A senator from Alabama was instrumental in enacting the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916, which became the first federal highway funding legislation. The cross-country Bankhead Highway was named after him.
Father of Good Roads
In 1916 Senator John Hollis Bankhead sponsored federal legislation creating a fund of $200 million that would provide states with matching funds for highway construction. Bankhead also served as President of the United States Good Roads Association and spoke at good roads conferences across the nation. These efforts earned him the nickname “Father of Good Roads.”
Senator Bankhead was a member of the Inland Waterways Commission in 1907. United States Senator John H. Bankhead II and Speaker of the House William Brockman Bankhead were his sons, and actress Tallulah Bankhead was his granddaughter. Bankhead was born on September 13, 1842, at Moscow, Marion County, Alabama (near present day Sulligent, Alabama).
Bankhead also championed the development of the nation’s waterways. In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Bankhead to a position on the Inland Waterways Commission where he helped to study the most efficient use of the nation’s water resources.
The John H. Bankhead Bridge which spans the Coosa River, near the town of Riverside and connects the counties of St. Clair and Talladega is just one of many public roads, bridges, and facilities named after him. The formal dedication of the bridge took place on April 18, 1930, being the second toll bridge to be officially dedicated. It was deemed particularly appropriate that Governor Graves should have designated the bridge at this spot the John H. Bankhead Bridge, as it was located on the trans-continental highway named in honor of the late Senator, who was father of Federal aid to good roads.
Dedication of John H. Bankhead Bridge
The Bankhead Bridge was constructed by the Vincennes Bridge Co., and upon its completion was presented to the Alabama Bridge Corporation and accepted by the Hon. Woolsey Finnell, President. The oration on the life and public service of Senator Bankhead was made by the Hon. Hugh Morrow of Birmingham. Other speakers contributing to the program were Asa Rountree of Birmingham, L. B. Liles of Anniston, Charles A. Moffett and Mrs. J. Hubert Scruggs.
The name plate was unveiled by two young great-granddaughters of Senator Bankhead, Misses Mary Louise Holloway and Blossom Bankhead. Pitt Tyson Manor, as Gov. Graves’ representative, christened the bridge, the water used taken from the spring on the Bankhead farm which has been in the family a hundred years.
Senator Bankhead – champion of bridges and roads throughout the country
John Hollis Bankhead, a native son of Alabama, was born on his father’s plantation in Lamar County, at the time a portion of old Marion County. His first patriotic services were a a Captain in the Confederate Army where he served for four years. Upon his return home he was elected to the State Legislature. In his maturer years he was placed at the head of the prison system of Alabama and began the reforms that have resulted in one of the most humane penal systems in the country.
Cars traveling down a road, probably during a cross-country trip to determine the route of the Bankhead Highway ca. 1910. Young children stand on either side of the road, and several of them are holding American flags. A banner on the one of the cars says “Official Car Bankhead National Highway.”(Alabama Department of Archives and History)
In 1886 he was elected to Congress, taking his seat in 1887. In 1907 he succeeded Senator John T. Morgan, who had died in office, in the U. S. Senate. Senator Bankhead died in 1920, having served his State continuously in the two branches of the Congress for thirty-three years.
Initiated legislation for development of highways
Immediately upon his entrance into the Senate, Mr. Bankhead initiated legislation looking to federal aid in the development of highways throughout the United States. His work for good roads gave an impetus to highway development throughout the nation. Other important pieces of legislation accomplished by Mr. Bankhead in behalf of public welfare were waterways improvement, public buildings and the development of rural free mail delivery. He secured from the government many millions of dollars for the development of the Warrior River which has become one of the greatest arteries of trade in the country. He had a deep appreciation not only of the transportation possibilities of Alabama’s numerous waterways but of the potential power for hydroelectric power.
Two cars on the side of a worn macadam road in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, probably during a cross-country trip to determine the route of the Bankhead Highway. ca. 1910. A banner on one of the cars says “Official Car Bankhead National Highway. (Alabama Department of Archives and History)
It was he who induced the War Department to make the first hydroelectric survey at Muscle Shoals. Born upon the land he remained always loyal to the agricultural interests and to the people living upon the land. The simplicity of his character, his frankness in dealing with both friend and foe, classed him among those public men whose positions were always well known and understood, a trait that made him invincible among the people.
Car stuck in the mud on a road in Virginia, probably during a cross-country trip to determine the route of the Bankhead Highway -ca. 1910. A banner on the hood of the cars says “Official Car Bankhead National Highway.” A pair of mules is hitched to a wagon behind the vehicle. (Alabama Department of Archives and History)
Dedication of the Bankhead Bridge
In his address on the occasion of the dedication of the bridge Mr. Morrow reviewed some the history of the locality in which the bridge was set.
“In the very first recorded annals of our history”‘ said Mr. Morrow, “as far back as 1540 the Spanish invader Hernando DeSoto, and his thousand cavaliers crossed this stream. The chroniclers of that first white man’s entrance into this territory described the Indian villages, the temples, the chiefs, the battles that took place between the white man and the red, and that story is replete with the name of the Coosa River. The very word ‘Coosa’ is of Indian origin and means reed brake, a cane country. Alabama’s distinguished poet, A. B. Meek has told us that these Indian names are written on our waters and we cannot wash them out.
“St. Clair County was created November 20, 1818, while Alabama was still a territory. It was named in honor of Gen. Arthur St. Clair of the Revolutionary army. It is located high above the sea level, proudly lifting its peaks above the plains, is beautiful in its elevation, fertile in its valleys, rich in its veins with coal, iron, limestone and other minerals, genial in its climate, lush in its meadows, shaded by forests of oak and hickory —indeed a rich, an old, and a great county!”
Bankhead bridge was initially a toll bridge
Mr. Morrow further sited the fact that St. Clair and adjoining counties were the homes of the Cherokees and Creeks and that those Indians had set up a well organized form of government adapted to their needs, and administered their laws with the inflexibility of the Meads and Persians. The speaker also referred to the history of Talladega County, emphasizing the fact that the section was thickly populated by Indians who had prosperous towns sustained by agriculture. He emphasized the battle between the hostile Indians and the whites, led by Gen. Andrew Jackson during the Creek Indian War of 1813-14. The first settlement in Talladega County was made in 1832 following the law of squatter’s sovereignty.
The scenic beauty in which the Bankhead Bridge is set inspires admiration and its importance as a medium of travel connecting the east with the west along the 3,000 mile Bankhead Highway, makes it one of the most remunerative of the toll bridges so far thrown open to the public.
- All biographical and historical data used in this article are taken from the four volume work, “History of Alabama and Dictionary of Alabama Biography,” by the late Thomas M. Owen.—Editor.
- Transcribed from Alabama Historical Quarterly Volume I No. 3, 1930
Stories Stories include: The Yazoo land fraud; daily life as an Alabama pioneer; the capture and arrest of Vice-president Aaro nBurr; the early life of William Barrentt Travis, hero of the Alamo; Description of Native Americans of early Alabama including the visit by Tecumseh; Treaties and building the first roads in Alabama.