Hiding in Plain Sight: The FDR Interstate Highway Map

Sometimes, the most extraordinary maps can be “hiding” in plain sight, passed by, overlooked because they are a bit plain on the surface.  However, once you know the real story behind the map, it can take on a whole different meaning and look completely new and exciting.  One such map that fits this description can be found in the Cartographic holdings of the National Archives in RG 30: Series 10, Proposed Highway Maps. At first glance, this map appears to be nothing more than a USDA map, dated November 11th, 1926, showing the United States System of Highways as it existed at that time, but eight little blue lines streaking across the face of the map tell a whole different story.

Long before President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid-Highway Act in 1956, which authorized the construction of the interstate highway system, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had a vision of a straight-line highway that would crisscross the United States, with a system of tolls that would generate funds for the United States to pay for the roads themselves so that taxpayers would not bear the burden of the cost of construction and upkeep.

RG 30: Series 10, Records of the Bureau of Public Roads, 1982-1972. Series: Map of Proposed Express Highways (NAID 84786150).

During a meeting at the White House on February 2nd, 1938, President Roosevelt gave Thomas MacDonald, then Chief of the Bureau of Public Roads, the map shown above.  Those who were present at the meeting reported that the president seemed much taken with the idea of a series of transcontinental highways and continued to discuss the proposal over the course of the remainder of the year.  On the map, the president had drawn a series of blue lines illustrating five transcontinental north-south and east-west routes.  The east-west routes linked New York City and Seattle, Washington, D.C. and San Francisco, and Savannah and Los Angeles.  The north-south routes linked Boston and Lake City (FL), Cleveland and Mobile, Minneapolis and New Orleans, Great Falls and El Paso, and Seattle and San Diego.

On the same day that Thomas MacDonald received the map from the president, he returned to his office and gave the map to Herbert S. Fairbank, who would later go on to serve as chairman of the Highway Transport Committee of the American Association of State Highway Officials from 1943 to 1948.  Fairbank was tasked with undertaking a study to determine the feasibility of building the highways through the previously mentioned corridors, a study which would go on to be the first to examine traffic flow on a national scale.  Though the president’s idea was championed by several members of Congress, nothing came of it at the time.  This seems mostly to be because the man leading the charge, a Democratic senator from Ohio named Robert J. Bulkley, was not able to obtain approval from Congress for the system of roads and, later, lost his bid for re-election.

RG 30: Series 10, Records of the Bureau of Public Roads, 1982-1972.  Series: Map of Proposed Express Highways (NAID 84786150).

Over the years, the map changed hands at least twice before it finally made its way from the Bureau of Public Roads into the holdings of the National Archives where it still resides today.  Interestingly, attached to the back of the map is an office memorandum from H. S. Fairbank to Harold E. Hilts, Deputy Commissioner of the Public Roads Administration, dated January 10, 1951 that states:

            “In 1938 President Roosevelt personally drew the blue lines on the attached map and forwarded it to the Bureau to indicate the routes on which modern express highways should be built.  The map is forwarded to you for deposit in the map library.”


7 thoughts on “Hiding in Plain Sight: The FDR Interstate Highway Map

  1. I’ve seen the map, it’s quite large, maybe 4×5 feet. Some interstate highways were built more or less to FDR’s sketches, such as I-80, I-90 and I-95, but others were not. How much the map actually influenced highway planners in the 1950s is difficult to say.

  2. Correction: the map is about 2×4 feet, per my notes. RG 30, Entry 29, NAID 901951.

  3. Thanks Amy for a wonderful post. Just one clarification, the V&A has requested the FDR map for an exhibition on cars and culture opening in October 2019.

  4. Simon Winchester wrote about this map in The Men Who United the States. He said it was missing, and I remember wondering whether NARA had it somewhere. Great find!

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