Dixie Highway Tour by Lisa Ramsay
"DIXIE HIGHWAY TOUR OCTOBER 9," announced a Washington Herald article on September 28, 1915. This year will mark the one hundredth anniversary of the North-South roadway. Several Dixie Highway Association executives began the first official tour of the new highway on Chicago Day, a day of remembrance for the 1871 fire. They left from the Windy City and traveled south throughout October, with an arrival in Miami as the finale.
Up until the push to improve the roadways began, most southern states had little more than dirt roads, which were treacherous during bad weather. The movement for good roads was started in the 1890s with a variety of needs encouraging its growth. In 1896, the federal government introduced the Rural Free Delivery (RFD) service offering mail delivery to farmers. That freed them from hours spent traveling to and from town to collect correspondence and packages. The Post Office Department refused to deliver where the roads were not passable all year long. So, farmers began a push to improve their local roads and joined Good Roads associations. The associations also convinced farmers that good roads would make delivering crops to market much easier. Additional support from organizations like the League of American Wheelmen, a national bicyclist group wanting better riding conditions for their tours, also impacted the movement for better roads. Cycling events in southern states had generally been avoided due to the poor riding surfaces.
As the twentieth century opened, Good Roads association membership grew throughout the South and in other parts of the country. Perhaps the most dominant factor in the progress toward better roads came in 1908 with the beginning of automobile mass production. The new manufacturing format resulted in cheaper prices. The lower cost made it possible for more middle class Americans to buy cars. With sales skyrocketing, the desire to travel grew.
Carl G. Fisher was the originator of the idea to build a highway linking the North and the South. He was known as the Father of the Lincoln Highway and was one of the founders of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The Dixie Highway Association organized in 1915 to chart a highway route from Chicago to Miami. Eventually, it was extended north to Canada. Two separate routes, designated as Eastern and Western, were decided upon in order to serve the largest number of communities in the ten states that it crisscrossed.
The October 9 inaugural tour began from Grant Park in Chicago with more than 500 cars traveling the western highway route. The motorcade included Dixie Highway Association president Judge Michael M. Allison, other officers including Carl Fisher, several motor company representatives, and a variety of journalists. The caravan was met along the route and at each stopping point with great ceremony and fanfare. Stops included Danville, Illinois; Crawfordville, Indianapolis, Bloomington, and New Albany, Indiana; Louisville, Kentucky; Nashville and Chattanooga, Tennessee; Atlanta, Macon, and Albany, Georgia. When they reached Tallahassee, they moved to the eastern route to travel along the coast. Stops in Florida included Jacksonville, Cocoa, West Palm Beach, and Miami. Approximately fifty cars made the full journey to Miami.
The roads from the beginning of the excursion to Nashville were in fairly good condition, making travel easy.The organizational skills of Judge David W. Rider, president of the Nashville and Louisville Division of the Dixie Highway Association, were instrumental in assuring that the work in this area exceeded expectations. Driving in a downpour of rain after leaving the Tennessee capital, they encountered muddy, nearly impassable roads from Tullahoma through the Cumberland Mountains. Several cars had to be pulled from the mud with mules provided by local farmers. They finally arrived in Chattanooga at 2:00 a.m. on October 15 and were greeted by a dramatic display of fireworks. While staying overnight at the Patten Hotel, the headquarters of the Dixie Highway Association, the Chattanooga Automobile Club presented Judge Allison with a silver loving cup in recognition of his dedication and commitment to the association. That cup is currently available for viewing at the Chattanooga History Center. When the procession rolled into Atlanta the next day, every available automobile owner was out to meet them. A brass band played and the group was treated to an elaborate oyster dinner.
Traveling south of Atlanta to Macon was troublesome at times, but the roads improved from there to Florida. Florida’s sandy conditions were primarily problem free, and the procession paraded into Miami on October 24. A thousand cars met them at the Dade County line, providing the grandest welcome yet. Carl Fisher was given a hero’s welcome for his contribution to the whole endeavor.
While most of the roads making up the highway were improved and available for travel during the first two years, it was not fully completed until 1926. The mountainous section in Marion County, Tennessee was the remaining unfinished section due to lack of county funding. Eventually, it was partially funded by the state and federal government, enabling the work to be finished. After the highway’s completion, the Dixie Highway Association disbanded in 1927.
We wouldn’t have the infrastructure we have today if not for the work of the Dixie Highway Association and similar organizations. Arcadia Publishing has made it easy to celebrate the one hundredth anniversary by publishing numerous books on the Dixie Highway including Tennessee’s Dixie Highway: The Cline Postcards, a book I wrote with Tammy Vaughn. Many parts of the Dixie Highway can still be enjoyed. Though today’s interstates might be more convenient, the fastest road isn’t always the best one to take.