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April 3: Good Roads for All

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Until the early 1900s, people traveled by real horsepower – the kind fueled by hay. Then the automobile began changing American life. In those early days, driving was something of a free-for-all. There were no stop signs, traffic lights, proper lanes, brake lights, crosswalks, or speed limits. No driver’s license was necessary. Pedestrians crossing the street had to dodge any passing cars. One account stated: “Screaming pedestrians were scattered like ninepins. Some were bowled over or tossed against store fronts.”

There were farsighted people at the turn of the century who predicted that automobiles were the transportation of the future and it was important to impose some sort of order. In 1914, the first traffic light was installed. The first stop sign was introduced in 1915.

Poor roads were a big concern. Few were paved. Most roads were alternately dry and dusty or wet and knee-deep in mud. There were no paved roads in North Dakota until 1910, when Grand Forks began pouring cement.

On this date in 1903, it was announced that a national good roads conference would be held in St. Louis. It was billed as the “greatest good roads convention ever held.” Observers expected that a main focus would be federal financial support to improve roads. Supporters of federal assistance pointed out that the government had funded the construction of railroads owned by private corporations, while public roads were just that: public. They would be used by everyone. Communities across the country would benefit by improved mail delivery and the transportation of goods, as well as the improved ease of personal travel.

The push for good roads got the attention of the national government. A 1904 road survey determined that while there were over two million miles of roads in the country, only one hundred forty-one were paved.

Today, roads are the economic lifeline of North Dakota, with over one hundred thousand miles of road in the state. The state Department of Transportation manages about seven thousand miles, with the remaining roads coming under city, township, Tribal, and county management.

Dakota Datebook by Dr. Carole Butcher.


Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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