Famous Tennesseans reflect on importance of the Interstates
They traveled the roads to build legendary careers, to govern the state, the nation, or to help build a city. Some of them actually helped construct the first interstates in Tennessee with their own hands. Their stories, reflections about the importance of the interstate network, are available on a new Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) website being launched today as part of the nation’s celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the country’s Interstate Highway System.
TDOT is putting a call out to the public to send in stories about traveling before superhighways existed, or about how the interstates impacted their lives. As it turns out, everyone has something to say.
“I remember back as a 4-year-old kid living in Canandaigua, N.Y., and a road trip to Boston – the first time I can recall traveling beyond the borders of the state. The trip, which today thanks to the interstates would take six hours, was a 14-hour journey along two-lane highways,” recalls Governor Phil Bredesen. “But what I remember most is the anticipation of crossing the state line into Massachusetts. My imagination running wild, I expected a carnival-like atmosphere – with marching bands and jugglers and grand announcements of our arrival. I thought there would be a tunnel to drive through at the border. Imagine how let down I was when I realized all that awaited us at the state line was a sign reading ‘Welcome to Massachusetts’ and several more hours trapped in the backseat.”
TDOT is just beginning its celebration, with the actual anniversary of the 1956 legislation establishing the interstate system approaching this summer, on June 29. Tennessee’s own Senator Albert Gore, Senior was the author and principal sponsor of the legislation. It’s a huge point of pride for his son, the former Vice President.
“What he did on the interstate highway bill…he really never put out the kind of publicity touting his accomplishments. He was really the central figure from start to finish,” stated former Vice President Al Gore. “I remember going with him when I was six, seven, and eight years old to his committee meetings. He really spoke for the whole Senate on the question and they followed his lead. It made the most enormous impression on me. And by the way, he is the reason that I-40, I-65 and I-24 all meet at Nashville. And that in turn has been instrumental in attracting businesses like Nissan, Dell, Saturn and many others.”
“When recalling my childhood memories, those of traveling to west Tennessee to visit family are quite vivid. Mother packed sandwiches, and with Dad, the four of us children crowded into the family sedan (all scrambling for the window seats, which as the youngest I never got) and made our way along the narrow highways at 30 miles per hour!” added former U.S. Representative and Nashville Mayor Richard Fulton. “As a Member of Congress, I was pleased to be able to support the continuing construction of the Interstate Highway System, whose original prime sponsor was Senator Gore, Sr., creating opportunities for safer travel and increased economic growth.”
The nationwide system Senator Gore, Sr. helped establish has grown to 46,508 miles of superhighways in the United States. Tennessee’s system is actually named the Senator Albert Gore, SR, Memorial Interstate System. It now has 1,105 miles of interstate with vehicles registering 54,159,000 miles of travel on the structure each day. Some of Tennessee’s greatest entertainers feel like they’ve traveled at least that many miles establishing their careers.
“Since the day I first arrived in Nashville, my bus has been my second home. In the early days, trying to sleep on the bus was like riding the electronic bull in ‘Urban Cowboy’. I was determined to stay on my bed, but I knew eventually the bumps in the road were going to bounce me off the ceiling or throw me overboard. I tell you…it was hard to sleep when you’re gripping the sides of a bucking bronco!” exclaimed Dolly Parton. “When I’m riding the roads in Tennessee heading to Dollywood, those days of holding on for dear life are all over. We’ve got the best interstates in the country so now the only bump I feel is the speed bump at the drive-through window!”
“In the beginning of my career with the Grand Ole Opry in the early 50’s traveling was a task. We had no interstates. I think the most gruesome trips were the ones we made each week for eighteen months from Nashville to North and South Carolina. Two lane black top roads with hair pin curves through the mountains. Thank God for Interstates,” declared Little Jimmy Dickens.
Country music legend Porter Wagoner is grateful there is less risk involved when traveling now. “I remember when the only good stretch of road between Nashville and New York City was the Pennsylvania Turnpike and that was a Toll Road. Highway 40 East used to be called Bloody 11 and Bloody 70. Because of so many wrecks on that highway. The interstate has made it possible to get to our road shows in better time, but more importantly safer roads to travel.”
TDOT has five long-term employees who worked for the department when it all began. Bob Brown is one of them.
“I started working for TDOT as a laborer cleaning debris off the roads. Cookeville was a sleepy town then of about 7,900 people. Slowly the interstate helped build the town into a significant medical hub for rural areas,” remembers Bob Brown, TDOT’s Region Two Director and TDOT employee since 1953. “Now, more than 40,000 people travel through Cookeville on I-40 each day. I was proud to be there at the beginning and I’m still going!”
“The community of Bearden, 5 miles from downtown Knoxville, was considered ‘the far west’. Fountain City, about 8 miles from downtown, was a weekend get-a-way. I’m not kidding. A trolley shuttled people to the Fountain City lake and hotel,” added Fred Corum, Region One Director and TDOT employee since 1956. “The Interstate changed Knoxville from a small “square” to a big, very busy, heavily traveled “rectangle” and changed the lives of everyone in Knox County and East Tennessee. I watched and helped it happen as we built each foot of roadway.”
And now the man who heads the Department, TDOT Commissioner Gerald Nicely, finds himself in a position he never imagined. Credited with dramatically improving the Department’s business practices, community outreach and environmental policies, Nicely has a few memories of his own. “When I was a child, I remember riding a bus from Oak Ridge to Nashville to visit my older sister. The bus seemed to stop every 30 minutes—in Oliver Springs, Harriman, Rockwood Crossville, Carthage, Lebanon. These are all fine Tennessee towns, but traveling by bus with all these stops made for about an eight-nine hour trip. The web of interstates that has evolved since then has transformed our ability to travel, our economy and our lives.”
TDOT’s 50th Interstate Anniversary celebration is supported by Tennessee Speaker of the House, Jimmy Naifeh, Lieutenant Governor John Wilder and House Transportation Chairman Phillip Pinion. To read their reflections about the interstate system, go to the special website listed below.