Tammy Ingram loves to crank open the throttle on her Triumph motorcycle and feel the wind on her face as her bike accelerates down the highway.
“I love to drive,” said Ingram, assistant professor of history at the College of Charleston. “I just love the open road and being able to go.”
Driving has always been an important part of Ingram’s life. She first got behind the wheel at the age of 6. Yes, 6. Her father let her drive his old pickup truck when she helped with chores on their farm in south Georgia.
Isolation was a fact of life for a child in the rural, pre-Internet South. Ingram figured out early on that wheels and roads provided a connection to the rest of the world.
The Dixie Highway provided that same taste of freedom for an entire generation of Americans at the turn of the 20th century. Looping 6,000 miles from Michigan to Miami and back, the highway helped speed the modernization of the South and introduced many of the same political and economic issues surrounding road construction that still exist today.
In her new book Dixie Highway, published March 3, 2014, by The University of North Carolina Press, Ingram chronicles the history of the nation’s first attempt to build an interstate highway system. The development of the Dixie Highway from 1915 to 1926 created the model upon which the modern federal transportation network is based.
“As the first major interstate route to bridge North and South during a time when most roads were built by local governments for local use, the Dixie Highway was far more than just a road,” Ingram writes in the book’s introduction. “It symbolized the possibilities and limitations of the American can-do spirit in an increasingly complex world.”
The book also examines the close connection between chain gangs, which consisted almost entirely of black convicts, and the building of roads in many Southern states. In Georgia, for example, Ingram said the use of chain gangs was so integral to road-building projects that the prison bureau and the highway department were one and the same.
Today, the Dixie Highway is remembered less in the South than in the Midwest. That’s because many of the original roads still exist in the North as do many of the old hotels and general stores that popped up alongside those routes to serve motorists.
The fact that segments of the old Dixie Highway still exist may say something about the age of our nation’s highway infrastructure. But Ingram said our roads, highways and bridges have held up remarkably well considering they were designed to handle only a fraction of their current volume. Today, there are enough automobiles in the U.S. for every man, woman and child to drive their own.
Roads and bridges are taken for granted, Ingram said. Everyone expects them to work, to be safe and accessible. But no one wants to pay for them. And at the same time, the public is demanding that existing roads and bridges be modified to accommodate bicycles and other alternative modes of transportation.
The conundrum is enough to make a person want to hop in a car and drive away from it all.
Tammy Ingram, assistant professor of history at the College of Charleston, can be reached at email@example.com or 843.953.1915.