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Highways, Byways

World War I and a 1917 infrastructure legislative act helped shape our roadway system locally and nationally.

by Vince Farinaccio

Most residents of this area probably know the South Jersey portion of the nation-spanning Route 40 as Harding Highway, named after former President Warren G. Harding who died in 1923. But the history behind this particular roadway is filled with a few myths and more twists and turns than the highway itself.

New Jersey’s section of Route 40 was born under several aliases as part of a confluence of events culminating near the end of World War I. According to the New Jersey Historic Roadway Study in 2011, “trends (and two specific events) early in the 20th century shaped the future of the state’s roads… directly. The trends included the increasing affordability of the automobile, illustrated by skyrocketing auto registrations, and the resulting mobility of individuals.”

Freed from the pre-determined travel routes of trains and trolleys, drivers saw an opportunity to explore the sights available to them, “and demand increased for roads to destinations such as the shore and the mountains.”

As for the two events that shaped New Jersey roads, the New Jersey Historic Roadway Study identifies them as “World War I (and its resulting requirements to move people and goods to and from East Coast ports) and passage of the New Jersey Highway Act of 1917,” which “created the New Jersey Highway Department and designated routes under the care and maintenance of that department.”

The result of the Act was the creation of the first 15 state routes in New Jersey in 1917 that “represented the beginning of centralized statewide transportation planning,” according to the New Jersey Historic Roadway Study. “The 15 routes were each (presumably) selected because they were vital to the state’s various interests, whether agricultural, commercial, industrial, recreational, or the larger national interest in defense. Routes connecting a port with an industrial center or military base, for instance, assumed more importance than a commuter route joining a suburb to a city.”

State roads altered how such highways were constructed since they “included more engineering and more land alteration.” Prior to 1917, roads were simply added to the landscape to connect various towns, ports and rail stations. But following the passage of the New Jersey Highway Act of 1917, “roads were now more highly engineered, routinely including cut and fill construction. They were also now designed for economy of construction and operation.”

There had been evidence of the need for highways in the years preceding the New Jersey Highway Act. The New Jersey Historic Roadway Study alludes to a survey undertaken in 1913 that “revealed that New Jersey had a higher number of vehicles per mile of road than most other states in the region, including New York, Massachusetts, Maryland, and Connecticut.” The survey silently predicted the need for new roads if for no other reason than to siphon traffic away from the older worn roadways.

A year later, automobile purchases surpassed the sale of horse-drawn carriages and wagons for the first time, signaling a paradigm shift in transportation. Within two years, car owners in New Jersey had increased and “motor touring” had become a new pastime that would last longer than expected.

The New Jersey Historic Roadway Study reports that “the auto camping and motel industries likely played a major role in New Jersey motor tourism during this period… Merchandisers did not miss any opportunity for a sale, and soon open-air stalls selling everything from produce to crafts dotted the roadsides. A billboard frenzy also arose at this time.”

We’re also told that “the novelty of motor touring that emerged in the 1910s continued throughout the 1930s. By the end of this era, however, the primary use for the automobile was functional, not simply recreational.”

Next Week: The Creation of a Highway

Jersey Reflections