Road tripping back in time on the Old Spanish Trail
August 17, 2015 10:06 AM   Subscribe

In 1915, there were many ways to drive across and around in the United States (though trans-continental routes were mostly dirt, with some improved sections). So why did a group meet that same year to develop another cross-country road, one that would take 15 years to complete, rather than tying together existing segments? Tourism to their communities, mostly, but their* Old Spanish Trail also boasted of being the shortest route from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Today, you can still find remnants of that road, and there's a group of people who are trying to revive this historic highway.

* Not to be confused with the Old Spanish Trail trade route from Santa Fe, New Mexico to Los Angeles, California, which is now a National Historic Trail.

Road building in the U.S. had a bumpy history, due in part to limited public funding. There were three main periods of private toll road development, but it was hard to make money when people could bypass or shunpike tolling stations, and recouping the cost of road building was often a challenge. As such, roads were developed and improved in fits and starts.

While there was a vision for a 150,000-mile road network from the National Highway Association (one of the early U.S. highway associations to promote auto trails and roads), funding for extended routes like the Old Spanish Trail and the earlier Lincoln Highway (previously) came from subscriptions from individual cities and towns on the proposed route, along with individual memberships and donations from corporations.

Construction of improved roads varied greatly, as noted in a caption box on the 1915 visionary US road network, including sand clay, gravel, broken stone, asphalt, tar, bituminous, bitulithic, concrete, brick, stone block, wood block and oil. If you're trying to discover old alignments, most of the wooden plank roads (PDF, source) have deteriorated over the decades, but you can still find old brick and concrete roads. If you're really lucky, you might come across a Warrenite Bitulithic Pavement marker.

If you want to re-trace the Old Spanish Trail, American Roads has a list of cities along the route and a larger scale image of the route, as well as a map with various detours and alternate branches. If you want to really get in touch with history, here are historic travel logs for the Old Spanish Trail and a detailed modern travel log for Florida, and a detailed trip route from 2008 through Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, but if you try for a full historic re-enactment, you might end up trespassing, as some may have to get back to one of the historic OST alignments.

Final tangent: you can also read a history of the locations along the Old Spanish Trail as a long poem by Evelyn Brogan on
posted by filthy light thief (13 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
Here in St. Augustine the zero milestone of the OST was marked with a huge ball of coquina (now relocated to the visitor's center grounds).
posted by saladin at 10:20 AM on August 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

If you want to get a feel for the state of roads and road making around 1915, here's One Hundred Fifty Years of Road Building in America by Nathan C. Rockwood, published in 1914 and available in full from Hathi Trust, and The Road-Maker's January 1918 statement of "What Must Be Done This Year -- Not What We Hope To Do" (Google books).
posted by filthy light thief at 10:31 AM on August 17, 2015

One final tangent: this was the "auto trails" period of US roads. Here's a Wikipedia list of early US auto trails. Before the Old Spanish Trail, there was the National Old Trails Road, also known as Ocean to Ocean Highway, but not to be confused with the Pikes Peak Ocean to Ocean Highway. The former was inaugurated in 1912, and the latter in 1914. There was also the Old Oregon Trail, but I'm not sure when that was officially opened.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:40 AM on August 17, 2015

*went looking to see if the small North Florida city where my sister was born was on it and was not surprised to see it was*
posted by Kitteh at 10:48 AM on August 17, 2015

The Good Roads movement was founded by cyclists. And the Office of Road Inquiry, which eventually became the Federal Highway Administration, was created largely due to cyclists.
posted by entropicamericana at 10:49 AM on August 17, 2015 [3 favorites]

This thread useless without Emmylou and Willie
Gulf Coast Highway [yt]
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 10:51 AM on August 17, 2015

I should add that the Roads Were Not Built for Cars is an excellent look at the deliberately suppressed history of cycling's many, many contributions to roads and motoring.
posted by entropicamericana at 11:04 AM on August 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Vanished cross-nation highways have a peculiar, almost mythic element to them. It seems like something Tim Powers would write about.
posted by happyroach at 11:07 AM on August 17, 2015 [4 favorites]

Well if you ever plan to motor west
Travel my way, take the highway that's the best
Get your kicks on Route 66 Es la tapa del perol, el Viejo Sendero EspaƱol
posted by infinitewindow at 11:34 AM on August 17, 2015 [3 favorites]

One final tangent: this was the "auto trails" period of US roads.

I live right on one of these, arguably the greatest, the Lincoln Highway. But it's become so degraded that now it's just Dodge Street.
posted by maxsparber at 12:40 PM on August 17, 2015

Dixie Highway.
posted by clavdivs at 5:03 PM on August 17, 2015

The Mohawk Trail in Massachusetts (basically, the western part of Rte. 2). doesn't seem to have changed much since it was built in 1914, at least not until you descend the Famous Hairpin Turn and find yourself in North Adams and surrounded by the buildings of Mass MoCA (a museum for giant art). Old motels, lookout towers, souvenir shops and the like. Be sure to look for the unusual yet appropriate Welcome sign as you enter Florida, Mass.
posted by adamg at 5:40 PM on August 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Vanished cross-nation highways have a peculiar, almost mythic element to them

Er, vanished? I drive Old Spanish Trail home every night from work. It's a lovely road that makes for an incredibly easy commute. There is, though, a stretch where OST meets Main Street meets another street that is so complicated that Google Maps refuses to route it.

Also it's fascinating to discover that I was born and raised at one end of OST and had no idea the road existed--it's not known in San Diego like El Camino Real is. I thought OST was a local-to-this-city road until just now. Thanks, filthy light thief!
posted by librarylis at 7:36 PM on August 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

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