Bankhead Highway was one
of America's first cross-country highways, originating in Washington,
D.C. and terminating in San Diego, California. Named for Alabama senator
John Hollis Bankhead (grandfather of actress Tallulah Bankhead), the
highway was billed as "America's Broadway."
Parts of the main highway and several branches ran through Texas,
leaving some to assume that it was strictly a Texas thing. The late
Texas writer and historian A.C. Greene, who grew up in Abilene,
was one of those people. He met Tallulah Bankhead during World
War II and was surprised and a little offended when she didn't
recognize the landmarks he mentioned along the stretch of highway
between Baird and Clyde
that bore her name.
"It didn't occur to me until years later that the Bankhead Highway
began on the East Coast and stretched all the way to the West," he
later confessed. "I had assumed it to be a purely West Texas phenomenon,
going no farther east than Fort
Worth and reaching west certainly not past El
Senator Bankhead got the highway named for him after he wrote a bill
known as the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916. The bill was a result of
the Good Roads Movement, which included a coalition of citizens, politicians
and lobbyists from the automotive industry.
Among the earliest proponents of the Good Roads Movement were farmers,
who needed good roads to get their products to market, though some
contrarians opposed it because they believed it would only benefit
city people. World War I
slowed construction but the project gained momentum in the 1920s
and 30s when it provided much-needed work along its route during the
Most American roads in the early decades of the 20th century were
roads in name more than functionmuddy when wet, dusty when dry.
Even the lucky few citizens who owned a car or truck couldn't count
on getting too far on any one road. Roads ended abruptly and usually
without warning. Gas stations were few and far between. The Bankhead
Highway was designed to make it easier for people to actually travel
a long distance by car.
east to west across Texas, the Bankhead Highway cut through Texarkana,
Mt. Vernon, Terrell,
and El Paso.
The highway's precise path is hard to trace because it split into
several branches all along its route. In Texas alone were nearly a
dozen branches, some of them short and others stretching through several
counties. At El
Paso, the North and South mainline branches merged again as the
highway exited the state.
Greene would have been traveling the South Mainline Branch, which
included the towns of Gordon,
and Abilene. The
North and South Mainline branches merged in Abilene
and took the traveler through much of West
For its day, the Bankhead was a state-of-the-art roadway. It was paved,
which especially impressed people in rural areasand it had two
lanes! The highway came at a time when people began to look at owning
a car as more of a necessity than a luxury, in the same way that having
a horse was a necessity before cars came along. Towns along the highway
developed and prospered, even in rural areas.
on the South Mainline Branch, billed itself as the "California of
Texas" and advertised that claim on its water tower. People in the
area lived up to the motto by growing peaches, apricots, strawberries,
grapes, peas and watermelons and selling them at roadside stands along
Times were good, but times changed.
Like a child that outgrows its britches, America soon outgrew its
two-lane roads. No one could call a road with two lanes "America's
Broadway." Not anymore. Another act of Congress, the Interstate Highway
Act of 1956, was the result of that realization.
Most of what's left of the Bankhead Highway survives as U.S. Highway
80, or most often in Texas, as U.S. Highway 180. In 2009, the Texas
segment of the Bankhead Highway was designated as a Texas Historical
Highway. Other than that, it's the road not taken because it's not