By Janice Dunnahoo
Special to the Daily
A joke turned into the dream of building a highway.
“It means that we frontiersmen out in New Mexico have to aid the United States government to make the roads,” Johnson said. “Last summer I took my car and three men and went and fixed the impossible places on Uncle Sam’s domain in the Lincoln National Forest on my way to my market and shipping point.”
The Federal Government also had not improved the road across the Apache Indian Reservation, which Johnson indicated was the worst stretch of the Southern National Highway. He convinced Otero County to give him $1,000 and he fixed the road on the reservation.
He was all for through roads and better roads elsewhere. “The through roads would allow people to come and see and get well and help us develop the magnificent boundless resources of our great West,” Johnson said. The federal government, as far as he was concerned, was looking at the problem with one eye when it needed to use both.
“When we find that the United States Office of Public Roads is simply a branch of the Department of Agriculture, we say that the Office of Public Roads should be a department by itself and we should have the through routes that are as essential to the development of our great country as it is that the farmer should have his. We want you to have your roads, that is the thing for Georgia and Iowa and the farming states, but we want you to help us to get our roads that are vital to the development of our country,” Johnson said.
The American Road Congress adopted a resolution in support of his goal, that the federal government be urged to build highways across all Indian and forest reservations and all other federalized areas, where such connecting links were essential parts of established through routes of travel.
In 1915, leaders of the Southern National Highway in California made the first official trip over the highway from San Diego to Washington. Financed by the Cabrillo Commercial Club, the motorists included Col. Ed Fletcher, a leading San Diego booster; William Gross, an associate of Fletcher’s; Wilbur Hall, a magazine writer and B.H. Burrell of the OPR.
The group left San Diego on Nov. 2. On Nov. 8, they expected to travel from El Paso to Roswell in one day. The trip report by Gross said, “Soon after we started out from El Paso our hopes went a glimmering as the conditions of the road did not admit of fast driving.”
They reached Ruidoso, where they spent the night at the White Mountain Inn. There, they met Johnson, whom they named “a prominent good roads booster and state organizer of the Southern National Highway Association for New Mexico.”
According to Gross, Johnson had been notified of their coming, and had been out hunting all that day, hoping he would be able to treat them to some venison steak and wild turkey. They said that they knew Johnson’s intentions were good, but they had to satisfy their appetites with just a plain chicken dinner.
The next day, Johnson took the group on a tour of a prehistoric irrigation canal that ran through his property for several miles. He had written an article about the flume for Engineering News (March 25, 1915).
The group reached Washington on Nov. 27 after a 3,247-mile journey. Burrell reported that the Southern National Highway is a feasible highway, which could be traveled at the present time without undue hardship or difficulty. Nevertheless, the Southern National Highway and the association formed to back it failed. The route would become the Broadway of America, with Col. Fletcher as vice president of the Broadway of America Highway Association. It, too, would never become a major, nationally known highway.
The Federal Aid Highway Program established in 1916 was hindered the following April when the United States entered World War I in Europe. The war effort drained resources and men that could have been used to implement the new program of road building. At the same time, the war opened the U.S. Army’s eyes to the value of motor vehicles in wartime. While the movement of trucks to ports in the United States had caused the roads to deteriorate, the excellent roads of France had demonstrated the potential of road transportation for military purposes.
Shortly after Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1918, Johnson attended a reception for National Good Roads leaders in Washington. He proposed that the Federal Government — which had accumulated the largest fleet of motor trucks in the world during the war — transfer the surplus military equipment to the states for highway work. He then drafted a bill for Senator John H. Bankhead to introduce. Congress approved a series of bills that directed the secretary of war to transfer to the secretary of agriculture all surplus vehicles, construction equipment, and supplies that could be used to improve highways. The distribution of about $215 million in equipment, arranged through the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads, was substantially completed in 1925 and played a major part in the improvement of roads during the 1920s. The bureau retained an additional $7.8 million in equipment for its own use.
On July 7, 1919, the U.S. Army launched its first transcontinental convoy of military vehicles from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco. Johnson had suggested that the War Department launch a convoy to see if, in an emergency, the Army could move across the United States as it had across France. The Lincoln Highway Association, which had suggested a similar idea, took the lead in working with the Motor Transport Corps to arrange the convoy. Because one purpose of the trip was to spread the Good Roads Movement, Johnson went along as the convoy’s official spokesman, a representative of AAA and a guest of the Lincoln Highway Association.
The convoy began after a ceremony that included the dedication of a temporary marker for the zero milestone on the ellipse south of the White House in Washington, D.C. The vehicles headed north to Gettysburg and traveled the rest of the way to San Francisco on the Lincoln Highway. At each town and city, the convoy was greeted by dignitaries and residents who wanted to see the soldiers and the wondrous vehicles that had helped secure the victory in Europe. The commander of the expedition, Lt. Col. Charles W. McClure, would address the crowd at each stop and Johnson would make his presentation on good roads.
“We are crossing the continent to impress upon all leaders of public action in the world that the next step in the progress of civilization is to provide road beds upon which rapid transit motor vehicles may be operated with economy and efficiency. This is true, not only of backward peoples, but also of the most advanced nations, including our own,” Johnson said. “We are at the beginning of a new era of American progress and history. Now that we have finished the job on the other side (in Europe), the next great job will be the improvement of the highways so that automobiles and motor trucks can be operated on them economically.”
After years of speaking, fundraising, meetings, planning, decision changing, Johnson finally was able to see the fruition of all his efforts. The Lee Highway — now U.S. 70 —was finally built.
His daughter’s memoirs said, “Promoting a coast-to-coast highway across the southern tier of states as a memorial to General Robert E. Lee was considered by my father as his crowning achievement. As the number and speed of automobiles increased, there arose a demand for good roads to run them on. Cities along logical routes for highways banded together to promote construction of roads to come through their towns. The first transcontinental highway that was thus promoted was conceived as a memorial to Abraham Lincoln and ran through the northern states. Father’s concept was a companion highway that would start at Washington, run south and then west to the Pacific coast. He organized The Lee Highway Association and set about selling the idea to the cities along its logical routing.”
The Western half of the Lee Highway included:
• Arkansas: Forrest City, Brinkley, Little Rock, Hot Springs, and DeQueen;
• Texas: Idabel, Hugo, Durant, Ardmore, Healdton, Loco, Walters, Frederick, Vernon, Paducah, Plainview, Muleshoe, Farwell;
• New Mexico: Elida, Roswell, Glencoe, Tularosa, Alamogordo, Newman, El Paso (Texas), Las Cruces, Deming, Lordsburg;
• Arizona: Duncan, Safford, Globe, Phoenix, Buckeye, Gila Bend, Aztec, Wellton, Yuma;
• California: El Centro, Jacumba, San Diego.
According to the Federal Highway Administration history, The Lee Boulevard supplement of The Washington Post referred to Johnson as the most potent, persistent and colorful personality in the whole Good Roads Movement in America.
“To him has come no material gain from his monumental visions and concrete accomplishment, but his efforts have made marketing cheaper, touring more comfortable, and the cultural unity of the nation nearer.”
He had coined the slogan, “A Paved United States in Our Day.” He was known as the apostle of Good Roads and as the spirit incarnate of the Lee Highway. But perhaps most appropriately, he was known as a dreamer of dreams — that came true.
Quoted from his obituary: “It was Mr. Johnson that got the United States government to run a transcontinental highway through Roswell, Highway 70. It was Mr. Johnson who addressed the New Mexico legislature and got them to set up the machinery to set up the first highway department so that they would be eligible to receive the first federal aid for the construction of new roads. He was the one to prove to the U.S. Army years ago that the roads over the U.S. were not good enough for the transportation of troops from one coast to the other. To prove this he got the Army to transport by truck a number of soldiers. On this trip it was found that the roads and bridges over the country were not adequate to transport these troops for national defense. That was the beginning of the highways we have today.” Johnson received letters from four different Presidents, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt, commending him on his work on road construction.
Johnson passed away in Carrizozo on Dec. 4, 1941. He was buried in Hale Cemetery, Ruidoso Downs, but sadly the plot is unknown, bearing no headstone.
Janice Dunnahoo is chief archivist at the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives. She can be reached at 575-622-1176 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.