Building a Highway – 1958 Film

"Building a Highway" from 1958 traces the history and evolution of roads, from simple forest footpaths to sophisticated highways. After Ike uses segments from the movie, courtesy of the Delaware Public Archives.

In the New World, roads evolved from primitive tracks, adapting for stagecoaches, wagons, and then automobiles. The 1920s marked a boom in highway construction, doubling the average speed in just a decade. However, by the 1950s, the existing infrastructure was inadequate for the growing vehicular population.

Building a Highway 1958 - Courtesy of the Delaware Public Archives.

A solution emerged in 1956 with a new highway act, introducing a federal system of interstates. These modern roads boasted wide medians, overpasses, and underpasses to ensure uninterrupted traffic.

Building a Highway 1958 - Courtesy of the Delaware Public Archives.

The documentary explains the highway construction process, starting with traffic analysis through traffic counters.

Building a Highway 1958 - Courtesy of the Delaware Public Archives.

Aerial surveys pinpoint the best routes, which are then validated by ground teams.

Building a Highway 1958 - Courtesy of the Delaware Public Archives.

The role of modern technology, especially electronic computers, in design and cost estimation is emphasized.

Building a Highway 1958 - Courtesy of the Delaware Public Archives.

After route authorization, the focus shifts to land acquisition, land clearing, and foundational work.

Building a Highway 1958 - Courtesy of the Delaware Public Archives.

The film details the meticulous layering involved in road construction, from the subgrade to the concrete laying and curing.

Building a Highway 1958 - Courtesy of the Delaware Public Archives.

"Cutting-edge techniques," like sawing grooves in concrete, result in smoother roads.

Building a Highway 1958 - Courtesy of the Delaware Public Archives.

The construction's final phases include landscaping to "beautify the highway" and the installation of informational signs. 

Building a Highway 1958 - Courtesy of the Delaware Public Archives.

The creation of a highway is "a monumental task", involving extensive planning, diverse expertise, and a suite of machinery, all collaborating to cater to current and future transportation needs.

Building a Highway 1958 - Courtesy of the Delaware Public Archives.

The documentary concludes by reiterating the enduring significance of highways, which, though they have evolved over centuries, remain indispensable to societal progress.


Click to See Closed captions

(...) [Music] [Music] Wherever you live, there's a road nearby. It's an important road to you, to your community, and to the nation.

(...)

Perhaps your road started as a footpath through a forest cut down long ago. As a pair of ruts made by wagon wheels, it may have led west, north, or south to new territories.

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The character and appearance of your road have changed many times since it was first cut through 50 to 300 years ago. For the expansion and development of this country has depended largely upon the work and genius of many men in solving the ever-changing problems of planning and building a highway.

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Follow the progress of civilized man from earliest recorded time, and you will find yourself traveling ever-lengthening roads.

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The oldest long-distance highway on record stretched 1,755 miles across southwest Asia and Asia Minor. The Persians called it the Royal Road. Overall, travel time from end to end was three months, three days, at a whopping 19 miles per day.

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Running from Rome through Capua and Beneventum to Brundisium at the heel of the Italian Peninsula was the greatest of all ancient roads, the Via Appia. We call it the Appian Way, and some parts of it still exist after nearly 23 centuries.

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This was one of the many highways radiating from Rome to far points of an expanding empire.

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Teaming with people and vehicles, this famous road carried military, commercial, and private traffic from Rome to the Adriatic port closest to North Africa, Greece, and the Middle East. Daily, along its 412 miles, could be seen marching legions,(...) war chariots,(...) the Hydra and Sedan shares,(...) and the colorful horse-drawn and pedestrian traffic of a busy, prosperous, and aggressive state.

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This first great improved highway has retained its fame over the centuries because it was planned, designed, and built to give service for far more than a lifetime.(...) It had to because it took 68 years to build.

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Roman engineers did an amazing job of laying out this road with such rudimentary instruments as the long transit,(...) multi-bob level,(...) and a rod scaled in fractions of a cubit.(...) All construction was done, as it would be for more than 2,000 years, by hand labor.

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Little heed was given to economy because slaves and war prisoners provided an almost limitless labor force.

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Construction began as ox-drawn plows broke the ground and soil was excavated down to hard pan.

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Earth was moved in wicker baskets on men's shoulders.

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The sub-base was leveled and tamped by beetles and covered with a light bedding of sand or mortar on which the main courses were laid.

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The base course consisted of quarried flat stones 10 to 24 inches thick, each of which was carried to the roadway by four-man slings and fitted together by hand.

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Next came a 9-inch course of small stones mixed with lime. This was followed by the nucleus layer about 1 foot thick. Where available, volcanic ash was used as a natural cement. The Appian Way was probably the first hard road held together by concrete.

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Finally, on this thick mortar bed was placed a wearing surface of flint hard lava rock 6 inches thick. The total thickness of these four courses varied from 3 to 5 feet.

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This elaborate multi-course construction, wrought by hand, was tops in the road building arc for more than 2,000 years.

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But thousands of miles of more important roads were less well built.

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In the New World, the first roads were primitive tracks following Indian and hunter trails after deer, buffalo, and elk. As the young nation grew and prospered, its people spread out.(...) New sources of ore, grain, timber, and cotton stretched farther away from the mills and the rich major markets, creating fine opportunities in transportation and trade.

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Rivers, canals, and railroads carried a large bulk of this traffic, but they couldn't go everywhere. The roads could, so more overland routes were cut in all directions.

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These roads were built to meet the needs of the travel over them. Stagecoaches, wagon trains, buckboards, sleighs and bobsleds, carriages, and later, right into our century, the horseless carriage.

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During its first 20 years, the automobile had very few places to go, except up to its hubs in mud.(...) Then came the first long stretches of narrow pavement. Then, thousands of miles in a few years.

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In the decade between 1920 and 1930, average speed of highway traffic increased from 20 to 40 miles per hour.

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This improvement was made possible by better roads, and better roads made a place for more automobiles, and eventually, more automobiles than our main highways and streets could handle.

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The first notable change in highway construction after the hard-paved all-weather road was the design of the limited access highway.

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This brought greater speed, with added safety and comfort to modern driving.

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Unfortunately, there were too few of these new roads to accommodate all the millions of new vehicles each year, but they pointed out a solution to future highway problems.

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The big step ahead came in 1956, with the passage and signing into law of a new highway act, which provided, in part, for a new federal system of interstate and defense highways.

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This highway system will include thousands of miles of paved roads, with lanes safely divided by wide median strips, structures that will carry high-speed traffic safely over the very heart of a city.

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Overpasses, underpasses, and interchange structures that safely handle cross-traffic and movement from one highway to another without congesting, slowing, or stopping the traffic flow.

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And bridges and causeways over lakes and bays to straighten and reduce mileage on old routes.

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It's exciting to watch the construction of a highway, but unlike other types of building, much of the work that goes into a modern road cannot be seen by the sidewalk superintendent.

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A new highway project usually starts with this little box. It's called a traffic counter.

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From it, engineers gather data on the volume of traffic carried on existing roads.

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This information is transferred to traffic flow maps, which furnish the planning engineer with a graphic idea of which road should be built first to relieve existing congestion and to provide for future needs.

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State highway officials study this material, tentatively selecting an area for a new road and approving surveys for locations.

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At this time, the public is informed officially of the new project.

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Actual selection of the route is carried out by means of aerial photographic surveys.

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As the plane flies over the proposed route, every inch of the land is recorded on film. In many areas, three-dimensional or stereoscopic photos are made for contour mapping. These photographs are studied using stereoscopic viewers to observe physical features of the terrain that might prove obstacles or advantages in plotting a direct route for the new road.

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Photomapping makes possible the selection of alternate routes that may be necessary in the event of difficulties in obtaining right-of-way. Locations plotted from air maps are then checked by ground survey teams, and the most practical route is selected.

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Next step is to make a profile drawing of the selected route. At this point, information from aerial maps and ground surveys makes it possible to locate fills, cuts, bridges, culverts, and other construction features.

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Now, data gathered from many sources, which are pertinent to design and specifications for pavement and structures, are fed into electronic computers.

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In a matter of a few hours, highway departments now get answers to design and cost problems that once took weeks and even months to obtain.

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Plans and proposals for the new road are now ready for submitting to the United States Bureau of Public Roads in order to qualify for federal aid funds.

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With the road authorized,(...) agents of the State Highway Department proceed to purchase land required for the right-of-way. With plans completed and approved and right-of-way purchased, portions of the project are let out for bids.

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As soon as a contractor is selected for a section of road, he may, within hours, start moving in men and equipment to begin construction. First come the bulldozers, changing the landscape, removing trees, clearing the right-of-way.(...) On the plains or high in the mountains, in all seasons and in all kinds of weather, the job of clearing the land goes on day and night. Whatever obstacles nature or man has placed in the way of the big road must be removed.

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But well in advance of grading and road construction, other builders are placing footings, building abutments, and driving piles for bridges.

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Great beams are swung into place and positioned as construction nears completion on the many bridges required to carry the big road over or under secondary roads, railway tracks, canals, and rivers.

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Giant earth movers carrying 15 to 18 cubic yards thunder over the land, removing the high spots and spreading their loads in the low spots. They are massive machines, for this is a huge job straightening and leveling the face of our land.

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Drain pipes are placed where needed along the roadway before there is any road to drain.

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In striking contrast to untouched fields through which it has been cut, the rough graded right-of-way stands ready for paving.

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An important part of the road, and one never seen by the rider going over it, is the subgrade.

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It must provide uniform support for the pavement and be easily drained.

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Several methods of subgrade preparation are used, depending upon local soil conditions. Natural grade soil may be compacted in place.

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Granular subbase materials may be added and compacted, or the subgrade may be stabilized with cement.

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The pavement starts to take shape with installation of the metal side forms. They are set to line and grade, carefully leveled and firmly anchored, because they not only determine the grade and elevation of the pavement slab, but must carry a succession of heavy machines during construction operations.

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First machine over the side forms is the mechanical grader, which cuts and smooths the base to within a quarter inch of the specified subgrade elevation.

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Giant paving machines working alone or in pairs mix the concrete and distribute it between the forms to build the pavement slabs.

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Concrete materials are obtained from a nearby batching plant.

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Here, sand and gravel or crushed rock, properly screened and tested, and Portland cement are proportioned by weight and loaded into compartmented trucks for delivery to the mixers.

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These materials are unloaded into the paver hopper, which feeds them into the mixer drum.(...) A carefully measured amount of water is added, and after complete mixing, the concrete is discharged into traveling buckets.(...) All day long, the buckets, riding on long booms, deposit the concrete on the subgrade.

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Following close behind, a train of machines and men work the concrete into modern highway pavement. First comes the mechanical spreader, a blade or screw type machine that evenly distributes the plastic concrete over the subgrade to a level slightly above final grade.

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Next in line are one or more finishing machines. They are equipped with front and back screeds, which give the concrete surface its proper contour and consolidate the material by pressure. In many areas, the finishing machines are followed by a longitudinal float.(...) Operating transversely across the pavement, it eliminates ridges or imperfections left by previous equipment.

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A smooth riding surface is then produced by a long straight edge, operated by hand, which removes all marks and ridges left by mechanical equipment. Final finish is obtained by brooms or by a burlap drag, which produces a skid resistant texture.(...) Such finely ridged surfaces also increase visibility at night. The fresh concrete slab is cured by keeping it moist.(...) A spray coat of white curing compound, now used widely, seals the surface against fast evaporation and prevents rapid temperature changes due to sun and clouds from affecting the gradual and thorough curing of the concrete. The latest thing in smooth riding joints is done by sawing longitudinal and transverse grooves in newly hardened concrete.(...) These narrow saw cuts, later filled with sealer, produce the modern sound conditioned highways,(...) silent and relaxing under long miles of driving.

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As soon as the construction crews move down the road, landscapers move in to smooth and plant the sloping sides of fills and cuts to prevent erosion and to make the roadway green and attractive.(...) In a short time, the earth-colored scars of highway construction are covered with grass, shrubs and trees.

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Then comes the installation of information markers, direction, interchange and bypass signs, mileage and service area markers, and the shield that identifies this as one of America's newest and safest highways.

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At last, the road is completed. The barriers are removed and traffic rolls.

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This is your road, the one that started years ago as cattle pads and wagon routes, soon to stretch unimpeded by stoplights or danger signs for thousands of miles, connecting you directly with any place you want to go.

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This is the modern highway, running through the fall color of the eastern hills and woods, or cutting through rapidly expanding cities of the west. It links the mighty sunshine areas of the south and moves commerce through the winter snows of the north, bringing the resorts and industry of the coasts into the heartland, ironing out mountains and crossing great bodies of water.

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The character and appearance of good roads have changed over the centuries, but their importance and the thought and effort that go into them have not.

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It takes time,(...) long and careful planning,(...) men of many professions and skills,(...) much information,(...) and scores of mighty machines.(...) It's a big, tough job, but it must be done to meet present demands and future requirements. It's all a part of building a highway.


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