The Town Changes The Highway

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In a previous piece entitled, “The Highway Changes the Town, Then…”, I touched lightly on some of the changes the automobile foisted on villages, towns and cities in America during the 1920s and 1930s.  Like many grand things, the impact of the automobile started small and slowly.  

But Henry Ford figured out how to make a lot of good cars starting with the Model T, then the Model A then the legendary flathead V-8s starting in 1932.  Many felt that the faster cars came off the assembly lines, the more pressure there was for many things to change.  They were right.

This piece picks up with one or more numbered U.S. highways being routed through a town or city on one of the principal streets thereof.  The highway brought many things, most good, to America’s towns and cities.

Part of the “good” was commerce.  Traffic on Main Street was good for the businesses on Main Street.  But there was more.  

In the 1930s, many small “motor courts” – the precursors of the thousands of post-WWII motels that sprang up all over the country – were built on open and less expensive land outside the downtown area.  

Then the gas stations, cafés and diners came.  The cafés and diners were early hints of the thousands of modern fast food and franchise restaurants along today’s highways and expressways.

It didn’t take more than a decade or so for some small towns to change dramatically.  They were becoming small cities, with many opportunities for most everyone.

Much of this growth was subdued by the Great Depression of the 1930s.  While still feeling renewed consumer confidence, many commercial activities were temporarily muted by WWII.  

Our national priorities were changed for a few years in the early 1940s, but after WWII, people were bursting with confidence.  The country was booming.

For many small towns or cities like Escondido, California enough was enough.  Residents put political pressure on state and local officials to move the U.S. highway off Main Street and put it somewhere else.  That’s exactly what happened.

In Escondido, U.S. Route 395 was initially routed through the center of town on what is Escondido Boulevard today.  That worked fine for a few years as described in my previous article referenced above.  

By the late 1940s, though, Escondido’s downtown area couldn’t take any more highway traffic.  In 1948, a right of way was developed, concrete curbs and some small bridges were poured and a new highway alignment was created just west of the downtown area.  That 1949-50 alignment is known today as City Centre Parkway.  

The new highway alignment was quite an improvement over the town’s central business district.  It was two lanes each way with limited cross traffic and no parking on either side of  a wide, park-like center median. 

Escondido was by no means unique.  In central California’s San Joaquin Valley, Bakersfield,  

Delano, Tulare and Madera (plus many others around the U.S.) experienced similar evolutionary changes. 

The original highway (U.S. Route 99) was first placed on Main Street (my generic term) then, also in the early 1950s, the highway alignment was moved to an upgraded 4 lane divided highway by-passing the downtown area to relieve traffic congestion and traveler delays.

Some downtown street names were changed and life went on.  There was still enough traffic to keep things busy because most highway travelers seemed to know that a small town off the Expressway was where to find a good meal, a tank of gas or a place to stay for the night.

From roughly 1945 to 1950, Detroit was building more and more cars.  People were using the U.S. highways for summer vacations, the 1950 Cadillac introduced a one-piece windshield and life was good.

But something was moving.  The status quo just didn’t seem to last as long as it did back in the old days.  Detroit was cranking out cars with radios, heaters and automatic transmissions.  Open-wheel roadsters with Ford flathead V-8 engines were becoming very popular and some people were beginning to ask, “Hey, do you think Dwight Eisenhower might run for President in 1952?”

Come back again for the third and final installment in this serialized informal review of 20th Century highway evolution in the United States.

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