June 11, 1910
In Oregon, a statewide campaign promoting the need for improved roads officially ended in the city of Medford in the southwestern corner of the Beaver State. This campaign, which was sponsored by the state’s good roads advocates, had been launched on May 16 in the city of Ontario in eastern Oregon. One of the individuals who played a major role in this campaign was Dr. Maurice O. “Mo” Eldridge, assistant chief of road management for the U.S. Office of Public Roads of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
By the time he took part in that tour in Oregon, Eldridge (pictured above) had firmly established himself as one of the federal government’s leading experts on the improvement of roads. His career dated back to the spring of 1894, when he became only the third employee of the recently established Office of Road Inquiry within USDA.
The Office of Road Inquiry was renamed the Office of Public Roads Inquiries in 1899. By that time, there were six people altogether working for the agency. Its annual report published that year stated the following about those employees: “This small force has been kept busy prosecuting inquiries, answering correspondence, and gathering and disseminating important information relating to the various phases on the road subject.” (In yet another name change, the Office of Public Road Inquiries was designated as the Office of Public Roads in 1905.)
Eldridge assumed an especially notable role in the national spotlight when it came to his agency’s advocacy efforts on behalf of better roads. With great energy and conviction, he traveled throughout the United States on a regular basis to give addresses emphasizing the importance of good roads and highlighting everything from scientific research to economic statistics.
As a participant in the good roads campaign in Oregon during the spring of 1910, Eldridge – characterized by the Rogue River Courier newspaper in the southern region of the state as the “best known authority on good roads in the country” – used that same blend of expertise, information, and insights during a total of 50 addresses that included at least one stop in each county of the Beaver State.
Eldridge’s substance and style as a speaker were very much in evidence during presentations that he gave on June 2 at the Mascot Theatre in the state capital of Salem. The Statesman Journal reported, “Mr. Eldridge laid especial stress on the fact that good roads materially enhance the value of the farmers’ property and displayed several comparative view showing good and bad roads and demonstrating a marked appreciation values on the completion of the good roads.”
The Statesman Journal also noted, “He displayed bits of road making in all states and in all lands and climes. Along with these views he entertainingly explained the various methods which are used in the different communities in developing roads.”
Eldridge’s broad-based, long-term approach to his subject matter was likewise on full display a couple of days later when he spoke to a group at the Palace Theater in the city of Corvallis in central-western Oregon. The Weekly Gazette-Times recounted, “With the aid of a stereopticon [a type of slide projector], he shared pictures of roads, good, bad and indifferent, from the days of the early Egyptians down to the time road building was revolutionized by John McAdam [a Scottish civil engineer who lived between 1756 and 1836].”
Eldridge’s participation in that good roads campaign mirrored the ever-growing interest and involvement of the federal government in general when it came to better roads nationwide. The campaign also reflected the newfound momentum for the good roads movement in Oregon by the 1910s. Three years after Eldridge and others had crisscrossed the state emphasizing the importance of improved travel routes, the Oregon State Highway Commission (the present-day Oregon Transportation Commission) was established.
Photo Credit: Federal Highway Administration
Additional information on Malcolm O. “Mo” Eldridge and other early federal roads officials is available at Public Roads – How The Uncommon Became The Commonplace , January/February 2015 – FHWA-HRT-15-002 Vol. 78 • No. 4 (dot.gov)
For more information on the history of the good roads movement in Oregon, please check out LaGrande-Wallowa Lake Highway, 1923 (oregonhistoryproject.org)