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This article is from the Encyclopedia of North Carolina edited by William S. Powell. Copyright © 2006 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. For personal use and not for further distribution. Please submit permission requests for other use directly to the publisher.

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by David Southern, 2006
Additional research provided by Stephen C. Compton, Laura Hegyi, and Robert E. Ireland.

Part 2: North Carolina's Highway System Takes Shape

IHighways, ca. 1924. Map by Mark Anderson Moore, courtesy North Carolina Office of Archives and History, Raleigh. (Click to view map.)n the early nineteenth century, visionary state leader and jurist Archibald D. Murphey preached a dual vision of state-supported education and infrastructure to elevate North Carolina from its chronic poverty. Some who followed Murphey promoted a system of linked and branching state-owned, east-west railroads designed to connect inland markets with ports. The corridor from Morehead City to Asheville became the path of the first unified "motor-road" in North Carolina. Connected and improved during the administration of Governor Locke Craig (1913-17), it was called at first the "Central Highway," sometimes the "Main Street of North Carolina," later "N.C. 10" or "Old No. 10," and finally, with the advent of a Federal Highway System, "U.S. 70."

In 1921 the General Assembly passed a $50 million bond issue to be paid with a raised license fee and a one-cent-per-gallon tax on gasoline. This bond endowed serious civil engineering and directly financed the pavement of 5,500 miles of roads connecting county seats. In the process many dangerous railroad grade crossings were eliminated, many curves were straightened, and gradients decreased with cuts and fills to an optimal 4 percent. Moreover, the erection of new concrete bridges shortened mileage significantly (the bridge over the Roanoke River cut the distance from Windsor to Williamston from 140 to 17 miles). North Carolina's highway program of the 1920s proved such a conspicuous success that in 1929 Louisiana governor Huey "Kingfish" Long hired away chief engineer Leslie R. Ames and 21 staff members to repeat the miracle in his state.

By the Highway Act of 1921, the state government in Raleigh officially became responsible for the maintenance of North Carolina's highways to "relieve the counties and cities and towns of the state of this burden." In 1931, under the pressure of widespread economic failure of county governments during the Great Depression, the state added to its purview the maintenance of practically all roads in North Carolina. In the early 1920s the principal through highways were N.C. 10, N.C. 15 (now U.S. 21, intertwined with Interstate 77 almost border to border), N.C. 20 (the old Wilmington-Charlotte-Asheville Highway, now U.S. 74), and N.C. 75 (today, parts of U.S. 15 and 64 via Oxford, Durham, Chapel Hill, Pittsboro, Siler City, and Lexington). Also crossing the state were the Capitol-to-Capitol Highway (soon to become U.S. 1 from Calais, Maine, via Washington, D.C., to Key West, Fla.) and the unfinished Bankhead Highway emanating from Washington, D.C., and marked with yellow-and-white-striped telephone poles (the South's answer to the Lincoln Highway).

Keep reading >> Highways- Part 3: The Establishment of Federal Highways and the Interstate System  Keep reading


Cecil Kenneth Brown: The State Highway System of North Carolina: Its Evolution and Present Status (1931).

John Harden, North Carolina's Highways and Their Builders, vol. 2 (1966).

Tom Lewis, Divided Highways: Building the Interstate Highways, Transforming American Life (1997).

Capus Waynick, North Carolina Roads and Their Builders, vol. 1 (1952).

Additional Resources:

U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration:

Public laws and resolutions passed by the General Assembly at its session of...[1921], North Carolina Digital Collections, North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources:

Search Results for Search results for Highways > North Carolina. Division of Highways. Statewide Planning Branch. North Carolina Digital Collections, Department of Cultural Resources.

Search Results for Search results for Highways > n.c. Division of Highways, Dept. of Transportation. North Carolina Digital Collections, Department of Cultural Resources.

Ingram, Tammy. 2016. Dixie Highway: road building and the making of the modern South, 1900-1930. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Preston, Howard L. 1991. Dirt roads to Dixie: accessibility and modernization in the South, 1885-1935. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.