In October 1925, the Joint Board on Interstate Highways’ preliminary report included plans for a major north-south highway to run in a diagonal fashion from Rouses Point, New York to New Orleans, Louisiana. As befitted a road of such importance, it was assigned a number ending in 1 (major east-west highway numbers ended in 0). The Board’s report was submitted to AASHO, the American Association of State Highway Officials (today’s AASHTO), and approved in November 1926. Thus was created US Highway 11.
Unlike many of the other mainline routes created by AASHO, US 11’s proposed routing generated some controversy among the states through which it would pass. Highway officials in New York, preferring named highways, objected to the creation of new numbered routes; and officials in Pennsylvania protested that the proposed route bypassed sites of historic significance in the state. AASHO considered the various states’ concerns, and released the final routing of US 11 in 1927. The highway began at a junction with US Highway 2 at Rouses Point, and ended at a junction with US Highway 90 just outside New Orleans.
The first major change in US 11’s route occurred in 1937, with the completion of the Pontchartrain Bridge in Louisiana. US 11 was rerouted over the bridge to a new junction with US 90, and the two routes then shared pavement into downtown New Orleans and US 11’s new southern terminus. This change remained in effect until 1941, when US 11’s endpoint was moved back to the junction with US 90, shortening the route by a few miles.
Another controversy arose in Tennessee. Then-governor Austin Peay objected to the proposed routing, contending that the plan failed to serve important cities such as Kingsport. Governor Peay threatened to take Tennessee out of the highway plan unless AASHO addressed the state’s concerns. In response, AASHO created a branch route, US Highway 511, designed to satisfy Tennessee’s desire to have federal routes through its major cities.
Unfortunately, business leaders along the two routes were still displeased with the numbering scheme, as they regarded a three-digit number to be somehow “inferior”. Governor Peay submitted a proposed change to AASHO in 1929 that he believed would solve the problem. His proposal was to renumber US 11 as US Highway 11W, and US 511 as US Highway 11E. AASHO agreed, and the split routes seemed to satisfy the Tennessee business concerns. The renumbered routes remained in place until 1934, when AASHO decided to consolidate split routes. US 11W resumed its old number of 11, and US 11E became US Highway 411. Tennessee, however, citing its old concerns, refused to recognize the renumbering of the highways. Since AASHO had no enforcement arm, and the highways themselves were ultimately under state control, Tennessee’s highway department felt no obligation to observe the AASHO changes. Consequently, nothing changed except in AASHO’s records, and highway maps continued to reflect the split routes. Other states, ultimately over half of them, followed Tennessee’s lead in ignoring AASHO’s route changes.
At a 1952 meeting in Kansas City, AASHO decided it was time to “harmonize” discrepancies between its official route listings, and the actual signing in the field and on maps. As part of the “harmonizing changes”, the US 11W – 11E split in Tennessee regained official status, and has remained in place to the present day. The US 411 designation was ultimately reassigned to a road running from Newport, Tennessee to Leeds, Alabama.
Today, US 11 runs nearby Interstate 81 south from Rouses Point and serves the New York cities of Watertown, Syracuse, and Binghamton. Just south of Binghamton, US 11 enters Pennsylvania, calling at Scranton and Wilkes-Barre before veering slightly westward toward the Susquehanna River. When the highway crosses the Susquehanna, it returns to a southerly direction and shares pavement with US Highway 15 to Harrisburg.
At Harrisburg, US 11 separates from US 15 and crosses the historic Pennsylvania Turnpike, passing through Chambersburg on its way to Hagerstown, Maryland. The highway spends less than 15 miles in Maryland before entering the eastern corner of West Virginia via a bridge over the Potomac River. US 11 travels a bit more mileage in West Virginia, running through Martinsburg on its way to the Virginia border.
Still close to Interstate 81, US 11 follows both the Appalachian Mountains and the Appalachian Trail down the western side of Virginia. Along the way, it passes through Staunton, birthplace of Woodrow Wilson, 28th President of the United States; Lexington, home of Washington and Lee University; and Roanoke, known for the Roanoke Star, an illuminated steel and concrete structure 100 feet high. Moving on, US 11 reaches the Tennessee border at Bristol, site of the historic split into US 11W and US 11E.
From Bristol, motorists may turn slightly south and follow US 11E to Johnson City and Greeneville, or elect to remain on the diagonal route and follow US 11W, through Kingsport and around Cherokee Lake. Both routes rejoin in Knoxville. The reconstituted US 11, now running alongside Interstate 75, turns southwest toward the home of Ruby Falls, Chattanooga. There, US 11 forsakes Interstate 75 for Interstate 59 as it cuts through a small corner of Georgia and passes into Alabama on its trek through the old Confederacy.
Once in The Heart of Dixie, US 11 heads straight for the historic city of Birmingham. The highway continues on its diagonal path to Alabama’s first capital, Tuscaloosa. Leaving Tuscaloosa, the highway travels 60 miles more in Alabama, and then enters Mississippi. Still following Interstate 59, US 11 calls first at Meridian, and then winds in a more southerly direction through Hattiesburg.
US 11 leaves Mississippi and crosses into Louisiana for its final few miles. The highway passes through Slidell, and then crosses a corner of Lake Ponchartrain before reaching its end at a lonely junction with US Highway 90, making a total length of 1,645 miles.
Droz, Robert V., "Sequential List of US Highways", US Highways From US 1 to US 830
. July 2003. <http://www.us-highways.com/us1830.htm> (December 2004)
Weingroff, Richard F., "U.S. 11:Rouses Point, New York, to New Orleans, Louisiana", FHA Highway History
. September 2004. <http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/infrastructure/us11.htm> (December 2004)