1955: The Passing of a Leading State Highway Official and One-Time AASHO President

September 13, 1955

Carl W. Brown, who established himself as prominent highways leader not only within his home state of Missouri but at the national level, died in the city of Fulton in the Show-Me State. He was 68.

Brown was born on January 7, 1887, in the city of Vandalia, Missouri. He received his early education at the local public schools there in Rails County and graduated from Vandalia High School. In 1904, Brown enrolled in the college of engineering at the University of Missouri. He put those studies on hold in 1907 to work on a construction project for the Electric Railroad in the Missouri counties of Monroe and Audrain. The following year, Brown took a job making surveys for an early toll road in Lincoln County, Missouri. Brown ultimately did earn his civil engineering degree from the University of Missouri in 1910.

After his graduation from the University of Missouri, Brown worked as a transit-man and assistant resident engineer for the Burlington Railroad. Until 1915, he also did private engineering and contracting work – as well as some farming — in his home state. Brown was subsequently elected county engineer and surveyor for Rails County, Missouri, and served from 1915 to 1918. (In an unusual development that also indicated the widespread respect for his abilities, he was nominated by both Democrats and Republicans for that position.)

It was in 1918 that his career with the Missouri State Highway Department (the present-day Missouri Department of Transportation) began when he accepted employment with that agency as office engineer and chief clerk. Brown quickly made a positive and strong impression in carrying out his responsibilities, and was elevated to first assistant state highway engineer in 1920.  In reporting on this promotion at the time, the journal Engineering World asserted that Brown “is recognized as an excellent engineer with considerable general experience gained before his selection for a place in the department.”

Brown continued to steadily rise through the ranks of the Missouri State Highway Department and in 1936 was appointed its chief engineer. He ended up serving in that role under nine Missouri governors. As one of his obituaries in 1955 would note, “During this period many of the state’s modern highways were built.” Missouri’s road-building efforts and innovations under Brown drew national attention.

Along with overseeing the construction and improvement of roads throughout Missouri, Brown also expended time and energy to be active in various engineering and professional circles. He served as president of several organizations, including the Missouri Highway Engineers Association; the Mississippi Valley Conference of State Highway Officials (now called the Mid America Association of State Transportation Officials); and the American Road Builders Association (ultimately renamed the American Road and Transportation Builders Association).  Brown was also a member of both the Missouri Society of Professional Engineers and the American Society of Civil Engineers. 

Brown also became significantly involved in the activities of the American Association of State Highway Officials (AAASHO), serving on a number of association committees. He eventually became a member of the AASHO Executive Committee and was elected first vice president at the association’s annual meeting in September 1948 in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Wesley W. Polk of Illinois was elected president of AASHO at that annual meeting. His tenure in that role, however, turned out to be among the shortest in the association’s history. By January 1949, Polk had to step down as president after leaving his position as chief highway engineer of the Illinois State Highway Department. He had served as chief highway engineer since 1942 and ended up retiring from that position under pressure from newly elected Governor Adlai E. Stevenson, who was seeking to hire somebody else for the role.

As the newly elected first vice president of AASHO, Brown filled that vacancy in the association’s top job. “Mr. Brown is well known to all members of the American Association of State Highway Officials,” noted American Highways (AASHO’s longtime magazine) in reporting on his accession to the association’s presidency. “All those who have been associated with him appreciate and understand his loyal, active interest in the American Association of State Highway Officials, its progress and its welfare. Only a few men have succeeded to the presidency of the Association with the background of experience in its work possessed by Mr. Brown.”

As AASHO’s 36th president, Brown found himself as the leader of an association still trying to address the post-World War II demands for adequate highways to serve an ever-growing and increasingly mobile U.S. population. In addition, Brown found time at least once during his tenure to meet in the nation’s capital with another Missouri native who shared the title of president. In early May, he visited the White House and met one-on-one with President Harry S Truman (likewise a staunch good-roads advocate).

Brown’s time as president was also defined by AASHO’s continued push for systematic efforts to gauge the service life of highway pavements and the impact of wheel loads in order to create better highways for increased and heavier traffic. These efforts culminated in the following decade with state-financed road tests in Maryland and Idaho, and then – in what turned out to be the largest and most significant pavement research performed in the 20th century – the AASHO Road Test in Illinois.

As he prepared to step down as AASHO president, Brown highlighted the importance of that issue while speaking at the association’s annual meeting in San Antonio, Texas, in October 1949.  He also used that address to underscore another vital issue likewise impacting those traveling along the nation’s highways. “It is the duty of the highway official in so far as it is possible, to design, construct, and maintain our highways so that they will be safe,” he said.  “It is the further duty of every State Highway Department to inform the public constantly of various safety measures, in other words ‘sell safety.’  With human lives at stake, the realization of our stupendous task is cause for daily sober reflection and action.”   

Brown continued serving as Missouri’s chief engineer until his retirement in 1951. He spent his final years living at a farm near the town of New Bloomfield, Missouri. 

Photo Credit: AASHTO

Additional information on the Missouri Highway Department, including Carl W. Brown’s tenure as one of its chief engineers, please check out A History of the Missouri State Highway Department (mo.gov)

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