Why you should care
Because America’s love affair with the open road started here.
A full three years before the formal launch of the vast Interstate project, the father of America’s highway system was fired. On March 31, 1953, the secretary of commerce canned Thomas Harris MacDonald, who in more than three decades as the commissioner of public roads had become one of the most powerful bureaucrats the United States has ever seen. MacDonald told his staff he’d be gone the next day, addressed the press and stopped by his secretary’s desk. “I’ve just been fired, so we might as well get married,” the widower told Miss Fuller.
Serious, blunt and fiercely committed, that was MacDonald. For the first half of the 20th century, his cause was America’s roadways. And while President Dwight D. Eisenhower gets the bulk of the credit for the Interstate system, there’s no man more responsible for laying the groundwork than MacDonald. As President Donald Trump and Congress press ahead on massive plans to upgrade the nation’s infrastructure, it’s worth pondering the little-known figure who shaped much of it in the first place — as a taxpayer-funded communal undertaking.
He was as powerful as J. Edgar Hoover was.
Tom Lewis, author, Divided Highways
MacDonald was born in 1881 in a log cabin in Leadville, Colorado, but grew up in Iowa, where he displayed an early serious streak. Tom Lewis, author of Divided Highways: Building the Interstate Highways, Transforming American Life, says an adolescent MacDonald came home one day and informed his siblings that they were henceforth to call him “sir.” He studied civil engineering at Iowa State University and emerged a Progressive Era advocate for good roads, seeing their power to help farmers bring goods to market.
MacDonald became the chief engineer of Iowa’s roads department and chairman of the national association of state highway officials. In 1919, he was appointed head of the federal roads department, where he would go on to serve under seven presidents. At the time, roads often stopped dead at state lines, with no plan to knit them together. Backed by the rubber and cement industries, MacDonald helped forge a plan for national roadways in partnership with the states. “Out of the limelight but silently pulling the strings, the nation’s chief road builder laid the groundwork for the greatest public works project in world history,” Stephen B. Goddard writes in Getting There: The Epic Struggle Between Road and Rail in the American Century. “To accomplish it, he first had to create the greatest political lobby in world history, and MacDonald was about to prove that he was up to the task.”
He stayed out of the newspapers but schmoozed senators over dinner and wowed them with data, sometimes skewed to push his agenda: proliferating roads and keeping them free, unlike the rails. He hated the Pennsylvania Turnpike and other toll roads, predicting (erroneously) that no one would drive on them if they had to pay. MacDonald’s roadway evangelism knew no bounds. Take, for instance, his dissection of the Civil War: “The intersectional misunderstanding which gave rise to it could not have reached the critical stage of war had it been possible as it is now for the Southern planter to spend his summer in Maine and the New England businessman to journey southward in his own car for golf at Pinehurst and a winter vacation in Florida.”
But the balding, rotund official known as “The Chief” was dead right about the way roads would drive American prosperity. Through the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s, Congress put up the money, and MacDonald put together the plan for an interstate system — with a lowercase “i.” Instead of the divided highways that came later, MacDonald’s thoroughfares were the iconic numbered roads such as Route 1, which runs between Maine and Florida, and Route 101, which hugs the West Coast. He greased the symbiotic relationship among members of Congress who could take credit for the economic engines at home and the road-building industries that profited from government largesse, but Lewis says he found no evidence that MacDonald took bribes. The benefit to him was clout. “He was as powerful as J. Edgar Hoover was,” Lewis says, referring to the legendary FBI director.
But in Washington, power never lasts forever. MacDonald was past retirement age by the time the Eisenhower administration arrived, and Commerce Secretary Sinclair Weeks was eager to seize control with his own team. MacDonald also didn’t have the same vision for the politically risky divided highways that would form the Interstate system after the 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act, Lewis says. After he was sacked, MacDonald and Miss Fuller moved down to Texas A&M University for a teaching post. As Eisenhower’s superhighway projects were getting under way in April 1957, MacDonald died of a heart attack, not far from U.S. Route 190, one of his own first-generation interstates.