Tennessee’s Story for Kids: Tennessee’s Landscape Changed with the Interstate Highway System | Rogersville

Most of us, I suspect, don’t think much about what life would have been like without the interstate highway system. But if it weren’t for the freeways, most of us wouldn’t be living where we live and vacationing the way we do.

The US government began funding the Interstate Highway System in 1956. The idea was to facilitate travel from one part of the country to another in the event of a national military emergency. Designed for speed and with limited access, American highways were modeled after a German highway called Autobahn.

The way the interstate system was paid for is a bit convoluted and has changed over the years. Suffice it to say that its primary funding mechanism was, and still is, gasoline taxes.

The plan for the interstate system closely followed a US government publication known as the “Yellow Book” (which you can still see on the Internet). The “Yellow Book” outlined the general routes of the National Interstate System and showed where freeway corridors would be built in all American cities.

It took a long time for the highways to be built. Bridges had to be built and roads cleared through mountainous regions such as the Cumberland Plateau. The first sections of freeway through Tennessee were opened in 1958, with most of the 40 and 65 freeways across the state being completed by the 1960s. The freeways were not opened all at once, but a stretch at a time; for many years a driver had to get an updated road map to find out which sections of the shiny new highway had been opened.

Today, there are over 1,100 miles of interstate highway in Tennessee. These highways have greatly reduced the time needed to travel from one part of the state to another. Before the creation of Interstate 40, for example, it sometimes took ten hours to travel from Nashville to Knoxville, passing through cities such as Lebanon, Sparta, Crossville, Rockwood and Kingston. Now it only takes about three.

Today, highways make it possible to live in one county and work in another, and have transformed once small towns like Franklin, Farragut and Bartlett into bedroom communities. The highways also made day trips across the state possible. Before the advent of interstate highways, it’s hard to imagine 100,000 people driving to Knoxville just for a Saturday afternoon event. Now it happens about half a dozen times each fall.

Motorways also made traveling by car much safer than before, as they were wider and better designed.

Most people see highways as positive changes. But business activity in towns like Cookeville, Manchester and Jackson has completely shifted from downtown to the nearest interstate exit. If you drive to these city squares today, you can see clear signs that there was a lot more going on then than there is today.

Interstate construction has also proven highly controversial in Tennessee cities. To this day, some members of Nashville’s African-American community say the Interstate 40 route just west of town has split black Nashville in two. In Memphis, Overton Park fans organized against the construction of Interstate 40 through that park in the 1960s. Citizens to Preserve Overton Park c. Volpe, spoke out in support of the group fighting Interstate 40. That’s why the interstate circles Memphis rather than through it.

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