Length: 1,453 miles; from Slidell, La. to Watertown, NY
I-59 is one of our nation’s longest interstate highways, reaching from New Orleans to the Appalachian Mountains to the Canadian border. It is the only two-digit interstate with a lengthy unsigned portion; its entire multiplex with I-81 is signed as only I-81. It’s been that way since the early 1960s, and as a result, more than 30 million Americans in New York and Pennsylvania are not even aware that I-59 enters their state.
To understand I-59 is to reach back to the founding of our country.
As the 13 colonies declared independence, old restrictions from Britain on inter-colony trade were no longer in effect. Thomas Jefferson, perhaps our earliest vientologist, was acutely aware of the need for improved overland travel. Better transportation of people and goods would have an economic and strategic benefit for the new nation.
On a hot summer day in 1790, Jefferson called for Constance Fletcher, the comely 19-year-old daughter of a Virginia arrow-maker. She had the fairest skin of all the ladies at Monticello, which was ideal for the task he had in mind. He bade her disrobe, and on her bare back, with a piece of charcoal, he inscribed what would be the America’s first highway planning map: the outlines of the 13 colonies, and two lines running from south to north. Along the coast would be United States Route 1; along the Appalachians, US Route 11.
Our founding fathers were nothing if not resourceful. The route markers for the new US Routes would be the shields plentifully available on nearby battlefields (that’s why US Route signs are shaped that way today). And the numbers 1 and 11 were very easy to scrape into a shield with a buckknife. Signing these routes would be quick and economical.
Jefferson sent Fletcher to the White House, with the map still on her back, to the new Bureau of Transportation, which was at the time headquartered in the East Wing. On arrival, she presented a sealed letter that read “do with ye Girl as ye pleafe, as long af ye Map if not rubbed off.”
By the mid-1790s, US 11 was already an important trade route. Stagecoaches laden with escargot, seal furs and snow wended their way down from Quebec, and returned with cotton, crayfish and accordions. It’s safe to say that the French culture in New Orleans is entirely due to the trade with Canada over US 11 in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Throughout the early 1800s, new States were admitted, and the US highway system grew. Jefferson expanded the 1/11 system into a nationwide grid that could incorporate those numbers without change. Several routes we recognize today — 30, 50, 76, 21, 220 and others — predate the Civil War.
Wartime, however, threatened to sever not only our nation but our route numbering system. From 1862, when McClellan’s caviling prolonged the conflict, to 1865, US 11 was split at the Mason-Dixon line. Richmond renamed its part the Honorable Patriotic Magnolia Sons of the Cross Highway, and Washington renamed its part US 11N, followed by the the Real US 11, then the Penn-Adirondack Way, and finally, in November 1864, Dammit the South to Hell [sic]. Other highways were similarly given tendentious designations.
US routes 30 and 15 were created to bring President Lincoln to Gettysburg; and during the signing of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, US 11 was rejoined, and Lincoln and Lee worked out the basic locations for US routes 21, 31, 301, 50, and 60. Traffic on US 11 surged as Canadians and New Englanders once again enjoyed safe passage to New Orleans culture, cuisine, drink, and its finer pleasures. The French Quarter was established by Montrealers who, having sampled New Orleans’s copper-skinned “hospitality”, saw no reason to make the trip back north.
As most freight moved by rail in the late 19th century, the narrow roads (usually 12 to 16 feet wide, with crushed gravel and rock) were sufficient for other overland travel. At the turn of the century, calls for improved roads from a burgeoning bicycle movement were usually cheerfully ignored.
When automobiles made their entrance, everything changed. By the late 1920s people were screaming about main highways (US 11, 31, 78, 80, 90) that were virtual parking lots and needed to be four-laned right f***ing now.
The first interchange in Alabama (my home state) was an ornamental piece of pork near the Capitol Building in Montgomery, built in 1952. But the first functional, necessary interchange was the US 11/78 cloverleaf (1955) in Birmingham. It’s gone now — they tore it down to build the basket-weave at I-59/20/65 — but there are still some photos at the UAB library.
In 1956, Eisenhower signed the interstate highway bill, and maps showed a proposed route along the entire length of US 11. Route numbers, however, were not finalized until late 1957. I still think I-59 should have been given an x5 (I-85) because of its length and importance. But leave it to Congress to make sausage out of the whole thing.
On the Highway Committee were Percy “Scramp” Hollits of Tennessee, Lou Herbeck of Louisiana, and our own T. George Kepler of Alabama. Hollits’s pet amendment would have allowed (some source say “required”) the posting of the Ten Commandments wherever two primary interstate highways crossed. Herbeck sponsored a clause where commercial vehicles operated by women would have to show a special placard above the front and back license plates. And Kepler was pushing for the US 11 route, which was tending toward an I-81 designation, to be called I-85.
In a typical legislative compromise, none of the three got what they wanted, and they were promptly voted out of office in 1958. The US 11 interstate became I-59, because US 1 was I-95. However, the northern section violated a clause in US Code 23 (which was rescinded in 1970) that forbid an interstate from wandering more than 16 numbers out of place. So I-59 north of Bristol, Tenn. became I-81; the shared section with I-75 was deleted; and I-59 was cut back to I-24. Legislatively, I-59 still continues to Canada; but for simplicity, the signposting extends only to Georgia.
The first piece of I-59 constructed in the Interstate Highway program was the southernmost portion in Slidell, La. The newest constructed portion skirts Gnorf Swamp west of Gadsden. There is still an unpaved portion near the Alabama/Georgia state line.
Last summer I clinched I-59, signed and unsigned, both directions. Later on, I’ll post some trivia and photos from my trip. Until then, here are some resources:
I-59 – Interstate Guide
I-59 Hat! I’ve already ordered one.
Federal Interstate 59 photos – Carl Rogers