One constant feature of Tennessee’s transportation network over the past 125 years has been the Frisco Bridge in Memphis. When it opened on March 12, 1892, the bridge was one of the longest railroad bridges in the world. An estimated 50,000 people witnessed the first train cross the bridge. Designed by George S. Morison, the bridge helped transform Memphis into a distribution center for southeastern freight businesses. The Memphis Appeal-Avalanche called it “A World’s Wonder,” a label befitting its size, potential economic impact, and three million dollar price tag.
Railroad companies were among the multiple stakeholders in the Good Roads Movement that lasted from about 1880 to 1926. “Farm-to-depot” roads would allow more farmers to get their goods to railroads for delivery beyond local outlets. Farmers also favored local projects that would produce “farm to market” roads.
The formation of the Memphis to Bristol Highway Association in 1911 marked the increasing influence of automobile and tourism industries in this movement. Construction on the 500 mile highway did not begin until 1915, and was not complete until 1930. Three of the four largest cities in the state directly benefited, as did rural counties in each of the three major divisions of the state.
The Dixie Highway, an interstate project from its beginnings in 1915, ran from Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan to Miami. The two north-south routes passed through rural and urban areas of Tennessee. “The western route ran south from Springfield through Nashville, Murfreesboro, Shelbyville, Tullahoma, Winchester, Cowan, and Monteagle to Chattanooga. The eastern route ran from the Cumberland Gap through Knoxville, Rockwood, and Dayton to Chattanooga. The convergence of both routes in Chattanooga was perhaps no accident. The city not only hosted first meeting of the Dixie Highway Association in 1915, but also served as the national headquarters of the association.
The considerable delays in these major road projects was in part due to the lack of dependable funding. When Governor Austin Peay began his first term in 1923, Tennessee had only 244 miles of paved state highways. Peay addressed this dismal situation by using a gas tax to pay for highway projects. This “pay as you go” approach, combined with Peay’s efforts to promote the benefits of good roads, increased the system of paved roads to 4000 miles by the time of his death in 1927. The completion of these major highways contributed to the growth of industries and tourism in both rural and urban areas. Both the Memphis to Bristol Highway and the Dixie Highway passed through Rutherford County, benefiting its dairy industry and offering tourists easy access to the Stones River National Military Park, which was established in 1927.
Jim Crow Train, performed by Josh White in 1941. Full item record.