The Birth of a U.S. President Who Built a Far-Reaching Transportation Legacy

October 14, 1890

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who served as the 34th U.S. president between 1953 and 1961, was born in Denison, Texas. One of the defining moments of his presidency was when he signed into law the landmark Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 that made the Interstate System a reality.

The provisions in Title I of this law included expanding the number of miles for the Interstate System from 40,000 (64,373.8 kilometers) as set forth in the 1944 Federal-Aid Highway Act to 41,000 (65,983.1 kilometers). Title I also authorized $25 billion during the period between 1957 and 1969 as the federal share (90 percent) for building Interstate highways. Title II of the new law established the Highway Trust Fund as a dedicated source for funding the Interstate System and stipulated that the new highways network operate on a pay-as-you-go basis. The creation of a program for financing and building the Interstate System had been a top priority for Eisenhower and he staunchly pushed for congressional legislation establishing it.

The origins of Eisenhower’s steadfast support for improved roads can be traced to his childhood in Kansas, where his family settled after leaving Texas in 1892. “So far as I can recall,” Eisenhower told members of the National Rural Letter Carrier Association in 1959, “I never saw a paved road in in my youth.” He also shared his memories of a rural letter carrier making mail-delivery rounds on a gumbo road in that part of the state. Eisenhower recounted, “He came along with a one-horse wagon, always with the top up, because the weather was bad. In rainy weather he was down to his axles.”

An experience that left an even stronger impression on Eisenhower with respect to the need for good roads took place in 1919. As a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army at the time, Eisenhower participated in that military branch’s transcontinental motor transport convoy from Washington, D.C., to California. During that coast-to-coast expedition, he and his fellow soldiers had to deal with plenty of ruts, dust, and mud on their route.   

Eisenhower’s ideas about roads were further developed when, as Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force during World War II, he had the opportunity to travel on and appraise Germany’s state-of-the-art highways collectively known as the Autobahn. “The old convoy [in 1919] had started me thinking about good, two-lane highways,” Eisenhower later wrote. “but Germany had me see the wisdom of broader ribbons across the land.”

Along with playing a pivotal leadership role in the creation of the Interstate System, Eisenhower also achieved other notable transportation-oriented milestones during his years as president. In 1954, he signed into law the Wiley-Dondero Seaway Act authorizing the United States to work with Canada in constructing the Saint Lawrence Seaway to connect the Atlantic Ocean with the Great Lakes. Five years later, Eisenhower joined Queen Elizabeth II of England in officially inaugurating that binational waterway.

Eisenhower also made transportation history in 1957 when he became the first president to ride in a nuclear submarine. This occurred when he was aboard USS Seawolf as she traveled off the coast of Rhode Island. That same year, Eisenhower became the first president to fly in a helicopter while in office. This first-of-a-kind flight took place after he boarded a Bell UH-13-J helicopter on the South Lawn of the White House. The aircraft, which was piloted by U.S. Air Force Major Joseph E. Barrett, transported Eisenhower from there to the Maryland-based presidential country retreat at Camp David.

In the time since his death in 1969 at the age of 78, Eisenhower has been honored in several large-scale and noteworthy ways for his accomplishments. In 1990, for example, the Interstate System was formally renamed “The Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways” the day after the centennial of his birth. On September 17, 2020, the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial (located just off the National Mall in Washington, D.C.) was officially dedicated.

For more information on Dwight D. Eisenhower, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dwight_D._Eisenhower

Additional information on his role in creating the Interstate System is available at https://www.eisenhowerlibrary.gov/research/online-documents/interstate-highway-system

A video of the Eisenhower Memorial dedication can be viewed at https://www.c-span.org/video/?475650-1/dwight-d-eisenhower-memorial-dedication&live

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