1874: A Pioneering Highways Leader Begins His Life’s Journey in West Virginia

October 28, 1874

Henry Garnett Shirley, who became the first president of AASHO (officially renamed AASHTO in 1973), was born in Jefferson County, West Virginia. He graduated from the Virginia Military Institute with a degree in civil engineering in 1896, and went on to serve as commandant and professor of military science at Horner Military School in Oxford, North Carolina. In addition, Shirley earned a doctorate of science from the University of Maryland. 

During the Spanish-American War in 1898, Shirley was an officer in the U.S. Volunteers (the collective name for regiments of military volunteers that were separate from the regular army or any militias). He then embarked on his longtime career in transportation. This career initially involved railroads.  Shirley worked for several railroad companies, including the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad; West Virginia Central Railroad; and Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad. 

During his time with the B&O, Shirley worked on a planned railroad line in Pennsylvania and was in charge of the tunnels that were cut through mountains for that purpose. While plans for that railroad line were ultimately abandoned, those tunnels did become part of the Pennsylvania Turnpike that now runs along that route. 

Shirley also worked for the engineering department of the District of Columbia, and then became roads engineer for Baltimore County in Maryland. He then stepped into the role of chief engineer of the Maryland State Roads Commission (the forerunner of today’s Maryland Department of Transportation) and proved to be instrumental in making that state’s highways among the most modernized in the nation. 

During that time, Shirley also helped organize AASHO. He was among the 14 state engineers who, while meeting in Atlanta in November 1914, discussed and agreed upon establishing such an association to better address and promote their shared highway priorities. At the first official meeting of AASHO in Washington, D.C. the following month, Shirley was selected by the other delegates to serve as the new association’s first president. He would be reelected in 1915 at the AASHO annual meeting in Chicago. Shirley retains the distinction of being the only one of the association’s presidents to serve two terms. 

Shirley’s accomplishments during his two terms as AASHO president between 1914 and 1916 included spearheading efforts to develop and advocate for the Federal-Aid Road Act of 1916, which was signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson and set the stage for a federal-state partnership committed to sustaining a viable network of highways throughout the nation. 

Shirley’s years after serving as AASHO president likewise proved to be anything but inactive or uneventful. During the U.S. involvement in World War I, for example he served on the Highway Transport Committee of the Council of National Defense and in that capacity sought to help keep the nation’s roads in the best possible condition for the movement of military troops and supplies. In addition, Shirley served as executive secretary of the Federal Highway Council. He also headed the Highway Industries Association, a trade group organized during the war to advocate for the creation of a federal highway commission to build a 50,000-mile (80, 467.2-kilometer) national highways network.

In 1920, Shirley went back to serving once more as Baltimore County’s roads engineer. His major achievements included an ambitious roadbuilding program for the residential communities in that county that were very much under development by that time.

Shirley was appointed chairman of Virginia’s State Highway Commission in 1922 and served in that capacity under a total of five governors and longer than anybody else. (His title was ultimately changed by legislative action to state highway commissioner.) The Norfolk Virginia-Pilot newspaper proclaimed that “one would have to search far in the state’s annals to find a comparable public career,” and Shirley was indeed widely credited for his efforts to improve and expand Virginia’s highways system.

Shirley also promoted plans for the state’s first limited-access highway to extend from U.S. Route 1 in Northern Virginia to the 14th Street Bridge in Washington, D.C. This road, which is now part of Interstates 95 and 395, was completed after his death and named the Henry G. Shirley Memorial Highway in his honor. 

Shirley also continued his active involvement in AASHO. He had been on the association’s Executive Committee in 1917, and again served in that capacity starting in 1929.

Shirley remained both Virginia’s highway commissioner and a member of the AASHO Executive Committee until his death on July 16, 1941, at his home in Richmond at the age of 66. He had married Alice Robertson Graham in 1904; she died in 1916. They had a total of five children. 

“He was a man of rare intellect and personal charm,” proclaimed AASHO’s American Highways magazine in noting Shirley’s death. “He was as constant in his private friendships as he was dependable in his public acts.”

Photo Credit: AASHTO

Additional information on Henry G. Shirley is available at https://www.newspapers.com/clip/110683893/henry-g-shirley-19-jul-1941-the-news/ and https://www.newspapers.com/clip/110684000/funeral-set-today-for-henry-shirley/

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