1961: A Giant Among State Highway Commissioners Passes Away

February 12, 1961

Charles Richelieu McMillan, who shepherded major changes to roads throughout South Carolina during his tenure as the Palmetto State’s chief highway commissioner, died in the state capital city of Columbia after a long illness. He was 61. The South Carolina-based Florence Morning News praised McMillan at the time of his death as a person “of solid integrity and of a selfless determination for his state and its motorists” and also as “prudent watchdog of the public’s money.” McMillan had been appointed head of the South Carolina Highway Department (the present-day South Carolina Department of Transportation) in 1947 and he served in that position until the month before he died.

McMillan was born in the city of Mullins in the northeastern part of South Carolina in 1899. In 1922, he earned a degree in civil engineering from the University of South Carolina. McMillan’s longtime service with the South Carolina Highway Department began the following year when he joined that agency as a junior engineer. He subsequently rose through the ranks at the South Carolina Highway Department in such positions as maintenance engineer, construction engineer, assistant district engineer, and district engineer.

In 1941, McMillan was promoted to state highway engineer. One of his main accomplishments in this position involved successfully pushing for the replacement of South Carolina’s concrete highways with bituminous-surfaced highways.

After being named chief highway commissioner in 1947, McMillan undertook a wide range of unprecedented initiatives both within the South Carolina Highway Department and on behalf of  the state’s roads system. These initiatives included creating a public affairs office for the South Carolina Highway Department; establishing a division to oversee license examinations for engineers; and successfully advocating for a one-cent increase in the state gas tax to help finance the construction and maintenance of the state’s ever-growing network of roads.

One clear reflection of the progress in highway improvements made under McMillan’s leadership could be seen in signs that were installed at South Carolina’s boundaries in 1952. “Welcome to South Carolina,” proclaimed these signs. “See the Best State on the Best Roads.”

In another one of his key goals as state highway commissioner, McMillan promoted the need to build controlled-access highways with frontage roads as a means to guarantee greater safety for motorists and their passengers in South Carolina. This goal finally became a reality in February 1956, when the South Carolina state legislature approved the construction of controlled-access highways with frontage roads.

Four months later, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed into law the landmark Federal-Aid Highway Act that authorized the program for financing and building the Interstate System. McMillan firmly established himself as a staunch champion of this system, calling it “the greatest public works construction program the world has ever known.”

McMillan’s highways-oriented activities and influence extended well beyond South Carolina. He served as president of the Southeastern Association of State Highway Officials (SASHO) in 1951-52, for example. McMillan also became strongly involved in the priorities of the American Association of State Highway Officials and, in November 1957, he was elected the association’s 46th president. McMillan served in this role until being succeeded by Ralph Bartelsmeyer of the Illinois Division of Highways (now part of the Illinois Department of Transportation) in December of the following year.

During McMillan’s term as AASHO president, state highway departments across the country continued to focus to a large extent on building Interstate highways. “The past year has been a big one and a busy one for the American Association, and for each of the state and territorial jurisdictions participating in our program,” said McMillan in a speech at SASHO’s annual meeting in October 1958. “We can look back upon a year of very great program and history-making accomplishments . . . Our job has been bigger, our activity immeasurably expanded. The results are in the open for everyone throughout the nation to see.”

That same month, another major highway development – and one of the biggest milestones in the association’s history – took place in the city of Ottawa, Illinois, with the official launch of the AASHO Road Test. The purpose of this road test, sponsored by AASHO and supervised by the Highway Research Board (the present-day Transportation Research Board), was to conduct scientific studies of the performance of highway pavements when subjected to repeated passages of vehicles of various weights and sizes. This effort would encompass the largest and most substantive pavement research performed in the 20th century. Its results have proven to be highly influential with respect to highway design and construction.

McMillan was among those participating in the noontime inaugural ceremony for the AASHO Road Test. He proclaimed to those in attendance, “This is a big day for highway transportation in the United States and everywhere.”

Nearly two-and-a-half years after that historic day, McMillan’s death was widely mourned in South Carolina as well as throughout the United States. The Associated Press reported at the time, “Although the improvements in South Carolina’s highway system under his direction won him national recognition, McMillan never stopped trying to build even bigger and better roads.” The Florence Morning News noted, “Perhaps the most appropriate epitaph that could be written for Claude R. McMillan is the network of fine highways that embrace South Carolina.”

For more information on Claude R. McMillan, please check out  http://www.scencyclopedia.org/sce/entries/mcmillan-claude-richelieu/ and https://www.southcarolinapublicradio.org/post/m-mcmillan-claude-richelieu-1899-1961

 

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