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Monday, May 26, 2008

U. S. Highways from the 1930s: Vanishing America


William Least Heat Moon's book Blue Highways, published many years ago, celebrated the roads that appeared on early road maps as the main routes between big cities and small towns across America. Many of these main roads were consolidated into the Interstate system, bypassed, and abandoned during the 1960s. Truly the main streets of America, these mostly two-lane roads were often built adjacent to railroad right-of-ways, and went through the center of every town they passed through. Most were completed in the years before the second World War,, and some still survive as the major transportation arteries between smaller towns.

Some of my favorites include surviving sections of U.S. 30 through eastern Wyoming, Nebraska, Iowa and Illinois (The Lincoln Highway), U.S. Routes 20 and 20A in upstate New York from Albany to Buffalo, U.S. 12 through Wisconsin, Minnesota, and South Dakota (called the Yellowstone Route in some area and the Lewis & Clark Highway in others), old U.S. 550 from Durango through Ouray to Montrose, Colorado, and parts of "The Mother Road", and the remaining original sections of U. S. Route 66 from Chicago to southern California.

Many town centers in America's heartland have never recovered from being bypassed in the 1960s by the new Interstate system. Where the center of town was the engine that drove local businesses, there are abandoned stores, theaters, filling stations, railroad depots that have never re-opened, d by the ubiquitous chain stores, fast food restaurants, and convenience stores. Family owned highway motels have been abandoned to the "easy on, easy off" divided highway exits. Even the wonderful small-town coffee shops and diners where one could converse with locals about politics, the economy, or the weather have disappeared forever, replaced by Circle K and 7/11 stores that sell gas, snacks, bad coffee and microwaved "meals" to go

Another aspect of traveling the blue highways is to note the changes in agriculture and the disappearance of local grain elevators and the abandonment of family farms, replaced by massive corporate farms and processing facilities. Nowhere is this more noticeable than in the northern plains of South Dakota and Montana where brick two-story schools have been abandoned because of out-migration of the families they served. Roadside motels and filling stations have also been abandoned or reinvented as low-cost housing and repair shops that no longer sell gasoline.

Some of the most striking architectural survivors on the road are railroad stations, many with classical architectural themes, that now stand empty or are barely maintained as local museums only open a few hours a week. In the downtown centers, most of the "picture palaces" where Americans watched movies in the 30s and 40s are abandoned and empty. Some, like the Royal in Archer City, Texas, the setting for Peter Bogdanovich's film "The Last Picture Show" (written by Larry McMurtry) live on as places where special events are presented. Most, however stand empty, as do the drive-in theaters that dotted the landscape in the 1950s.

Most of my travels have concentrated on recording the abandonment of much that America stood for in the past - that sense of small town community, pride in local differences, and a sense of the past. By recording these vernacular buildings and landscapes, and recreating the images as multi-media artwork, I'm hoping to at the least make us aware of some of our history, and the culture that created the buildings and blue highways.

Eric Engstrom - May 27, 2008

"We photographers deal in things thatare continually vanishing, and when they have vanished, there is no contrivance that can bring them back again." - Henri Cartier-Bresson, Photographer, 1952



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