truss bridge is over Mantachie Creek. At Dorsey and Mooreville, there is a nine-foot gravel road, with three feet of gravel on each side of the road for space for the cars to pull over,” said Wilson.

Wilson said that the longer the bridge is, the bridge design seems to change. He said, “If you have access to aerial photography, you can trace the ridges of the highway by the dip in the trees. The dips in the trees designate highways. Lee County had the first paved road in the South, which was one and a half miles long that went from Verona to Saltillo. This was in 1914 or 1915.”

 Every bridge in Union County has been photographed throughout the years and there is a future plan to take pictures of any new bridges and maybe some day have a historic pictorial history of the bridges and roads in Union County.