US Route 11: The Road That Healed the Nation, America’s Main Street

PHOTO: US Route 11 in Virginia, along Lee Highway, courtesy of Famartin
PHOTO: US Route 11 in Virginia, along Lee Highway, courtesy of Famartin

The American Civil War ended on a random battlefield in Central Virginia in April 1865.  The conflict which raged for half-a-decade had cost both sides far more than either could have imagined in the days leading up to the war and left deep and bitter wounds which are still visible today.

Interestingly, many of the young men who had fought alongside Generals Lee, Grant and Stonewall Jackson during this horrific conflict were only in their 50s when the first Model T Fords began driving off the assembly line.

Between 1908 and 1927, Ford would build some 15 million Model T cars and a nation which had only a generation earlier been fighting on horseback in a bloody civil war stood at the dawn of a new era.

In the early days of the automobile, however, travel throughout nation was hazardous, wrought with confusion and navigation proved difficult.  In the South, animosity against Yankees was still extraordinarily strong and in the North, Dixieland was seen as some distant place far beyond the reach of the common man.  The average American simply did not travel beyond his or her county and neighboring states were often seen as foreign and exotic lands.

Very few reliable highway maps existed, as each state – and even county – had its own set of road numbers and routes.  Often, drivable roads in one community would end at the county-line of a neighboring locality, rendering the increasingly popular automobile useless for coast to coast travel.

In an effort to create a national standard for highway travel and usher in a new era in which the North and South were connected via drivable routes, in October 1925 Federal board of transportation officials published a report proposing a new numbering system for national routes.

The report noted, “The clear designation of important routes of travel will be a distinct advantage not only in eliminating confusion, but also in furthering systematic and continuous construction.”

The States would quickly approve of the idea and America’s US Highway numbered routes were born.

Among the original numbered US routes created in 1926 was US Route 11, which would do something almost unprecedented — link New York to Mississippi; providing travel from the New York / Quebec border in the north to the Mississippi / Lousiana state line in the south.

In 1929, the route would be extended southward, continuing into New Orleans, Louisiana.



MAP: Early map of US Route 11
MAP: Early map of US Route 11

The route was hailed as an engineering marvel, as it was unique among the routes east of the Mississippi in that throughout practically its whole length it followed the Appalachian Mountain range, crossing the parallel ridges from valley to valley – rendering it as one of the most picturesque vehicular highways in the world.

Though the route was named “Lee Highway” in many parts of the South, in honor of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, the highway actually served to help bring healing to a nation that had been divided by war — by linking the North’s industrial machine to the South’s raw materials, the route helped unite the economies of the two regions as well as provided an avenue of escape for struggling African-Americans during the most desperate days of the segregation era — thanks to the automobile and US highways, the black population of Washington, D.C., went from 25% in 1920 to 71% in 1970.

It would be impossible to accurately measure the role this one route has played in linking the land of Dixie with Yankeedom. Even today, the two areas may seem like worlds apart, but there is a single route which links the two — a route that is much the same in New York as it is in Virginia or Alabama — lined with homes of real Americans, roadside eateries and oddities and serves as the main street for a countless number of towns and communities.

Sure, the nation’s Interstates may have deflected a large number of travelers in recent decades from this old path, but it’s the road that serves as America’s Main Street.

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