Bankhead Highway runs through Itawamba County and American history

By ADAM ARMOUR / Itawamba County Times

FULTON – Sometimes the most interesting bits of history can be found right underfoot.
Take, for example, Itawamba County’s several variations of Bankhead Street. Located in parts of Fulton and Peppertown, the road has a direct correlation to the birth of the nation’s highway system.
“Much of the story of the Bankhead Highway is echoed in the other U.S. highways in the state,” said Lowry Wilson, a history enthusiast and photographer with a special interest in U.S. highway systems. Wilson recently gave a presentation on the Bankhead Highway at the museum in New Albany and spoke about the history of the roadway, including its path through Itawamba County.
Wilson said Itawamba County’s two Bankheads – Bankhead Street and Bankhead Road – were once one-in-the-same and played an integral part in the development of the nation’s highways system. He said that, originally, the highway was designated the Bankhead Highway and it followed a varied and tangled route from the Zero Milestone in Washington, D.C., through the lower half of the United States to its end in San Diego, Calif., a total distance of about 3,600 miles.
“The original road was designated the Bankhead Highway but was not a continuous stretch of road as we have now,” Wilson explained. “It was instead a series of local and county roads that curled its way through local communities and became the national route after the passage of the Federal Road Aid Act. The Bankhead Highway Association was formed to designate the route.”
The first leg of the Bankhead Highway, which ran from the Nation’s Capital to Memphis, was designated in 1917. Wilson said remaining designations were completed over the next three years: The section from Memphis to El Paso, Texas, in 1918 and from El Paso to San Diego in 1920.
Then, in 1925, the Federal Aid Highway Act began numbering national highways. According to Wilson, this system was deemed easier to understand than the system that was in place at the time.
“The original naming of the highways using colors and letter combinations worked for a few years; but because there were different segments of the many different highways, it became confusing, even though there was signage for each of the different sections,” he explained. Bankhead Highway, of course, was no different.
“Bankhead Highway had multiple routes through northern Mississippi,” Wilson said. “There was the northern route which roughly follows Highway 178 through the state and the southern route, which approximately follows U.S. Highway 278 from Alabama until you get to Oxford. At that point, the highway turned north and crossed the area where Sardis Reservoir is now before heading on to Memphis. In some areas of the country, multiple named highways followed the same route, much as they do today. For example, the Bankhead Highway shared segments with the Dixie Overland Highway in many areas.”
In 1926, the Bankhead Highway became redesignated as U.S. Highway 78. Across the decades, the highway was rerouted numerous times, “mostly to bypass the smaller communities that impeded the speed of travel,” Wilson said.
“As the years passed, most of the original highway was rerouted so that today’s current U.S. 78 only crosses the old highway at certain points,” he said, citing Peppertown as one of those locations. “Mississippi 178 follows close to the original route and in many areas, is the same route.”
The original road, which is accessible only by foot in some areas, crosses Mantachie Creek and continues south of Hwy. 178 through Dorsey and then to the west, at which point it crosses Hwy. 178. From just west of Peppertown, the highway becomes a nine-foot-wide concrete road with gravel on both sides, which is how highways were originally paved. This continues west and cuts through the woodlands before finally becoming blocked due to the removal of a bridge.
The highway follows parallel to the north of state Hwy. 178 until it gets to the Skyline area and then crisscrosses several times.
Wilson said the original highway’s convoluted path is the same throughout north Mississippi. This is tangible history, Wilson said.
“There are many sections of the original Bankhead Highway that can still be driven,” Wilson said. “But, in other areas, you can see where the road runs off into a group of trees and is no longer passable by automobile. In Itawamba and Lee counties, there are multiple sections where you can see the lines of the original concrete roadbed under the current asphalt.”
All of that history has been right here all along, right beneath the soles of our feet.
Contact Adam Armour at (662) 862-3141 or adam.armour@journalinc.com.