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Historically Speaking: Samuel M. Johnson — The man who brought the highway to Roswell and Lincoln, part I

Photo Courtesy of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Lee Highway.

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

By Janice Dunnahoo

Special to the Daily


Samuel M. Johnson was born in Ohio, July 8, 1860. After a childhood in country or village homes, he graduated from Parsons College in Fairfield, Iowa. At Princeton University, he earned a literary degree in post-graduate studies, before graduating from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, Illinois.

He served as a Presbyterian minister for 18 years in Corning, Iowa, Denver, Colorado and Chicago, Illinois. These years and lessons he learned shaped the man he became.

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These years developed the qualities of altruism, leadership, the ability to build up and direct an organization including financial operations and ability as a public speaker and a writer — all of which Johnson possessed in such degree that he became known nationally and internationally. Calls to service led him out on trips throughout the country, until he knew the United States as a whole.

These years of achievement came to an abrupt end in Chicago when Johnson experienced a nervous breakdown that compelled an absolute change to life in the open air.

Johnson moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, where he lived for seven years on a little cotton plantation. He became a land developer whose chief problem was transportation and how to extend the pavement of the Charlotte streets to the suburban tract he platted. When local governments would not provide the pavement, he built the roads himself to serve the land he was developing.

While in Charlotte, he married Ida Vail, whose father had been an officer under General Robert E. Lee during the Civil War. Her father was Chairman of the Board of Road Commissioners of Mecklenburg County. Mecklenburg County had been a good roads leader under an 1885 state law which allowed the county to collect a small property tax for road improvement. Vail’s father had built the first mile of Macadam road in the south.

The young family moved to Ruidoso Valley, Lincoln County, New Mexico, where they established a ranch to grow apples. But, isolated on the ranch and compelled to make a living out of the soil where the proceeds of sales were consumed by transportation costs, he learned through hard experience what a heavy burden the nation’s producers were under for lack of proper facilities for highway transport. It was 30 miles over mountains to the nearest railway station, 75 miles to the nearest town of any size and 150 miles to El Paso, Texas, the nearest city affording a market for the choice apples, which were the main product of the ranch. In Charlotte he had learned the vital necessity of pavement from the business center to the suburb; in the far Southwest he learned the value of the road from farm to market.

Although Johnson faced years of privation, hardship and labor to make ends meet, the experience proved to be a forge, heated to white heat that turned him into an apostle of the Good Roads Movement. (The Good Roads Movement was a broad-based crusade to build and improve the condition of U.S. roads in the late 1800s that lasted until the National Highway System was created by the federal government in 1926.)

In 1910, he and J.W. Laws organized the Lincoln County Good Roads Association to improve the area’s roads. He helped secure approval of a Good Roads Bond in a county election. And much to the amusement of the county’s old-timers, he predicted that one day, a transcontinental highway would traverse the county.

The prediction had been inspired by a joke: In the closing hours of Congress more than a decade before, in the time just before adjournment, Representative Broussard of Louisiana had sprung a joke in the Lower House by moving that the government build five transcontinental highways along parallels of latitude, one of which was the 32nd. The wires flashed the joke over the country, the El Paso Herald carried it to the ranch under the 32nd parallel where Johnson read it. He then resolved he would devote the remainder of his life to making that joke a reality.

Several ideas had formed in his mind. He was convinced the automobile would change America in the 20th century as dramatically as the railroad had in the 19th century. Roads were needed to serve this new means of transportation, and he was convinced they should be built according to science, not in the haphazard fashion that was common in rural areas. They should be arranged according to function in a system of main trunk lines and laterals according to the service each would provide. The federal government should help the states build the roads. In addition, the federal government should help states that have large amounts of nontaxable public land, such as New Mexico, pay for roads across the public reservations.

His first efforts — from 1910 to 1912 — focused on constructing a road linking Roswell and El Paso, to be called the Borderland Route. He helped secure changes in state law to get the work underway.

These early successes led to his selection as a delegate to a February 1913 conference in Asheville, North Carolina. Led by Governor Locke Craig of North Carolina, 15 Governors from the south had appointed commissioners to select a route for a southern transcontinental highway from Washington, D.C., to California, to be called the Southern National Highway. With Johnson on hand, the commissioners included his Borderland Route from El Paso to Roswell.

While in the East, he attended the second National Good Roads Federal Aid Convention on March 6 and 7 at the Raleigh Hotel in Washington. The conference was sponsored by AAA to discuss plans for federal involvement in road building, then under consideration in Congress. Johnson spoke on the subject of federal help for public lands states. Although the convention did not adopt a resolution on the subject, his presentation helped him gain national recognition and the friendship of many leaders of the Good Roads Movement. One of those new friends was Senator John H. Bankhead, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Post Offices and Post Roads.

From Nov. 9 to 14, 1914, Johnson was one of 5,000 delegates to the fourth American Road Congress in Atlanta, Georgia. The Congress was sponsored by AAA and the American Highway Association, an umbrella group of Good Roads Boosters formed by Logan Waller Page, director of the U.S. Office of Public Roads. During a discussion of a presentation on convict labor, Johnson addressed the group. He described his background, explaining that he was a minister of the gospel who had experienced a nervous breakdown that changed his life. He said, “Being unable to take up the active work of a pastorate, I have given the most of my energies to promoting the gospel of good roads.

“We have called upon the United States government to help us out of the mud. We have appealed to the boys and girls of our high schools to help us. We are not getting the cooperation of the ladies and I tell you it is time to ask the ministers and priests of this country to enlist in the campaign for good roads,” Johnson said.

“Does not the Good Book say to make the crooked straight and the high places low and the low places high and to make smooth the way of the Lord? It is time that we interpreted that rightly. Does it not say that we live and move and have our being in Him? Well, the moving is pretty tough in some places and therefore good roads have a great deal to do with religion,” Johnson said.

Then, he said, he wanted to show the convention some apples. Johnson, the apple grower, made his presentation.

He slowly removed a tissue-paper wrapping from a red apple. He unwrapped and displayed another, then a third. The three, laid in a row on the speaker’s desk, spanned more than 13 inches.

He told the delegates the apples had been grown in the White Mountains, a few miles west of Roswell at an elevation of 5,750 feet, and 25 miles from the nearest shipping point.

“Because the surrounding land had been set aside as Lincoln National Forest, it is impossible for us to tax it to build roads,” Johnson said. “Now I am feeding apples like these to the hogs of Lincoln County, because the United States government has not thus far lifted a finger to improve the roads across its own land.”

Johnson commented on the term federal aid, which was in common use as the government considered creating a road building program. He said that for him, the term meant something different than its usual interpretation of government aid to state or local governments for better roads.

To be continued …

Janice Dunnahoo is chief archivist at the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives. She can be reached at 575-622-1176 or at jdunna@hotmail.com.

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