Building the Shortest Highway in the Longest Amount of Time Introduction

Conceived in 1915 as the shortest route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the Old Spanish Trail (OST) connecting St. Augustine, Florida and San Diego, California, took nearly fifteen years to construct at a cost of more than $80,000.000. Unlike other Southern transcontinental highways that stitched together existing roads across the continent's relatively flat and dry midsection, much of the Old Spanish Trail was forged over formerly impassable swamplands in the Southeast, including five major outlets into the Gulf. Along with these geographical impediments, the Old Spanish Trail Association (OSTA) protested that the uncooperativeness of individual states and the federal government ultimately hampered its completion. Finally opening for travel in 1929, the OSTA billed the highway as the most expensive and most highly engineered of all the transcontinental trails. As the progenitor of today's Interstate 10, the OSTA deserves recognition for boosting the first southernmost transcontinental highway.

An Idea for a Southern Tourist Route

Organized at Mobile in 1915, the Old Spanish Trail got its start in a city with little claim to Spanish history. The city, founded in 1702 at Fort Louise de la Mobile, developed as a French colony, coming only briefly under Spanish rule between 1783 and 1813. From 1814 to the Civil War, it prospered as a port town. As the only outlet of the Tombigbee and Alabama rivers, Mobile received hundreds of steamers overburdened with cotton from the state’s rich agricultural interior. The aftermath of the Civil War decimated its port and commercial life, and by the turn of the twentieth century, Mobile had little economic distinction, relying more on its social graces for survival.

Alabama did little to promote good roads to reduce Mobile’s isolation. In 1912, one year after formation of the State Highway Department, the principal highway to the city came from the north, following the old Federal Road from Montgomery. East and west connections to the city were non-existent.

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Even in 1925, ten years after the Old Spanish Trail’s formation, a driver arriving from the east was forced to take a Bay Boat from Fairhope, Alabama and endure a 10-mile trip across Mobile with only two daily departures; the charge, an exorbitant $3.50 to $6.00 per car.

The need for an east-west highway through Mobile coincided with the development of two north-south highways, the Dixie and Jackson, each promising to route thousands of Northern tourists to Florida and New Orleans, respectively. Quick to appreciate the automobile and its potential tourist windfall, the newly formed Mobile Rotary Club initially backed the Jackson Highway, a road first conceived in 1911 by Miss Alma Rittenberry connecting Chicago to New Orleans. As the road was planned to cross Mississippi rather than Alabama, Mobile stood to lose thousands of wintering motorists to the Magnolia State.

The Rotarians mobilized a coalition of businessmen to promote an alternative route for the highway through Alabama. The group, including members of the Chamber of Commerce, the Cotton Exchange, and local public officials and newspapermen, organized a large delegation to attend the national Jackson Highway meeting in Nashville, in September 1915, to forward their alternative. Using statistical information compiled by the Rand McNally Corporation, the Mobile coalition advertised that the Alabama route, though 95 miles longer, would benefit a population of 896,000, compared to 386,000 in Mississippi. Although the Nashville convention did not select a route (the highway eventually followed the Mississippi route), the urgency to build an east-west route through Mobile did not die with the Rotary Club and the Mobile boosters.

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Realizing that the Jackson Highway might bypass Mobile, members of the Rotary Club and the Chamber of Commerce devised a scheme to direct interstate traffic to the port city. Organized by Palmer Pillans, an admiralty lawyer and then-President of the Rotary Club (figure 3), and Stewart A. LeBlanc, manager of Mobile Liners, Inc., a steamship agency, the group conceived a highway skirting the Gulf Coast connecting Mobile to New Orleans, Jacksonville, and thereby the Jackson and Dixie highways. The group announced its intentions in October 1915. The highway, to be named The Old Spanish Trail, was envisioned by Pillans as “afford(ing) tourists the ability to see Florida towns, come through Mobile and go west along the Mississippi coast through New Orleans and to California.”

Like many private highways, the Old Spanish Trail got its official launch at a rousing convention, populated by good roads boosters and Chamber of Commerce officials, ambitious local and state politicians, newspapermen, and the curious — each appointed a so-called delegate of the Old Spanish Trail Association. The Association hired two newspapermen to publicize the convention and dispatched messengers, in the form of LeBlanc and Pillans, to drum up support for the highway. A scout car driven by James A. Emmett went ahead of the delegation to test the “enthusiasm and earnestness existing along the suggested routes of the between Jacksonville and Mobile.” The car was warmly received throughout Florida, turning out record crowds of good roads enthusiasts — one county even promised to name the road “Emmett Lane” if the OSTA selected their route. During meetings, the delegates pitched the trail not only as a connection between Jacksonville and New Orleans, but also as the winter return route transcontinental motorists would use to travel from one coast to the other.

Although rivalry surfaced between competing towns in Florida, the December 10-11, 1915 convention in Mobile brought together 419 delegates from Alabama, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and Arizona. Orators delivered speeches on the benefits of good highways. Dr. Erwin Craighead, president of the Iberville Historical Society, gave an address on the historical origins of the Old Spanish Trail and James Emmett provided a synopsis of the various routes across Florida, drawing from his 1,600-mile trip. Later the Rotarians held a “smoker” at the Cawthorn Hotel and a permanent organization was formed, electing Palmer Pillans as President and Stewart LeBlanc as Secretary. Harry Locke, an experienced highway “pathfinder” and mapmaker from Los Angeles, presented a potential route covering the west section of the highway between Houston and Los Angeles.

Tempering the OSTA’s early enthusiasm were the many physical and political obstacles to the highway’s construction. Specifically, as pointed out by a December 11, 1915 article in The Mobile Register, numerous major waterways needed to be spanned between Florida and New Orleans. These formidable physical obstacles, which the Association termed the “barrier sections,” included two-thirds of the drainage waters of the United States and 125 miles of delta formation east and west of the Mississippi River. To cross these waterways most state and local highway authorities relied on private ferries, nearly 31 of them between Houston and Florida. The majority of the ferries worked on limited schedules and charged exorbitant fees, a situation not conducive to building a transcontinental highway.

“A Movement of Greatest Importance”

An early campaign of the OSTA was to have the highway recognized as a military road, under the naïve belief that the federal government would pay for its construction and solve its barrier section problems. The United States’ ongoing experience in Europe during World War I, as well as Pancho Villa’s bloody incursion over the border in 1916, had awakened America to the need for dependable military roads. In reaction, numerous trails associations and good roads groups “recast their publicity and promotion to reflect importance to defense in the hope that the government would take over the road and build it.” A 1917 National Geographic article entitled “The Immediate Necessity for Military Highways” urged Americans to build a national highway system similar to that of France — a system that the author claimed saved the nation “when the Hun leaped at her throat.”

In reaction, the Mobile Chamber of Commerce and the OSTA promoted a scheme to create a "Coastal Military Highway" to support military functions through a system of highways along the three coasts, with the OST to naturally guard the Gulf and the borderland. In a May 5, 1917 letter, the president of the Mobile Chamber of Commerce bluntly stated the coastal highway “at any other time, [would] savor of ‘pork barrel’ legislation...[but] at this particular time...becomes a movement of the greatest importance in national military strategy.” At its core, the proposal sought to have the highway “built by the U.S. Government,” thereby relieving the OSTA and other private highway associations from the burdensome task of convincing local and state authorities to build their highways. As this and other schemes failed, the Old Spanish Trail began to lose its momentum. These setbacks, coupled with the war in Europe, brought the project to a virtual standstill in 1918 as the association failed to even garner enough interest to hold an annual convention.

A New Direction

With no recognized route across South Texas (a section comprising one third of the highway) the work of the OSTA shifted westward to the Lone Star State, where new blood and enthusiasm to complete the highway took hold. Following a July 25, 1919 national convention in Houston, the association reorganized into four divisions. The new group suggested eliminating the Dallas route, first proposed by Locke in 1916. The reformed association coalesced its new direction at a November 1919 convention in San Antonio. Filling out the convention were 130 delegates from West Texas — tough ranchers and small-town boosters — who promised to build the missing link between San Antonio and El Paso. San Antonio, a city steeped in the romance of Spanish missions and backed by a powerful Chamber of Commerce and an active good roads association, took charge of developing the trail into a national highway.

Along with the reorganization came an election of new officers. Palmer Pillans and Stewart Le Blanc, having served nearly five years, were summarily retired, along with seven other original officers. In their stead came fresh faces, many from Texas. Most significant to the highway’s history, Harral B. Ayres was elected first Field Director of the San Antonio Division, and later Managing Director of the Association. Ayres, a native of New Jersey long experienced in business and promotion, tirelessly campaigned for the highway, finally bringing it to fruition in 1929.

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“Footsteps of the Padres and Conquistadores”

Although the Old Spanish Trail would eventually win recognition as a trunkline highway of the South, the organization under Ayres’ leadership developed a stronger plan to market its romantic link to Spanish history. Spanish missions, forts, and trails had indeed historically occurred along many sections of the highway. And historic expedition routes used by De Soto, De Vaca and De Navarez, as well as lesser-known mission trails in Florida and Texas, did roughly align with the Old Spanish Trail. With these in mind, Ayres began to weave an exotic narrative of the Trail following the “footsteps of the Padres and Conquistadores.” To flesh out this history, Ayres contacted archives in Florida, Texas, and New Mexico to gain information on local Spanish heritage. This information, along with historical facts on non-Spanish settlements, was presented in the Old Spanish Trail travelogs issued from the mid-1920s until 1931.

Though the travelogs painted a romanticized version of the Spanish past, employing stereotypical images of Spanish and Mexicans, including women crowned in mantillas and men draped in fringed ponchos (figure 5), they were also an early effort to get motorists interested in roadside history; a goal later realized by the WPA state guidebooks. Using this approach, Ayres in 1922 “convinced” the U.S. Bureau of Education to recognize the OST as a subject of school study, claiming that the highway had “become a national medium for study of physical geography and old history of the Southern Borderland country.” The romantic marketing of the Old Spanish Trail resulted in much press, with numerous stories regaling the highway’s Spanish past, but did little to fix its troublesome barrier sections.

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Ayres Goes to Washington

Grasping the great difficulties in solving the highway’s barrier problems, Harral Ayres traveled to Washington, D.C. in 1922 and lobbied to get congressional support for the highway — once again with the hope that the federal government would intervene and pay for its construction. According to Ayres, the blame lay with the individual states that were refusing to adopt the expensive sections of highway, not only hampering construction of individual links, but also cutting off the potential of federal aid to build a national highway. The Southern National Highway, and part of the future U.S. 80 from Savannah, Georgia to San Diego, California, which lay to the north by several hundred miles, complicated Ayres’ efforts. In his mind the Southern National Highway enjoyed “official favor for economy, convenience and easy construction,” and therefore, official recognition.

Ayres received his first reward when a group of southern senators and congressmen signed a declaration calling attention to the potential tourist and military importance of the highway, stating that “general co-operation and effort are urged to complete it from sea-to-sea in type and character equal to the service it will be called upon to render.” A letter to Congressman H.M. Wurzbach from the Secretary of War, Henry Wainwright, followed a month later. The statement called the OST “an essential element in the plans being formulated by the War Department for national defense and [which] should be completed without delay according to the best Federal standards for road construction.”

While the congressional and War Department declarations were only statements of support and did not result in any official designation or highway policy, they did galvanize the OSTA and validate seven years of work to make the trail a national highway. In a letter to Major Thomas M. Robins, the author of the Wainwright letter, Ayres remarked that the War Department statement “crystallized the sentiment among highway officials, chambers of commerce, civic clubs and the people, and concentrated their thought and activity on this one basic project in their territory.” From this point on the building of the Old Spanish Trail moved ahead with a new sense of purpose.

Bridge Troubles

The Gulf section still posed a formidable problem, with nearly 35 miles of bridges needing to be constructed and 200 miles of bad road between Pensacola and New Orleans — what Ayres called the “orphans” — not yet improved.

The biggest obstacles to developing the transcontinental highway were the ferries. As late as 1927, only 100 cars per day could travel across Mobile Bay by boat. Even more problematic, the east ferry to New Orleans carried only 30 cars a day into the city in 1926. The issue of the ferry and the proposed construction of a toll bridge rather than a free public bridge into New Orleans became critical to completing the Old Spanish Trail.

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Ayres got involved personally in the local feud over whether to construct a private or toll bridge to New Orleans, penning a letter to the influential Louisiana Motor League that appeared in the Times-Picayune foretelling disaster for the city unless a free bridge was opened on the OST. The letter predicted “tens of thousands of travelers will be lost to New Orleans this summer and winter and faith will be broken with several of Louisiana’s neighboring states, unless the publicly-owned, Chef-Rigolets-Slidell link [bridge] in the Old Spanish Trail is opened up.” Ayres had found that the high tolls between Florida and Morgan City, Louisiana were causing motorists to avoid the Louisiana section of the OST entirely. He was not alone in his fight. A young Huey Long, serving as Chairman of the Public Services Commission, decided to take on the toll bridge, issuing a “blistering statement that broke the bridge deal into the open” on New Year’s Day, 1925 — the opening fusillade of a career-long assault against Louisiana’s political hierarchy.

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The thorn in Ayres’ side did not go away, and demanded his returned attention to New Orleans a year later, when he wrote a series of articles for the Times-Picayune attempting to shame the city into constructing public bridges on the Old Spanish Trail. One article judged that New Orleans and South Louisiana would lose the economic and population growth benefiting other Southern states unless a free bridge was opened. Another compared the road developments of smaller, poorer southern cities with New Orleans, claiming, “all the Old Spanish Trail cities except New Orleans now have paved roads.”

Built in 1928 at a cost of $5,500,000, a privately constructed toll bridge across Lake Pontchartrain temporarily frustrated the OSTA until free bridges over the Chef Menteur and Rigolets passes were completed a year later (figure 8). This and the other battles to bridge the major waterways delayed the highway’s completion until 1929, fourteen years after its initiation. By that year, expensive spans had been completed over the Pascagoula, Mobile, Escambia, Biloxi, and Bay St. Louis bays, along with a 22-mile long seawall protecting the highway and the coastal resort towns of Biloxi, Gulfport and Pass Christian, Mississippi. Ayres called its completion “one of the epics of American construction enterprises”.

In all, the completion of the highway eliminated 35 ferry crossings, leaving only two great water barriers, the Mississippi and Berwick Bay at Morgan City, Louisiana, to cross — both completed several years later under Huey Long’s administration. Of equal accomplishment was constructing the highway across West Texas. Although a dry climate with few rivers to span, the rough terrain and sparse population made it a difficult section to complete. At the end of 1929, the OSTA boasted that it took more than $80,000.000 to construct the Trail. Along its barrier sections, the highway could be calculated to cost roughly $100,000 per mile, an incredibly high price for highway construction during the era.

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End of the Trail

To celebrate Old Spanish Trail’s completion, St. Augustine hosted a three-day gala, including the dedication of a six-foot diameter coquina stone monument marking the beginning of the trail (figure 9).

A representative of the King of Spain dedicated the trail and later honored Ayres with the title of Knight Commander of the Royal Order of Isabel la Catolica. At the dedication Ayres gave a speech praising the work of the Association, and challenging people “to go on with this work and keep this far-southern land a joy for travelers for years to come and a memorial to all that is good in that age of art and chivalry and adventure and great mission works.” Members of the OSTA then departed on a motorcade to San Diego, a promotional technique used since the highway’s inception to increase interest in the project.

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The original OSTA ceased to exist as a dues paying organization after 1929. In Ayres’ mind the highway was finished, with the celebration in St. Augustine the final effort to tie the west and east together. In a May 11, 1929 response to an inquiry about the OST’s future, Ayres recapped his frustration in building the highway, stating, “Individually, these ten years have exhausted me financially. I had no business gambling with my old age that way but no crying about that. I must go somewhere now. The Old Spanish Trail has been put across and that is what we set out to do.”

The OSTA made one final trip from Florida to San Diego in October 1929. The official itinerary for the trip encouraged members to form the “biggest motorcade ever staged.” By the time they reached Lordsburg, New Mexico, the motorcade “owing to rains and heavy floods through the south” consisted of only fifteen cars, and did not “assume the large proportions indicated in earlier advertisements of their coming.”

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Different Old Spanish Trail associations continued to promote the highway well into the 1960s. In 1949, at their annual convention in New Orleans, a new OSTA pushed to have U.S. 90 (which terminated at Van Horn, Texas) extended to San Diego, thereby aligning the OST with one continuous route, an ambition federal highway officials had fought against some 24 years earlier with the creation of the uniform U.S. highway numbering system. In another attempt to revive the highway, the seven divisions were consolidated in 1956 into one national organization headquartered at the Shamrock Hotel in Houston, Texas. Renamed the Old Spanish Trail Inc., the association’s sought to “double traffic on Highway 90.” With a new slogan, “America’s Highway of Romance!” the association launched a massive advertising campaign to revive interest in the old trail.

Despite the publication of thousands of brochures, maps, and the release of a feature-length promotional film, the completion of Interstates 8 and 10 in the late 1960s doomed the Old Spanish Trail to extinction. The new interstates, which provided a straighter and faster course across much of the Southwest, left many sections of old U.S. 90 and 80 to fade into obscurity. With commerce moving near interstate exits, the association lost most of its membership from businesses along the old route. The interstate’s emphasis on speed and efficiency removed much of the regional flavor of the Old Spanish Trail, leaving no room for quaint notions of Spanish trails and missions.