John Hollis Bankhead of Alabama, at one time that state’s Congressman and later Senator, was the father of Representative William B. Bankhead and, in time, the grandfather of the notorious actress Tallulah Bankhead. He was also an early advocate of good roads, and gave his name to the Bankhead Highway.
In the early years of the twentieth century, as more and more Americans began traveling by automobile, a clamor arose for better roads than the prevailing trails and mud tracks. The Good Roads Movement came out of that clamor, and when the Federal Aid Road Act achieved passage in 1916, Rep. Bankhead was ready with his plan for a national thoroughfare that would link the older, established states of the East and South with the new ones in the West. Though slowed somewhat by World War I, construction nonetheless proceeded on the highway, soon to be known as the Bankhead Highway. By the late 1920s, the highway was completed, and just as Route 66 would do twenty years later, the "Broadway of America" brought prosperity and commerce to the towns and cities along its route.
Rep. Bankhead’s Highway began its run, appropriately enough, in Washington, D. C. It followed US Highway 1 out of the capital and crossed the Potomac River into Virginia. Along the way, it passed through Fredericksburg, a city rich in Revolutionary War and Civil War history; and Richmond, once the capital of the Confederate States of America. Just a few miles north of South Hill, Virginia, the Bankhead Highway’s route turned southwest and ran along US Highway 58 to Clarksville, Virginia.
The Bankhead Highway turned south at Clarksville to follow US Highway 15 into North Carolina and the city of Durham. Long known for its tobacco farms and factories, Durham is today the home of Research Trangle Park, a center of electronics, biotechnology, and environmental research.
Leaving US 15 behind in Durham, the Bankhead Highway turned west on US Highway 70, then a major east-west transcontinental route paralleled today by Interstate 40. At Greensboro, another prominent tobacco processing center, the highway again turned south and was now carried by US Highway 29. Just before entering South Carolina, it passed through Charlotte, North Carolina. It was at Charlotte that a document later known as the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, a precursor of the Declaration of Independence, was signed in 1775.
Cutting through the northwest corner of South Carolina, the Bankhead Highway wound through the cities of Spartanburg and Greenville. Greenville was once known as the "Textile Center of the World", and many of the historic Italianate mill buildings survive today and have been restored to their former splendor. Still following US 29, the highway entered Georgia on its run toward the birthplace of Coca-Cola, the fine old city of Atlanta.
The Bankhead Highway carried the traveler through downtown Atlanta, until the route turned due west on to US Highway 78. This road still carries the name “Bankhead Highway” all across the remainder of the state. Leaving Georgia, the highway soon entered Alabama and passed near the old iron mining town of Anniston. Another sixty miles or so brought the highway to Birmingham, a city that figured prominently in the 1960s Civil Rights demonstrations.
From Birmingham, the Bankhead Highway turned northwest on its way to Memphis, Tennessee, passing through a corner of Mississippi. While in Mississippi, the highway passed through Tupelo, birthplace of none other than the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley. The Bankhead Highway then entered Memphis and Tennessee just long enough to leave US 78 and resume its passage along US 70, crossing the mighty Mississippi River into Arkansas.
Arriving in the city of Hot Springs, Arkansas, travelers along the Bankhead Highway were presented with a choice: to remain on the mainline route, or follow the branch route.
THE MAINLINE ROUTE
The Bankhead’s mainline route left US 70 to follow Arkansas Highway 7 out of Hot Springs, and then turned south along US Highway 67. It entered Texas at Texarkana, birthplace of ragtime legend Scott Joplin. Another few hours of driving through east Texas brought the traveler to the cities of Dallas and Fort Worth.
At Fort Worth, the mainline route resumed its westward passage along US Highway 80. Modern travelers will make the same journey along Interstate 20, as that highway has replaced US 80 from Fort Worth to San Diego. The highway carried on to Abilene, immortalized in song by country singer George Hamilton IV. Initially a farming town, Abilene is today a center of manufacturing and the location of Dyess Air Force Base.
Next along the route, in the heart of the Permian Basin, were the petroleum-producing centers of Midland and Odessa. Of the two cities, Midland has come into recent prominence, since it is the hometown of U. S. President George W. and First Lady Laura Bush. The mainline route continued on across west Texas, turning northwest at the Rio Grande to enter El Paso and meet up with the branch route.
THE BRANCH ROUTE
The Bankhead’s branch route left Hot Springs still carried on US 70. From there it entered Oklahoma, passing through the cities of Idabel, Hugo, Durant (the Magnolia Capital of Oklahoma), and Ardmore. Some fifty miles west of Ardmore, the branch route turned north to follow US Highway 81 and then west again along Oklahoma Highway 7 for the run into Lawton.
At Lawton, US Highway 62 carried the route out of the city and into Texas. It moved to US 70 at Paducah, and continued on across the Llano Estacado to its only major stop in the state, Plainview. Just over an hour’s worth of driving brought the highway to New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment, and the city of Clovis. There, the Bankhead Highway’s branch route intersected another well-known transcontinental highway, US Highway 60.
Leaving Clovis, the route turned southwesterly and passed through Roswell, a city beloved by UFO buffs as a flying saucer is said to have crashed there in 1947. More mundane travelers could continue on to Alamogordo. Near there, on 16 July 1945, the world’s first nuclear device was detonated at the Trinity site. Modern visitors may visit the site, now part of the White Sands National Monument, and learn about the research that ushered in the atomic age.
From Alamogordo, the branch route turns south on US Highway 54 and returns, after some sixty miles, to Texas at Marty Robbins’ old stomping grounds, El Paso. There, where such famous characters as Billy the Kid and Wyatt Earp roamed the streets, the Bankhead Highway’s branch route rejoined the mainline route.
Once the two sections of the Bankhead Highway became one again, the route left El Paso, carried by US 80, and entered New Mexico. It called first at Deming, where the traveler might view the marvelous pottery produced by the Mimbres Indians. Alternatively, one could stop for a visit at the next city along the route, Lordsburg. Charles A. Lindbergh did just that, during his famous 1927 transcontinental flight.
Shortly after crossing into Arizona, the Bankhead Highway crossed US Highway 666, a highway that would acquire some undeserved notoriety in later years due to its number. Continuing on through the desert, the Bankhead Highway reached its first major Arizona stop at Tucson. Once the capital of the Arizona Territory, Tucson is today a city of over 750,000 inhabitants, and the site of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. The city boasts some of the finest weather in the United States, claiming over 360 sunny days per year.
The Bankhead Highway turned northwest out of Tucson, heading next to Phoenix. Weary travelers along the highway could choose to stop for the evening at the opulent Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix, another famous edifice that has been restored to its former glory and remains a popular resort spot. In later years, travelers might take a small detour to Scottsdale, and visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece of architecture, his western home known as Taliesin West. A few more hours’ drive along the highway brought the traveler to Yuma, on the banks of the Colorado River. A popular recreation center, Yuma is today the third-fastest growing metropolitan area in the United States.
North of Yuma, the Bankhead Highway crossed the Colorado and at last reached the golden state of California
, setting out across the dunes
of the northern Sonoran Desert
. At one time, many parts of the highway were little more than wooden planks stretched across the desert. Those plank roads were, by 1926, replaced by concrete
, as road building methods improved. The Bankhead Highway, and US 80, was carried on those plank roads, as it made its way to El Centro
At El Centro, it crossed the great Ridge Route, US Highway 99, that once ran between California and the Pacific Northwest (today’s Interstate 5). Passing near the Vallecito Mountains, the Bankhead Highway dipped near the Mexican border and then turned northwesterly for the final run into San Diego. There, known locally as El Cajon Boulevard, the Bankhead Highway came to rest at the shores of the Pacific Ocean, near what is today the San Diego International Airport.
The Bankhead Highway was, in its heyday, an important lifeline for many of the communities along its nearly 3000-mile route. Though the name "Bankhead Highway" lives on in many of its towns, it has been mostly replaced by Interstate highways that enable the traveler to reach destinations quicker – but provide little of the romance of the old highway.
Droz, Robert V., "Sequential List of US Highways", US Highways From US 1 to US 830
. March 2005. <http://www.us-highways.com/us1830.htm> (May-June 2005)
, "John Hollis Bankhead", Alabama Men's Hall of Fame"
. <http://www.samford.edu/groups/amhf/id45.htm> (May - June 2005)
Schul, Dave, "Bankhead Highway", North American Auto Trails
. October 1999. <http://www.marion.ohio-state.edu/fac/schul/trails/trails.html> (May - June 2005)
DeFazio, Dave, "The Bankhead Highway", Preserving Texas History
. 2004. <http://www.geocities.com/bubbahargo/history/tx/bankhead.html> (May - June 2005)
Bureau of Land Management, "Old Plank Road", Desert USA
. 1996-2005. <http://www.desertusa.com/sandhills/plankrd.html> (May - June 2005)
fermie notes that "Actually, Bankhead Highway in Atlanta has been renamed Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway, after the venerable Civil Rights attorney who once sprung the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. from prison. It was renamed only from its eastern end point at Northside Drive, to the Cobb/Fulton County line to the west."