Monday, August 27, 2012

From Military Road to Bankhead Highway

The year is 1917 and you are heading up Bankhead Highway heading west.    Try to follow these directions:

Once you reach Lithia Springs go straight through by taking the right fork and crossing the rail road.   Cross the rail road again.   Take a left and go straight ahead.

Yes, that’s right….you crossed the railroad track twice.

Once you reach Douglasville follow the road by crossing the rail road track not once but twice.  At the fork take the right side not once, not twice, but three different times.

Yes!  There were three forks in the road.

Then as you approach Winston turn left around the post office.   Do NOT go down the hill to the station, but DO go down a rough steep grade and take a right under the rail road.   Cross the rail road tracks and take the right fork.

Yes, there used to be a post office stop in Winston.

At Villa Rica go two blocks from the station and take a left…..then the right fork……….and here’s where the trip takes a fun turn………….ford the creek.   It’s a good size and has a smooth sand bottom….deep to the left.  Cross the wood bridge.   Then cross the rail road and take the left fork (the right side takes you to Cartersville).

Head down the long steep grade and manage the very rough dangerous curve.  Cross a wood bridge at the bottom.  Go under the rail road track and take the left fork.  Make sure it’s the left because if you take the right you head out towards Cedartown and you might not realize it until you have traveled the entire 26 mile route.

I find the numerous forks in the road to be interesting, and the fact that you could go “under” the railroad in so many places very fascinating.   

This route would not have been titled Bankhead Highway, however…..not in 1917, but it would have been referred to as the Military Road, and the road would have been dirt as it was not paved until the 1930s.

You can read more about the Military Road here.

During the summer of 1917 the Studebaker Corporation gave the folks at the Atlanta Constitution a car which became known as the “Dixie Rover”.  The car along with her driver Ned M’Intosh completed a series of eleven road tours in Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee in the interest of better roads and better motoring conditions.   M’Intosh was staff correspondent for the Constitution and was secretary for the Georgia State Automobile Association.  He traveled over some of the best roads and some of the worst roads in the south.  Some of the roads had never even had a car on them. 

 M’Intosh also road the proposed routes for the proposed Bankhead Highway, and the above directions were published in an article he wrote concerning the route.

In June, 1917 M'Intosh advises the importance of Bankhead Highway by writing.....Certainly it is a prize worth fighting for, because it is to be a great trunk highway, not only between Atlanta and Birmingham, but between the west coast and the Atlantic with the rapidly increasing use of motor vehicles, the development of such a highway is inevitable.   It is not difficult to forsee the day when passenger traffic between Atlanta and Birmingham will be carried on almost solely by automobile.  

The advantages of a town being located on the main highway now will therefore grow most appreciably in the immediate future, and there is apparently no limit to the possible development of automobile traffic.  

When word was handed down that Congress was going to appropriate money to building a national highway from coast to coast routes were proposed and group were set up to boost or support the road.   In November, 1916 the Atlanta Constitution reported a group of highway boosters would hold a meeting in Douglasville.  At that time five counties - Douglas, Fulton, Cobb, Haralson, and Cobb - were planning on having the new Bankhead Highway pass through their borders, but the legislation wasn't a done deal.  

Douglasville's own Dr. T.R. Whitley was a delegate to the Bankhead Highway Association and along with other delegates was responsible for the final route the road would take.  In fact, it can probably be argued rather successfully Dr. Whitley's position as a delegate helped Douglas County greatly.  The purpose of the meeting was to discuss methods for delegates and supporters for building even more support for the road to be routed through their particular area.  

By February, 1917 more meetings were being held.  The picture I've posted below is from the Atlanta Constitution.  From left to right you see Dr. T.R. Whitley, who was a member of the board of directors for the Bankhead Highway Association; Mrs. T.R. Whitley; ex-Mayor J.H. Van Hoose of Birmingham, and J.A. Rountree, the secretary for the Bankhead Highway Association.

Dr. Whitley was interviewed for the Constitution article dated May 11, 1917 which discussed how the labor was to be performed on the road.  

At this time World War I was still underway and many German prisoners of war housed at Fort McPherson, per this article.  Dr. Whitley referred to these prisoners in his remarks and discussed how he thought it would be a good idea for the prisoners to work on the new road.

By May, 1917 Dr. Whitley advises the road had already been surveyed and the section from Fort McPherson to the Chattahoochee River was in good shape, and some of the road on the other side of the river was complete "with the exception of some eight miles that would have to be built."  The eight miles was later identified in the article as the stretch between the river and LIthia Springs.  The work was needed in order to correct several bad grades.
Regarding the German prisoners working on the eight mile stretch Dr. Whitley advised, "The Germans must be worked somewhere, and there will be no additional expense in working them on the roads and the government has mules enough now doing nothing to work the roads."

So, far I've found no absolute proof that German POWs worked on Bankhead Highway through Douglas County, but it certainly is possible.

In June, 1917 M'Intosh drove the propsed routes and reported their condition to Atlanta Constitution readers.   There was the route we are familiar with today west to Birmingham, but there was also a route where the road would have been routed through Cave Springs and Rome, and per M'Intosh it was the most preferable even though it was longer.

M'Intosh gave reports concerning all sections of the proposed roadway saying, "The present condition of this road, in the stretches which have been allowed thus to wear out and run down, is but one degree removed from unimproved dirt road.   ...Such a road condition is hardly a criterion of the people who have made such citiies as Birmingham and Gadsden."

He also wasn't very impressed with the proposed route through Cobb County saying, "As has been said before a very considerable amount of work is needed.  The strange part about this Cobb County road is that perhaps the worst part of the road lies between Marietta and the Chattahoochee River bridge, a stretch of road which is more traveled perhaps than any other stretch of the same length in Georgia."

"Regarding the road from western Cobb County line to Douglasville, M'Intosh reported the road was in pretty good  condition, but from Douglasvillle to Villa Rica  the drag is again badly needed.   

What's a drag?

Basically it's a device that can be pulled behind a team of mules, and it  helps to even out the road. The drag I pictured above shows one being used in Minnesota.

Of course, once he crossed the Alabama line the road conditions worsened per M'Intosh...."After one crosses the state line into Alabama, the road is an unspeakable route, it winds back and forth all over the face of the earth and goes up and down small knolls without the back and forth all over the face of the earth and goes up and down small knolls without the remotest semblance of grading with such frequency that it all but makes one sea sick."

Well, it was Alabama, right?

Not only did M'Intosh call for the drag to be used more often he also called for installing sign posts at every cross road and every fork of main roads and street corners in towns.

Think about that for a minute....he was calling for road signs....something we take for granted today, but back then it wasn't immediately done because there wasn't a real need until roads had automobile traffic.

You might be thinking....dirt road and no road signs, traffic lights, and this was true......there were no stop signs or traffic lights at this time, but even without traffic lights to delay drivers it would have taken you right at ten hours to travel by car from Atlanta to Birmingham.

Yes!   Ten hours.  M'Intosh reports he left Atlanta at six in the morning and didn't reach Birmingham until close to four in the afternoon.

I don't think I would have wanted to reach Birmingham that much to endure a ten hour trip.


  1. I really enjoyed this one. Thanks!

  2. Wow thank goodness they extended I 20 into Alabama during my childhood I don't think I would have wanted to drive 10 hours too get there.


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