'Dixie Overland' was North Louisiana Main drag

The following is from a lecture by F. Lee Estes, long-time photographer of historic scenes in North Louisiana, on development of the “Dixie Overland Highway,” U.S. Highway 80 which traverses the American South, and was in an earlier time the east-west “Main Street” of North Louisiana. Many of the photographs in the book “Fading Textures,” pictured at right, document familiar landmarks along the old highway, which was paralleled during the 1960s by Interstate 20. The book is available from the author at $32.95, at cleestes@comcast.net , or 318-651-0683. He is also available for lectures.

If one abandons the heavy traffic and menacing 18 wheelers of Interstate 20 to cross North Louisiana via US80, it can be a venture back in time, an opportunity to enjoy some beauty here and there, meet very interesting people, or simply slow down and remember you are on part of the oldest all weather coast to coast thoroughfare in the United States.

A century has passed since visionaries in both Atlantic and Pacific communities began to dream of an ocean to ocean highway.

In San Diego, Ed Fletcher, a dealer in fruit and vegetables, needed better access to eastern markets. In Savannah, Georgia, automobile enthusiasts wanted better and longer avenues of adventure. Co-operation between the eastern and western groups with additional support from interior states resulted in formation of the Dixie Overland Highway Association. At a meeting in Shreveport, Louisiana in 1919, Fletcher was elected president although he was not present.

During the early 20th century, automobiles were proliferating and clamor for better roads was not only a pressing need, but a political matter. What better way to garner votes than promise a new road? State highway departments were put to work with some areas, Lafourche Swamp in Ouachita and Richland Parishes in Louisiana, sand dunes in California, proving very difficult to improve. By 1926, enough progress had been made for Ed Fletcher to lobby the San Diego Chamber of Commerce to sponsor an attempt to set a transcontinental speed record across the United States via the Dixie Overland Highway. They approved the venture and provided a Cadillac auto for the attempt. Fletcher and three companions left San Diego at 4:00 a.m. Oct. 20, 1926 headed for Savannah. Fletcher had made arrangements across the continent for waiving of speed limits, availability of fuel and food, and driver rotation as others slept. Seventy one hours and fifteen minutes after departing San Diego, they arrived in Savannah. A new cross country record by several hours and a monumental achievement for the time. Their only near mishap occurred during the morning hours between Monroe and Rayville, Louisiana when the driver dozed off and almost landed in Lafourche Swamp. Quick thinking by the front passenger brought the vehicle back on track and they sped on.

Less than two months had passed following Fletcher's dash across the nation when the Bureau of Public Roads designated Dixie Overland Highway as US80, one of four transcontinental highways announced. Being the southernmost, US80 was the first all weather coast to coast route.

Assistance from The Louisiana Endowment for The Humanities has given me the opportunity to explore the historic highway as it exists today. Louisiana is the only state with US80 still in place from border to border. It has meandered from time to time as reconstruction occurred with vestiges of former trails difficult to locate. I was able to find and photograph concrete pavement beneath the underbrush of Lafourche Swamp, determine variance from the original east of Delhi, located the old bridge where US80 originally crossed Bayou Dorcheat, and heard of meanderings in Lincoln Parish not yet discovered. As I meet and speak with people from time to time an inevitable comparison will be made with US66. Look at the record. US80 was older, longer, and certainly as steeped in history as US66, but never had a TV Series to generate national attention. That is just one example of how the media can distort reality. My experience with this project is a labor of love. How else could one make the pictures, listen to the people, discover enterprises doing business more than sixty years, and let my imagination take me back to when this was the busiest thoroughfare between Atlanta and Dallas?

The primary format of this work is a series of photo essays interspersed with an occasional story or anecdote worthy of space. Each photograph is captioned and in themselves may comprise a story. I have, on occasion, borrowed images and text from local libraries and newspaper files. Perhaps an exhibition of the photographs may be mounted at a later date .

The Dixie Overland Highway, US 80, Past and Present At the turn of the 2Oth century, The United States had an excellent railway system, supplemented by thousands of river craft navigating to the furthest reaches of civilization. The trains served every village of any magnitude and steamboats plied streams so small you wonder how they managed to do it. Any cargo needing to travel beyond a few miles was carried by rail or water. Interurban street car lines connecting large cities with the smaller towns scattered around them was the primary means of short distance passenger travel. It has been said, except for one stretch of about twenty miles, you could ride street cars from New York to Chicago during the early 2Oth century by going from town to town. While water and rail transportation was highly developed, public roads were primitive with traffic powered by horses and oxen. Improved roads and streets were rare except in larger cities and more often than not the pavement was brick. Dense drayage traffic in large cities littered the streets with manure leaving a toxic dust during the summer that turned to a filthy quagmire in the winter. Wagon builders, wheelwrights, blacksmiths, and livery stables made up a large segment of the economy. Local transportation on horseback, in buggies and wagons, or bicycles was limited to short distances and sustained the commerce of small towns dependent on the population surrounding it. The typical small town featured a general store, depot, post office, drug store with a physician also serving as pharmacist, school, some churches, a livery stable which often housed a blacksmith shop, and a boarding house. Sometimes there would be small shops specializing in clothing, hardware, or maybe a photographer. Usually one or two saloons, which in turn necessitated a jail, were in evidence. In north Louisiana there would be a cotton gin, grist mill, and perhaps a saw mill. The economy was sustained by field and forest, and small towns felt no threat from larger towns because transportation limited their constituency to local surroundings.

Within a few short years personal transportation in the United States changed dramatically. Henry Ford, R. E. Olds, Will Durant, Charles Duryea, and others incubated the auto industry which revolutionized travel and in turn forced a demand for more and better public roads. Until then, most of the usable roads were built and maintained by individuals or co-operatives who charged tolls for their use. Quality depended on a number of factors beginning with the operator, terrain, volume of traffic, and weather. Most were trails scratched from prairie, woods, or swamp, with few being paved. In summer the dust was. unbearable and in winter the mud made them impassable. Whereas horses, mules, and oxen could negotiate these conditions, automobiles could not. It was often necessary for auto owners to call on animal power when they got stuck in mud. On occasion a creek bed might serve as a road.

Just as the computer and technology industry drove investment at the end of the 20th century so did automobiles at its beginning. Some 1800 different manufacturers tried their hand between 1896 and 1930 and most of them have long been forgotten. Steam, batteries, diesel, and gasoline all had their proponents and I can remember in my lifetime seeing electric automobiles and hear my parents speak of Stanley Steamers. The Stanley was noted for its acceleration which exceeded everything available at the time. They also had a reputation for catching fire.

Too many manufacturers assured competition and forced lower prices for cars and what had been a plaything for the wealthy became within the means of America's middle class. When Henry Ford introduced the assembly line manufactured Model T, autos would no longer be a luxury and were fast becoming the primary means of personal transportation for the American public.

As early as 1893, the Federal Government established an Office of Road Inquiry which evolved into the Office of Public Roads in 1905 administered by the Department of Agriculture. In 1915 the DOA renamed it Bureau of Public Roads. Except for a short time in 1939 under the Federal Works Agency when it was called Public Roads Administration, the nation's highways have been the responsibility of Bureau of Public Roads (BPR). BPR operated as part of the Department of Commerce until 1967 then was incorporated into the National Highways Administration.

As mentioned in the introduction, the idea of a coast to coast highway across the southern United States was born during the first decade of the 20th century. Progress was slow, and the states involved made the biggest improvements prior to 1920 There were lots of rivers to be negotiated, first with ferries and finally bridges.

In Louisiana, three major rivers, the Mississippi, Ouachita, and Red presented obstacles along with several smaller rivers and bayous. With steamboats plying every stream of any consequence, bridges were required to open or be constructed high enough for boats to pass.

The Dixie Overland Highway evolved in bits and pieces as municipalities, states, toll road owners, and BPR all contributed to some degree. By 1920, with the Dixie Overland Highway Association lobbying for help, the road was drivable from coast to coast. Surfaces varied from gravel and dirt to brick and macadam. Except in cities, two lanes less than 20 feet in width was the norm.

In 1924 the Louisiana Highway Department announced The Dixie Overland Highway was improved all across the state except for seven miles. That seven miles was probably in Lafourche Swamp in Richland Parish.

Huey Long is the most revered, reviled, and remembered personality in Louisiana history with an ability to generate admiration and hatred all at once. Whatever your opinion or ideas about the man, he accomplished more to improve transportation in the state than anyone before or since. By examining the date marks across the state on bridges, overpasses, and looking at when contracts were let, I found the majority were within the time frame of his tenure as governor and senator. A map showing paved roads in Louisiana dated April 30, 1932 shows US80 as the first hard surfaced highway crossing Louisiana from border to border. The most noteworthy bridges along US80 in Louisiana are The Lea Joyner across the Ouachita, and the Long-Allen across the Red at Shreveport.

The Lea Joyner was called the most beautiful bridge in Louisiana and the fastest opening double Bascule drawbridge in the United States when dedicated in 1935. The span across the Red, a rare for the time four lane structure, has a 1932 date mark on the piers, but was completed in 1933. For more than seven decades traffic has moved over these bridges and will probably continue to do so for many years to come. Two other noteworthy Ouachita bridges from the Long era, at Sterlington and Columbia, are being replaced with higher spans. The Columbia structure, a vertical lift drawbridge with considerable engineering and historical significance, is scheduled to be imploded as soon as the new bridge is completed during mid 2007. (Was taken down - Aug 27, 2007. Ed)

Prior to completion of Interstate 20, US80 was burdened with extraordinary cross country traffic. This demanded the road be well maintained, straightened, or moved. The last major overhaul took place in the 1950's and with a few exceptions, the major one being on the west side of Shreveport, that is the highway that exists today. US80 is joined by US79 at Minden and at Dixie Inn, becomes a fine divided highway to Bossier City. It has a much better surface than I-20 east of Bossier.

Earlier locations of the Dixie Overland Highway and US80 are in evidence here and there. You also have signs indicating a former trail, abandoned roadway, or maybe a street or thoroughfare still in use. Segments of pavement and bridge abutments dating from the 1920's can be found in Russell Sage Wildlife Management Area of Ouachita and Richland Parishes. In Webster Parish, other abandoned segments can be found in the Bayou Dorcheat area. A road sign in Bossier Parish marks Dixie l Overland Road, a paved thoroughfare which dead ends in about a quarter mile where you then see a trail through the bushes marking the original road. Another Richland Parish segment, still in use, is identified as Overland Stage Road between Crew Lake and Girard.

In Monroe, US80 traveled along DeSiard Street until the aforementioned Lea Joyner Bridge diverted it to Louisville Avenue in 1935. That event signaled the beginning of a deterioration of Monroe's downtown business district as the anchor stores, Sears, J. C. Penney, and Montgomery Ward moved to Louisville Avenue a couple of decades later. Ironically, none of them remain on Louisville. Today, the finest buildings in Monroe, other than those of the University of Louisiana Monroe, remain on DeSiard Street or nearby. Over the years, notably during the early seventies, some ill planned efforts to revitalize Monroe's downtown took place.

Urban renewal funds were used to narrow DeSiard Street to a two lane one way passage eliminating street side parking. Other touches of this debacle included tree boxes and a fountain that seldom works. About the same time, the Paramount Theater, architectural jewel of DeSiard, was demolished. This travesty is celebrated with a marker in the sidewalk commemorating the downtown renovation of 1975 on the very spot where the Paramount stood.