Parts of the main highway and several branches ran through Texas, leaving some to assume that it was strictly a Texas thing. The late Texas writer and historian A.C. Greene, who grew up in Abilene, was one of those people. He met Tallulah Bankhead during World War II and was surprised and a little offended that she didn't recognize the landmarks he mentioned along the stretch of highway between Baird and Clyde that bore her name.
"It didn't occur to me until years later that the Bankhead Highway began on the East Coast and stretched all the way to the West," he confessed in "A Personal Country." "I had assumed it to be a purely West Texas phenomenon, going no farther east than Fort Worth and reaching west certainly not past El Paso."
Senator Bankhead got the highway named for him after he wrote a bill known as the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916, that created it. The bill was a result of the Good Roads Movement, which included a coalition of citizens, politicians and lobbyists from the automotive industry. Among the earliest proponents of the Good Roads Movement were farmers, who needed good roads to get their products to market, though some contrarians opposed it because they believed it would only benefit city people. World War I slowed construction but the project gained momentum in the 1920s and 30s, when it provided much-needed work along its route during the Depression.
Most American roads in the early decades of the 20th century were roads in name more than function, muddy when it was wet and dusty when dry. Even the lucky few citizens who owned a car or truck couldn't count on getting too far on any one road. Roads ended abruptly and usually without warning. Gas stations were few and far between. The cross country highway was designed to make it easier for people to actually travel by car.
Going east to west across Texas, the Bankhead Highway went through Texarkana, Mt. Vernon, Terrell, Dallas, Fort Worth, Mineral Wells, Abilene, Midland and El Paso. The highway's precise path is hard to trace because it split into several branches all along its route. In Texas alone, there were nearly a dozen branches, some of them short and others stretching through several counties. At El Paso, the North and South mainline branches merged again on their way out of the state.
Greene would have been traveling the South Mainline Branch, which included the towns of Gordon, Strawn, Ranger, Eastland, Cisco, Dothan, Putnam, Baird, Clyde and Abilene. The North and South Mainline branches merged in Abilene, and took the traveler through much of West Texas.
For its day, the Bankhead was a state-of-the-art roadway. It was paved, which people in rural areas especially appreciated, and it had two lanes. The highway came at a time when people began to look at owning a car as more of a necessity than a luxury, in the same way that having a horse was a necessity before cars came along. Towns along the highway developed and prospered, even in rural areas.
Clyde, on the South Mainline Branch, billed itself as the "California of Texas" and advertised that claim on its water tower. People in the area lived up to the motto by growing peaches, apricots, strawberries, grapes, peas and watermelons and selling them at roadside stands along the highway.
Times were good, but times changed.
Like a child that outgrows its britches, America soon outgrew its two-lane roads. No road with two lanes could truly be called "America's Broadway." Not anymore. Another act of Congress, the Interstate Highway Act of 1956, was the result of that realization.
Most of what's left of the Bankhead Highway survives as U.S. Highway 80, or most often in Texas, as U.S. Highway 180. By any standard measure, it's largely gone but not quite forgotten. In 2009, the Texas segment of the Bankhead Highway was designated as a Texas Historical Highway.
Maybe by simply commemorating and remembering it, the old road will go on forever.