During the first part of the twentieth century road building in this country progressed at a rapid rate. Spurred first by the widespread popularity of the bicycle and subsequently by the proliferation of the automobile road building became a passionate march of progress.
As better roads allowed motorists to travel increased distances it became apparent that they would need places to stop along the way. The model of place that led to the establishment of waysides and roadside parks was initiated by the traveling public. Stopping sties emerged in rural areas where commercial establishments were not available. Often they appeared in areas of scenic interest or merely in places where there was room for a car to pull off the roadway. These earliest waysides materialized out of necessity, when motorists needed to wanted to stop they pulled off and parked along the roadside.
There is some dispute as to where the first established roadside park appeared; claims have been made as to both Connecticutand Michigan. Some documentation indicates that Connecticut established its first site in 1928; more solid evidence, however, points to Michiganand a site created in 1929. The anecdote told of the Michigansite reveals the nature of the early roadside dynamic.
The following excerpt is taken from an article printed in American Road Builder magazine in 1957.
In the late 1920s, a young county engineer in Michigan, Allan Williams, engineer-manager of the Ionia County Road Commission, saw a family trying to eat a picnic lunch from a big tree stump alongside their parked automobile on one of the roads under county jurisdiction. That had an appetizing snack spread out on a white cloth on the stump, but they couldn’t really enjoy the food because they couldn’t sit around their makeshift table, and had to content themselves with standing around or sitting on rocks or bare ground to eat their food.
In the days that followed, Mr. Williams saw this scene repeated with increasing frequency. An outdoorsman himself, he decided that people should have better facilities for resting and refreshing themselves along the highways. And he decided that he could do something about it.
During the winter months, when some of his snow-plowing crews where standing by at the county garage waiting for an expected storm, he put them to work knocking together picnic tables from odd lengths of 2x4 scrap lumber. After the tables were constructed they were painted an attractive green. The following spring Mr. Williams put his first roadside table out at a site along Route 16, 3 miles sought of the village of Saranac.
It wasn’t long before the chief maintenance engineer of the Michigan State Highway Department began to receive letters from tourists complementing him and the department for their thoughtfulness in providing a clean and restful picnic spot and table. Mr. Tiney looked into the matter and liked Mr. William’s idea. The state highway department authorized the construction of more roadside tables and the establishment of additional picnic sites.
This manner of roadside park development was echoed throughout the country as road building brought similar travel experiences to diverse sections of the American public. Roadside park construction became part of a greater movement of roadside development and beautification. Briefly interrupted by World War II, progressive development continued after the War and by the mid 1950s American highways were lined by a well developed system of roadside parks constructed and maintained by state highway departments. By the time the Interstate Highway System was legislated in 1956 almost every state in the nation had a system of roadside parks, indeed hundreds of parks marked the roadsides of state highways. While they consisted of minimal facilities, their necessity had been proven by their prolific numbers and extensive use.
In the late 1950s John Steinbeck traveled across the US, by his description to become reacquainted with the country that he was devoted to writing about, in 1962 he published Travels with Charley In Search of America, an account of and commentary on his journey. While Steinbeck’s directive was to spend as many miles as possible traveling small local roads and highways he was occasionally forced to travel larger state highways, what he describes of his experience foreshadowed the kind of travel that that has come to characterize the Interstate Highway experience:
I sought out U.S.90, a wide gash of super-highway, multiple-lane carrier of the nation’s goods…Instructions screamed at me from the road once: Do not stop! No stopping. Maintain speed. Trucks as long as freighters went roaring by, delivering a wind like the blow of a fist. These great roads are wonderful for moving goods but not for inspection of the countryside. You are bound to the wheel and your eyes to the car ahead and to the rear-view mirror for the car behind and the side mirror for the car or truck about to pass, and at the same time you must read all the signs for the fear you may miss some instructions or orders. No roadside stands selling squash juice, no antique stores, no farm products or factory outlets. When we get these thruways across the whole country, as we will and must, it will be possible to drive from New York to Californiawithout seeing a single thing.
The kind of separation from local places described by Steinbeck is the exact context that would prompt highway developers to include safety rest areas in the Interstate System.
The Interstate Highway System was first conceived of in the late 1930s, but did not come to fruition until the mid-1950s with the passage of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. The American Association of State Highway Officials described the new system of roadways in the following manner:
The National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, more commonly known as the Interstate System, is a 41,000 mile key network of modern freeways, spanning the Nation, linking together and serving more than 90% of all of the cities over 50,000 population as well as thousands of smaller cities and towns…the System, comprising little more than 1% of the Nation’s total road and street mileage, will carry 20% of all of the motor vehicle traffic when it is completed.
Beyond its pure functionality the Interstate System was a symbol of American growth, prosperity and modernity. It was meant to create a nation of interconnected towns, cities and regions and thus a nation of interconnected population. The Interstate System transformed how Americans traveled; it made travel faster and more feasible. It transformed how we live opening suburban housing markets and spawned new building types devoted to accommodating an auto oriented society, drive-through restaurants, drive-in movie theaters, strip malls, etc.
Among the chronicles of the Interstate’s legacy is the construction of safety rest areas. Places designed to allow motorists to pull from the roadway in order to stretch, rest, eat and use a restroom. They were places that supplemented the places that travelers would no longer be able to access just off the roadway. Newly constructed interchanges were void of commercial business and thus the early Interstate traveler was confined to long stretches of roadway with little opportunity to find services. While rest areas were originally designed to provide only the basic amenities of parking, bathroom, and picnic table developers soon found within them the opportunity to reconnect people with the places they were traveling though, to add some humanity back to Interstate travel in the form of a bathroom.
We feel that the most appropriate means of impressing the public with the value of the Highway Beautification Program is by developing quality rest areas, something they can see and use. At this time our philosophy seems appropriate, judging from the favorable comments received from the public on our rest areas.
By the late 1960s development of rest areas nationwide was commonplace, and a priority. As Robert Jacobsen of the Nebraska DOT reflected in 1968 in the proceeding quote, rest areas were viewed as a public asset and a thing that the states had a responsibility to provide. While the concept of a place to stop along the roadway was not new, states had maintained roadside parks for decades, the detailed nature of rest area development and the amenities they provided was. These were not the rustic roadside parks of previous decades; they were modern sites serving a modern transportation system and a modern way of life. When stopping at an Interstate rest area travelers could expect to find, flushing toilets, running water, travel information, picnic tables often accompanied by barbeque grilles, shelters to protect them from the sun and wind while enjoying a picnic lunch, walking paths and in some places children’s play equipment.
In light of their favorable reception department of transportation developers began to see that rest areas were more than the practical function they served, they were state ambassadors. Developers perceived their ability to provide notable roadside facilities as a means of creating a positive reflection on the quality of their state government and its citizenry. This sentiment was heightened by the reality that with much of the Interstate System bypassing existing towns, safety rest areas could become the primary local contact that travelers would have within a state. Robert Jacobsen continued his description of Nebraska’s rest area development:
Each safety rest area is considered individually to enable its development to reflect and express dominate topographical, historical, archeological, geological, architectural or biological features in the area’s proximity. Since the rest room building and information center has the highest usage, this facility is sited to be immediately recognizable and available to the motorist. The picnic table shelters are designed to create a pleasant exterior environment by using varying planes oriented to give maximum protection from the elements and to direct the occupant’s view toward points of interest. The unity of each safety rest area is emphasized and enforced through the character of all structures and the continuity of material use. Each area is developed with a park-like atmosphere bounded by indigenous flora.
The first safety rest areas opened in the late 1950s, first generation development continued through the mid-1970s, when most states had completed the majority of their initial development. The development of the sites was a tenant of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 which had initiated funding for the Interstate Highway System; rest areas were to be a part of its standardization. Initially they were to be funded on the same federal/state shared funding basis as the rest of the Highway System, with the federal government responsible for the majority of the expenditure; state governments were responsible for the planning and implementation of the System. However in 1959, just a year after the American Association of State Highway Officials issued the standardized guidelines for rest area development, (A Policy on Safety Rest Areas for the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways), federal allocations for rest area development were drastically reduced. The Bureau of Public Roads (later the Federal Highway Administration) notified state governments that hence forth funding for safety rest area construction would be limited to the purchase of land, construction of deceleration and acceleration lanes and parking areas; safety rest area buildings and all other structures and amenities would have to be delayed or built exclusively with state funds.
While this budgetary limitation dampened the intended progress of rest area construction it did not halt it. By the early 1960s rest areas were open along Interstate Highways in states such as Ohio, Wisconsin and Oregon. During the next several years the goal of highway developers was to site rest areas and construct entrance and exit ramps concurrently with highway construction, aiming to open rest areas as highway segments opened. The Highway Beautification Act of 1965 re-invigorated rest area development and construction. Following this legislation each state was required to develop a master plan for rest area development. In addition, the act reinstated funding for all components of rest area development, in an effort to support the nationwide drive to reform and beautify Interstate roadsides. The mandate on states to produce master plans on development was issued to assess the current status and projected needs of the rest area program on both a National and state level.
With the reinstatement of federal funding aid, state governments gained an increased capacity to provide rest area facilities on a growing scale. In the late 1960s through the mid-1970s rest area development took on a progressive and creative tact, and programs such as the one described in Nebraska, saw them as a means of serving the public good. Creative developers designed shelters in forms that drew on regional imagery such as tipis, oil rigs and windmills and designed buildings that reflected the architectural heritage of indigenous people. In the 1970s buildings and sites grew in scale to accommodate for increasing traffic volumes on the Interstates. Buildings took on nontraditional forms and sites engaged visitors by capitalizing on the assets of the local landscape.