Chester Martin Remembers The Old US Highway System

Friday, May 5, 2017 - by Chester Martin
Travel by buggy
Travel by buggy

Within the last two years (in September 2015) a horrendous accident occurred near Phoenix, Ariz., which attracted national news coverage. TV cameras came out to record the mess which occurred on an Interstate highway, with what appeared to be at least eight lanes of traffic in each direction. THAT is an almost incomprehensible number to someone of my age! The aerial views from the TV news helicopters were jaw-dropping! Despite my shock at seeing those images, I do have personal knowledge of the Washington (DC) Beltway, which is about the same width, and always scary.

My claustrophobia always kicks in when I suddenly realize that I am in lane 1, but need to maneuver my way over to lane 8 in order to exit in "one mile", as the sign says. You can tell that I do not use GPS to help me, either. No one could have ever imagined such wide highways only a few years back!

In my day - a very long time ago, admittedly - the major U.S. highways that passed through Chattanooga - US Highways 41, 11, 27 and 64 - were all only two lanes wide - ONE LANE IN EACH DIRECTION. I can remember that my friend, Walter Nash, and I set out on foot one clear summer night to walk down US 41 to a friend's house on Three-Notch Road – ‘way inside the Georgia line - toward Ringgold. We literally had the road to ourselves; only a very occasional car passed - and absolutely NO trucks! The stars were bright overhead, we were both amateur astronomers, and we could concentrate on them instead of having to dodge traffic. Highway 41 was the MAJOR route between Chicago and the entire east coast of Florida! All traffic had seemingly stopped for the night. Those formerly important "U.S." highways are still largely in place – of use mainly for short local runs, while long distances are best covered via our modern Interstate routes.

US 41 started on the Northern Peninsula of Michigan, ran south through Chicago and on to Chattanooga. It passed through the center of Atlanta, of course, and somewhere below Macon it joined with US 1, and later US A1A, the east coast highways to Miami and Key West. At least through our region it was called the “Dixie Highway". In those old days there were a lot of Mom & Pop businesses which sprang up along all these U.S. roads, and in our vicinity there was a heavily advertised "41 Cafe" at Dalton, Ga., which was promoted on billboards for the highway's full length. In Dalton, you could often park your car directly in front of the Cafe. Always busy inside, parking never seemed to be a problem. "B. Lloyds" promoted Louisiana pralines in south Georgia for many years, and seems to have been supplanted by a newer such place, called "Stuckey's". There was one of the latter at Kimball, Tn., for many years.

Starting somewhere near Ringgold (going south) the right side of US 41 had many private homes which had brightly colored "chenille" items displayed on clotheslines in front of the houses, with signage inviting tourists to stop. We stopped once, with a friend from out of state, and went inside one of them: there was only ONE large room with NO furniture - only workspace for the people hand-making the chenille products. Colorful discarded fuzzballs littered the floor. We were seeing the rudimentary beginning of the later carpet industry at Dalton, where now the same people (or their grandchildren) are employed for both better pay and working conditions. The chenille products were all very colorful and included such items as bathrobes and bedspreads. My mother had one of the bathrobes with a large bird-of-paradise design on the back, capable of scaring the wits out of small children and animals when she suddenly wheeled around!

Just west of Chattanooga, and still on US 41, there was a small "Free Zoo" to attract the kids, and which sold all manner of souvenirs, cold drinks, etc. That was on the south side of the highway between Chattanooga and Jasper. It had a woodsy atmosphere, parallel with the Tennessee River, and was the only business along that stretch of road. Further on, there was a well-advertised restaurant and motel which used small, but well-placed, signs to advertise the business. This was at Guild, Tennessee, exactly where the road turned right to access the ancient bridge across the river. Each sign was in a different foreign language and grabbed your attention: "Halten Sie und Rasten Sie, bei HENRY'S", read one sign in German. Closer to Nashville, U.S. 41 goes very close to the Stone's River battlefield of Civil War significance, then passes near Andrew Jackson's "Hermitage" home near Old Hickory, Tn. It also went past my old Sewart AFB - now long closed - at Smyrna, Tennessee.

Going north over Monteagle Mountain (then a most torturous route), an immensely long billboard pointed to "Wonder Cave", far east of the road in a cove at the foot of the mountain. I never visited the cave - but it and all the other above attractions vanished into thin air immediately as the new Interstate Highway 24 opened. One of the few remaining attractions on US 41 - 50 miles from Chattanooga - is the famous Al Capone "safe house", at Monteagle, now a fine restaurant, built of mountain stone. Capone used this house as a safe haven, because it was about half-way between his Chicago home and his Florida destination.

* * *

US 27 started near Fort Wayne, Ind., and came through Chattanooga, then continued through western Georgia to connect with Florida’s west (gulf) coast. On our many trips to Florida in the 1940's and '50's we always preferred US 41. US 27 had been the latest of the main US highways to be completed through our area - before I was born. I think it caused quite a happy stir when this new "LaFayette Road" opened. The picture with this story shows my dad (at left) and his first cousin, Gene Martin in a horse-drawn vehicle at the intersection of the present U.S. 27, and "Tom Hunt Road", which was then THE LaFayette Road. ( Cousin Gene Martin was postman for all of Chickamauga for many years).

* * *

U.S. Highway 11 has always been important in my family, as we have enjoyed driving it in both directions. We have used it for trips to New Orleans (its southern terminus), and as far as D.C., its northern end. It passes Arlington National Cemetery just south of Washington, and continues through the beautiful Shenandoah Valley of Virginia (as you go toward Chattanooga). In my long past researches I discovered that its ancient origin had been created by millions of buffaloes' feet, racing southward across the famous "Natural Bridge", past Chattanooga, and into present Alabama, where they availed themselves of the natural salt-licks there! From its opening It has been called the "Lee Highway", except for where it goes through a city and assumes a new name for a few miles. Here near my home it is known as Brainerd Road.

* * *

US 64 is another one of those oldies. It is quite long, starting at Nags Head, N.C., on the Outer Banks and going almost due west through Chattanooga, I had to do a minute's research to find where it ended, however....somewhere in Arizona near the "Four Corners" place where four large square states meet. It goes through Cleveland, Tn., of course, and I have only used it to access CAMP OCOEE, locally, and the OUTER BANKS, more distantly. I am very grateful for the modern freeway which cuts off all the small farm-towns between here and there. It is only after you reach extreme eastern N.C. that you pick it up again. That part is the most interesting part, for sure, driving along past pine forests and following straight-as-an-arrow waterways.

* * *

Our two-lane highways had been built over far older wagon roads and followed every nuance of those roads. (Check the much-used “W” Road on Signal Mountain if you do not believe this!) Some roads were straightened or otherwise improved, and a few - close to town - might eventually be made into four-lane highways, but these were not yet the "limited access" highways; those did not come until later. "Freeways" were still years ahead in the future. Not even California yet had a decent highway system. My mother's first cousin, Paul Jordan-Smith, (1885-1971), wrote in his autobiography that when he first went to California in the 1920's it was quicker and easier to get from San Francisco to Los Angeles BY BOAT, than by the poor roads! We can thank President Dwight D. Eisenhower for our modern freeways: As an American General in Germany, in WW2, he had seen that country's magnificent Autobahn system and envisioned the same for our country. He introduced a "Project '66" Program in Congress which was to have these new roads done by 1966. It was approved, and the majority of them built, but I understand that in some places, like the Bayou Country of Louisiana, they are still waiting!

A source of continuing amazement to me is that when the new freeways opened up, how fast they filled with traffic! Highway 41, for example, which only yesterday had had a trickle of mainly daytime traffic, suddenly became a roaring torrent of cars and trucks. I-24 and I-75 replaced the former tranquility of many a rural neighborhood forever, I suppose. Speed limits started out at 75 MPH on these new Interstate highways, which lasted several years until there were so many crashes that they were reduced to first 65, and later to 55 - by public demand.

What I have written here pertains mainly to our Chattanooga area. I am well aware of wide four-lane highways such as Chicago’s great Lake Shore Drive – for in 1947 or ’48 we drove there, and that highway so confused my dad that we finally made an illegal U-turn (quite safely, I assure you) and headed back into town from somewhere near the Wisconsin line! Dad had driven for the local Post Office for many years but simply could not understand how exiting to the right could turn us around and head us back to town! Live and learn, I suppose.

Dad could not comprehend the "new logic" of the four-lane highway, just I struggle with those 16-laners in various places. I just wouldn't want to be around should Chattanooga ever need such a system!


Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at

Chester Martin
Chester Martin

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