Saturday, June 2, 2007

The Old Bankhead National Highway Built Through Itawamba County

Prior to the 1920s, the roads of Itawamba County were maintained primarily for horse and wagon travel. Many of the old roads had been used for generations and were named usually for the settlements they connected, such as the Fulton and Pikeville Road and the Aberdeen and Jacinto Road. Other roads were named for families and settlements.

During the early years of the twentieth century, more and more Americans were traveling by automobile and a need for better roads was voiced by many citizens. Thanks to John Hollis Bankhead, congressman from neighboring Alabama (grandfather of actress Tallulah Bankhead), a major national concrete road was built through the entire width of Itawamba County.

The Good Roads Movement came out of concern by many citizens for better highways and by 1916 the Federal Aid Road Act was passed. Congressman Bankhead was ready with his plan for a national road that would link the older states of the South and East with the new ones in the west.

The Bankhead Highway was a United States cross-country automobile highway connecting Washington D.C. and San Diego, California. It was part of the National Auto Trail system. The Itawamba portion of the national highway was built during the early 1920s and it transformed travel in Itawamba County. Although the progress of the road was slowed by World War I, construction continued and by the late 1920s the national road was complete. Considered the “Broadway of America” this national highway brought prosperity and commerce to the many towns along its route, including Fulton, where it was completed in 1923, the same year the Mississippian Railroad was incorporated in Amory. It was during this time that the major timber industry was developed in the county. A 1923 newspaper article from the Tupelo Journal reads: “Our neighbor on the east, Fulton, saw more building during the last six months of the year than has taken place within the ten years previous. Two new schools, the public school of Fulton and the Itawamba County Agricultural High School, and the new Baptist church there were built previous to 1923, but with the completion of the Bankhead concrete road an impetus was given the spirit of improvement which is bringing the town up to the point of being one of the most progressive towns in this part of the state.”

On November 11, 1926 the U.S. numbered highway system was adopted and it was then that the southeastern portion of Bankhead Highway became known as U.S. Highway 78. The new Highway 78 began in downtown Charleston, South Carolina and ended at Second Street in downtown Memphis. It was during the Great Depression, when the U.S. and state governments put men to work that a new Highway 78 was built through Itawamba County. The photograph above shows the newly constructed U.S. Highway 78 looking east from atop River Hill above the Tombigbee River (click photo for large image). The new highway followed basically the same path as the old Bankhead Highway and even today in Itawamba County there are several places where the old Bankhead Highway and the old U.S. Highway 78 intersect.

Today we have the new four-lane U.S. Highway 78 south of the old highway (which is now known as Highway 178) but there are several sections of the first old Bankhead National Highway still in use. And road names using portions of the old road in the county still honor Congressman Bankhead’s name. We have Bankhead Road East (Tremont area), Bankhead Road West (Dorsey area) and in Fulton there is Bankhead Street. Yet many areas of the old national highway are abandoned in Itawamba County. Today there are many stretches of the old road where the old desolate narrow concrete lane winds its way through pastures, forests and swamps - a silent reminder of the old national highway that was built through Itawamba County at the beginning of the twentieth century, bringing the hopes of development, growth and prosperity to many Itawambians.

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