Accessibility links

Breaking News

Going the Distance on America's Highways


Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. On June twenty-ninth, nineteen fifty-six, President Dwight Eisenhower signed a public works bill. The act of Congress provided federal aid to build the Interstate Highway System.

I'm Steve Ember. Today Sarah Long and I present a brief history of road building and how it changed America.


America's national road system makes it possible to drive coast to coast. From the Atlantic Ocean in the east to the Pacific Ocean in the west is a distance of more than four thousand kilometers. Or you could drive more than two thousand kilometers and go from the Canadian border south to the Mexican border.


You can drive these distances on wide, safe roads that have no traffic signals and no stop signs. In fact, if you did not have to stop for gasoline or sleep, you could drive almost anywhere in the United States without stopping at all.

This is possible because of the Interstate Highway System. This system has almost seventy thousand kilometers of roads. It crosses more than fifty-five thousand bridges and can be found in forty-nine of America’s fifty states.

The Interstate Highway System is usually two roads, one in each direction, separated by an area that is planted with grass and trees. Each road holds two lines of cars that can travel at speeds between one hundred and one hundred twenty kilometers an hour. The Interstate Highway System is only a small part of the huge system of roads in the United States.


To understand the Interstate Highway System, it is helpful to understand the history of roads. Roads in most countries were first built to permit armies to travel from one part of the country to another to fight against an invader.

The ancient Romans build roads over most of Europe to permit their armies to move quickly from one place to another. People who traded goods began using these roads for business. Good roads helped them to move their goods faster from one area to another.

No roads existed when early settlers arrived in the area of North America that would become the United States. Most settlers built their homes near the ocean or along major rivers. This made transportation easy. A few early roads were built near some cities. Travel on land was often difficult because there was no road system in most areas.


In seventeen eighty-five, farmers in the Ohio River Valley used rivers to take cut trees to the southern city of New Orleans. It was easier to walk or ride a horse home than to try to go by boat up the river.

One of the first roads was built to help these farmers return home after they sold their wood. It began as nothing more than a path used by Native Americans. American soldiers helped make this path into an early road. The new road extended from the city of Nashville, in Tennessee to the city of Natchez in the southern state of Louisiana. It was called the Natchez Trace.

You can still follow about seven hundred kilometers of the Natchez Trace. Today, the road is a beautiful National Park. It takes the traveler though forests that look much the same as they did two hundred years ago. You can still see a few of the buildings in which early travelers slept overnight.


The Natchez Trace was called a road. Yet it was not what we understand a road to be. It was just a cleared path through the forest. It was used by people walking, or riding a horse or in a wagon pulled by horses.

In eighteen-oh-six, President Thomas Jefferson signed legislation that approved money for building a road to make it easier to travel west. Work began on the first part of the road in Cumberland in the eastern state of Maryland. When finished, the road reached all the way to the city of Saint Louis in what would become the middle western state of Missouri. It was named the National Road.

The National Road was similar to the Natchez Trace. It followed a path made by American Indians. Work began in eighteen eleven. It was not finished until about eighteen thirty-three. The National Road was used by thousands of people who moved toward the west. These people paid money to use the road. This money was used to repair the road.

Now, the old National Road is part of United States Highway Forty. By the nineteen twenties, Highway Forty stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. You can still see signs that say "National Road" along the side of parts of it. Several statues were placed along this road to honor the women who moved west over the National Road in the eighteen hundreds.



In nineteen hundred, it still was difficult to travel by road. Nothing extended from the eastern United States to the extreme western part of the country.

Several people wanted to see a road built all the way across the country. Carl Fisher was a man who had ideas and knew how to act on them. Mister Fisher built the famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway where car races still take place.

In nineteen twelve, Carl Fisher began working on his idea to build a coast-to-coast highway using crushed rocks. He called this dream the Coast-to-Coast Rock Highway.


Carl Fisher asked many people to give money for the project. One of these men was Henry Joy, the president of the Packard Motor Car Company. Mister Joy agreed, but suggested another name for the highway. He said the road should be named after President Abraham Lincoln. He said it should be called the Lincoln Highway.

Everyone involved with the project agreed to the new name. The Lincoln Highway began in the east in New York City’s famous Times Square. It ended in the west in Lincoln Park in San Francisco, California. The Lincoln Highway was completed in about nineteen thirty-three.


Later, the federal government decided to assign each highway in the country its own number. Numbers were easier to remember than names. The Lincoln Highway became Highway Thirty for most of its length.

Today, you can still follow much of the Lincoln Highway. It passes through small towns and large cities. This makes it a slow but interesting way to travel. Highway Thirty still begins in New York and ends near San Francisco. And it is still remembered as the first coast-to-coast highway.



In nineteen nineteen, a young Army officer named Dwight Eisenhower took part in the first crossing of the United States by Army vehicles. The vehicles left Washington, D.C. and drove to San Francisco. It was not a good trip. The vehicles had problems with thick mud, ice and mechanical difficulties. It took the American Army vehicles sixty-two days to reach San Francisco.

Dwight Eisenhower believed the United States needed a highway that would aid in the defense of the country. He believed the nation needed a road system that would permit military vehicles to travel quickly from one coast to the other.

In nineteen fifty-six, Dwight Eisenhower was president of the United States. He signed the legislation that created the federal Interstate Highway System. Work was begun almost immediately.


Building such an interstate highway system was a major task. Many problems had to be solved. The highway passed through different areas that were wetlands, mountains and deserts.

It was very difficult to build the system. Yet lessons learned while building it influenced the building of highways around the world. Today, the interstate system links every major city in the United States. It also links the United States with Canada and Mexico.

The Interstate Highway System has been an important part of the nation’s economic growth during the past forty years. Experts believe that trucks using the system carry about seventy-five percent of all products that are sold.

Jobs and new businesses have been created near the busy interstate highways all across the United States. These include hotels, motels, eating places, gasoline stations and shopping centers.

The highway system has made it possible for people to work in a city and live outside it. And it has made it possible for people to travel easily and quickly from one part of the country to another.

The United States government renamed the Interstate Highway System at the end of the twentieth century. Large signs now can be seen along the side of the highway that say Eisenhower Interstate System.



Our program was written by Paul Thompson. My co-host was Sarah Long. I'm Steve Ember. To download a free copy of this show, including a transcript, go to And join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.