Copyright © 2010 Bill Yenne

The opening of the American West was an epic of immense proportions. An indomitable people had settled a land the size of Europe in more or less a century. It was the stuff of legends, and indeed, it created legends by the thousands.

The opening of the American West was a singular experience. Nothing like it has happened anywhere on earth since perhaps the days 200 centuries ago when the ancestors of the American Indians first arrived from Asia.

In the 1890s, Andrew Carnegie wrote: “The old nations of the earth creep on at a snail’s pace; the Republic thunders past with the rush of the express. The United States, the growth of a single century, has already reached the foremost rank among nations, and is destined soon to out-distance all others in the race. In population, in wealth, in annual saving and in public credit, in freedom from debt, in agriculture, and in manufactures, America already leads the civilized world.”

All this being true, when did the opening of the American West end? When was the American West finally open? Congress declared an end to the frontier in 1890, but the last Indian who died at Wounded Knee was not buried until January 1891. Custer had died in 1876, but Geronimo lived until 1909.

The answer to the question probably lies in the technology of the transportation used by the pioneers who opened the American West. Lewis and Clark had planned to use boats because they thought that means of transportation would be faster than horses. Subsequent expeditions came on horseback and the horse became synonymous with the plains and mountains of the West. The horse (as well as the oxen) pulled the wagons of the people who came to stay, and the stagecoaches that followed after real road had been built. Even when the railroads changed everything, their locomotives were still referred to as the iron horses.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, the West was changing and so was the technology of travel. No single innovation would affect the technology of travel more than the automobile and Henry Ford’s ingenious means of getting them into the hands of large numbers of people. After 1903, there was no turning back. The Ford Model T. suddenly gave the individual American a power of transportation never before available. By the teens, the automobile was omnipresent in the cities of the East and Midwest, as well as on the highways and byways of the Atlantic seaboard. San Francisco also echoed to the sputter of automobiles, but nobody drove them to California from Detroit. It was an all-new era in the transcontinental migration of Americans. It was the final era in the opening of the American West.

The West would not be open, truly open, until it was possible to drive in an automobile from New York straight through to San Francisco on a paved road.

It is indicative of the pioneer spirit of the people of the West that the first successful transcontinental car trip on unpaved roads began in San Francisco. On  May 23, 1903, Dr. Horatio Nelson Jackson and Sewall K. Crocker drove east from the University Club on San Francisco’s Nob Hill in an open-topped Winston touring car in response to a $50 bet made the week before. On July 25, they drove down the Hudson River from Peekskill and entered New York City. The hardships they endured were many. There were few roads between the Sierra Nevada and the Mississippi River, and they were scarcely better than they had been when wagon trains crossed the plains. Yet they had succeeded in an accomplishment that was of no less importance than the first trek by John C. Fremont or the meeting of the rails at Promontory.

There would be several other crossings over the next few years, but these pioneers were considered as crazy – if not more so – than the pioneers of 80 years before. It was a stunt – celebrated in events like the transcontinental Curved Dash Race of 1905 – but not considered practical. The first woman to make the trip – without the company of a man – was 21-year-old Alice Huyler Ramsey, who drove from New York to San Francisco in a 30hp Maxwell in 1909. She suffered numerous flat tires and breakdowns, and at one point was forced to fix a broken axle. Three female companions who accompanied her on the venture watched as Ms Ramsey made all the repairs herself.

In 1904, there were 78,000 automobiles in the United States, but only seven percent of America’s rural highways were surfaced. Almost all of them were in California or the East. By 1918, there were 5.6 million automobiles, but little improvement in the proportion of paved roads. The idea of a practical, paved transcontinental highway was an obvious dream.

It was Carl Graham Fisher, a Miami developer and bicycle racer, who, in 1912, launched the first campaign for a transcontinental highway. He quickly secured the support of tire and automobile manufacturers (except, curiously, Henry Ford), and of the newly-formed American Automobile Association. In the spring of 1913, the Lincoln Memorial Highway Association was formed in Detroit to build a highway of the same name. It was to begin at Times Square in New York City and proceed westward to the Pacific Ocean at the west end of San Francisco’s Lincoln Park.

In 1919, the US Army sent a convoy of trucks to drive from Washington, DC to San Francisco on the route of the Lincoln Highway, which was largely unpaved between the Sierra Nevada and the Mississippi. One young officer in the convoy was Dwight D. Eisenhower. More than three decades later, as President of the United States, he recalled the experience as he championed the idea of the Interstate Highway System.

The Lincoln Highway, a milestone at its conception, was soon overshadowed by the highway boom of the 1920s that saw the creation of the Theodore Roosevelt Highway, the Yellowstone Highway, the Dixie Highway and highways named for both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. There were, in fact, so many confusingly named highways that the US government introduced the numbered highway system that is so familiar to all of us today. When the numbered highway system was officially adopted on November 11, 1926, it encompassed a national highway system that was 96,626 miles long, yet none of the highways was continuous from coast to coast!

US Highway 40, which was the designation given to most of what had been built as the Lincoln Highway, was largely, but not completely, paved. US Highway 30, which was intended to run from Philadelphia to Salt Lake City and then follow the old Oregon Trail to Astoria, was in a similar state of incompletion.

Amazingly, it would be almost another decade before the dream was complete. On  October 24, 1935, Harry Dixon of the Chamber of Commerce of North Platte, Nebraska, sent a telegram to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, which read in part: “US Highway 30 will be the first hard-surfaced, all-weather road connecting the Atlantic seaboard and the Pacific coast. The last link of 30 miles near our city will be completed and ready for opening and dedication of the entire route on Tuesday,  November 5 at two pm Central standard Time. Elaborate ceremonies here. Eleven governors along highway are invited. Some have accepted. Others will participate in various ways. National publicity given the importance of this federal-aided project. We ask that you cooperate by pressing an electric button in Washington to sever the golden ribbon to be climax of ceremonies and officially open this great highway. Arrangements have been completed to place at your convenience the necessary equipment and connection for the honor you will do us in complying.”

Steve Early, the assistant secretary to the president, replied on the same day that the president would be in Hyde Park on November 5, and that there were no facilities there he could use to hook up and press a button for the dedication. He did, however, offer to provide a message from the president for the occasion.

Dixon replied by telegram on  October 31, 1935 that he would be pleased to have a message from the president “on completion of the longest hard-surfaced highway in the world” and that it would be read at the ceremonies on  November 5.

The president’s message to Dixon was dated  November 1, 1935 and read: “Completion of the last link of pavement on United States Route 30 is an event of such importance that I am happy to send my congratulations. The perilous trail of the pioneers is at last transformed, by joint efforts of the federal and state governments, into a coast to coast highway. With full appreciation of the manifold benefits of this modern avenue of communication, it is especially gratifying to recall that its construction has been a part of the great program of highway building that has given needed employment in recent years to hundreds of thousands of our citizens.”

The West was open.