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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course United States Migration Patterns  by Beverly Whitaker, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).


Significant Federal Highway Migration Routes

In 1926 the old National Road became part of U.S. Highway 40. Years before, the railroad had killed the road, but the horseless carriage resurrected it in a blaze of glory. It had scarcely known any traffic for 40 years, but with the advent of the automobile, there also came pleas for hard surfaced roads. As portions of the road were improved, the traffic increased. After World War I, travel-eager Americans took to the highways, and even the 1929 depression failed to stem their enthusiasm and use of the road. Reaching clear across the nation from East to West, the great U.S. 40 widened to three and even four lanes. It became a work road and a hauling route as well, with truckers replacing the old six-horse team wagons and the eight-ton freight schooners.

Do you know the story of Route 66? Internet sites can take you back to see how America traveled in the 1920s-1960s, over its 2,400 miles. Route 66 was the first all-weather highway linking Chicago to Los Angeles. It connected the isolated, rural West to the densely populated urban Midwest and Northeast. By 1930 the trucking industry rivaled the railroad in the American shipping industry. Trucks followed Route 66 diagonally across the West, from Chicago to the Pacific coast. Route 66 was immortalized as the "Mother Road" in John Steinbeck's classic 1939 novel, The Grapes of Wrath. During the depression years, an estimated 210,000 people migrated on this "road to opportunity" to California to escape the despair of the Dust Bowl. Thousands of unemployed male youths from virtually every state were put to work from about 1933 to 1938 as laborers on road gangs to pave the final stretches of the road. Route 66's all-weather capability on the eve of World War II was particularly significant to the nation's war effort.

From Trails to Federal Highways

Trails from the Atlantic seaboard had led to the Ohio and Mississippi River Valleys. From there they connected to overland routes leading to the Pacific. Eventually major highways followed the old pioneer trails:

  • US 1 went from Maine to Key West. It started as a Federal Mail Route.
  • US 2 started at the juncture of Lake Huron and Lake Michigan to Duluth, Minnesota and went west from there all the way through northern Montana.
  • US 30 followed the Oregon Trail.
  • US 40 reached clear across the nation to San Francisco, a modern-day extension of the National Road. It incorporates Braddock's Road. West of St. Louis, it went through Kansas City, Denver, and Salt Lake City.
  • US 60, the Midland Road stretched west from Richmond to St. Louis, paralleling and/or incorporated by Interstate 64.
  • US 66 went from Chicago to Los Angeles.
  • US 80 cut diagonally through Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi.
  •  US 90 went from New Orleans through San Antonio, El Paso, through a corner of New Mexico, across Arizona, and on to San Diego, then north to Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The Interstate Highways

Urbanization of the 20th century West was due in large part to America's love affair with the automobile and the belief dating back to previous centuries that the federal government should underwrite the cost of cross-country roads, this time to be a comprehensive network of paved divided highways.

America's highways after World War II were in great need of repair and improvement. Narrow pavements and antiquated structural features made the highways dangerous at the very time when the citizenry was eager to travel extensively, and often considerable distances, in their own automobiles.

In the 1950s, during Dwight D. Eisenhower's second presidential term, an era of mass federal sponsorship began for an interstate system of divided highways. General Eisenhower had returned from Germany impressed by Hitler's Autobahn. During World War II, he had seen the superlative system of German national highways crossing that country which allowed the opportunity to drive with speed and safety at the same time. This was his dream for the United States.

Interstates and the Old Trails and Roads

  • Interstate 10 to New Orleans is part of the Old Federal Road.
  • ŸInterstate 20 through South Carolina matches the Fall Line Road.
  • ŸInterstate 40 incorporates the Nashville Road.
  • ŸInterstate 55 includes Gen. Carroll's Military Road.
  • ŸInterstate 59 follows Gen. Jackson's Military Road for awhile.
  • ŸInterstate 65 covers part of the Old Federal Road in Alabama.
  • ŸInterstate 70 is very close to U.S. highway 40 and the general route of the old National Road.
  • ŸInterstate 75 going towards Lexington, is one piece of the Wilderness Road.
  • ŸInterstate 76, the Pennsylvania Turnpike, incorporates the Forbes' Road.
  • ŸInterstate 81 is the general route of the Great Valley Road.
  • ŸInterstate 85 marks the Upper Road.
  • ŸInterstate 87 and 90, the New York Thruway, covers the old New York City to Albany route.
  • ŸInterstate 95 is fairly close to the route of the old King's Highway.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course United States: Migration Patterns offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.

  • This page was last modified on 18 September 2014, at 23:49.
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