Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Highways and Budgets

Photograph by Sandra Hughes

Do you think highway construction projects are a modern headache?  Think again. In the early days of our country, our federal government faced the challenges of building essential roads.  One of these led south from its beginning point in Tennessee.

As with most road projects, the first issue that needed to be settled for this road was the issue of land rights. In 1816, the Chickasaw Indians ceded their claim to the land north of the Tennessee River.  (That's a whole story unto itself.)   Up until that time, the southern boundary of Maury County, Tennessee had been a dividing line in the area between lands owned by the Indians and lands open to white settlers.  With these new lands available to them, that year's Congress did what any good Congress would do:  It allocated 10,000 dollars to the construction of the Great Federal Highway, otherwise known as the Military Road.   This road would lead right through the new territory.

The next issues were oversight and labor. General and future president, Andrew Jackson, was placed in charge of the project.  His soldiers performed most of the work.  The road was to be 40 feet wide, and it would lead from Nashville to Madisonville, Louisiana.   Though the road served all travelers, it's main purpose was to provide an easier route for the army to travel southward.  This is similar to Eisenhower's first purpose for the construction of today's Interstate system, which was to provide convenient movement of troops throughout our country should the need arise.

From June 1817 to May 1820, three hundred men worked on the road.  That's not a bad time frame considering the magnitude of the project and the era in which is was carried out.

The workers included soldiers, sawyers, carpenters, blacksmiths, teams of oxen, traveling forges, and horses.  Jack McGhee, a slave, shod horses for Jackson's workmen.  He died in 1877 at the age of 100.

How did the $10,000 budget fare?  As you might have guessed, the road cost more than expected.  In fact, a total of $300,000 was spent.     

After the completion of the road, the Postmaster General ordered that the mail be carried over this road, and the old Natchez Trace ceased to be the mail route.  After that, the Trace declined as the main thoroughfare from Tennessee to Natchez, though it has been reconstructed as a scenic highway.  Again, this prefigures our modern times, in which old state routes have declined as Interstates have become the major traffic conduits.  The famous Route 66, for example, is one of those old routes that have been overshadowed by the Interstate system and are traveled now mainly for nostalgia.      

Today, parts of the Old Military Road are still in use in Tennessee and Alabama, though with modern paving, of course.  The photo accompanying this article is of a historical marker in northern Alabama commemorating that section of the route.

Main Source:  Jill Garrett's Hither, Thither, and Yon.  



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