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Bankhead Highway: The Romance of the Road

In the middle of Abilene is a stretch of road with historic significance.
In the middle of Abilene is a stretch of road with historic significance.

The Bankhead Highway also known to the state as Texas 1 runs right through the Big Country and in Abilene. It's the first transcontinental all-weather highway connecting Washington D.C. to San Diego. Compared to the Lincoln Highway, the Bankhead was passable year-round.

In 1916, Congress passed the Federal Aid Road Act allowing federal aid for highways across the country. The Bankhead was named after U.S. Senator John Hollis Bankhead who sponsored and pushed for the idea.

"He really knew good roads were the key in the development of the United States," author Joe Specht said. "If you wanted your town to grow, you wanted be along a main highway."

In 1920, Abilene was chosen to be part of the route by the Bankhead association. It included other towns such as Eastland, Clyde, Merkel and Sweetwater. The Bankhead would cover 850 miles of Texas.

The paved roads would allow military to transfer equipment quicker and create leisure travel for families. Towns realized the opportunity of running along the highway and would compete with one another through tourist camps.

"You would have people who would be driving to stop, stay overnight or have a meal." Specht says.

The road wasn't made to go fast, but instead, take time to go from town to town. Examples of tourist motels include the Abilene Courts on South 11th and Ponca Motel on South 1st which are still up.

In 1956, President Eisenhower would pass National Interstate and Defense Highways Act for construction of interstate across the country.

"The interstate would pass by all these towns," Specht said. "Businesses in these towns would lose business."

Nowadays, the Bankhead is a reminder of how times used to be. Specht says he spent a lot of his past time discovering other parts of the Bankhead.

"There's something in America about being behind the wheel," Specht explains. "It's the sound of the road, the visual aspects and the romance of it all."

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