The Drive for Good Roads
Aside from the railroads, the overland transportation system by the early twentieth century had not advanced much beyond its primitive beginnings. Roads were crude, most times barely scarring the surface of the ground, and they either rigidly followed the section lines that marked boundries of private property or haphazardly wandered across the countryside, connecting with nothing in particular. Bridges, where they existed at all, were simple and rickety and were wisely avoided in the interests of safe passage. Some of Oklahoma' wide, sandy rivers, such as Red, acquired "straw bridges," consisting of a mat of grass and brush laid on the river bottom. The enterprising individuals who made them charged tolls for their use. With the aid of blowing sand and few more layers of straw these spans eventually rose fifteen feet or more above the river bed. The Indian nations had continued the practice of licensing toll bridges; the Creek and Muskogee tribes, for instance, maintained several wooden toll bridges on their lands during the late 1800s. Shortly after Benjamin Colbert lost his first bridge to floods, he organized the Red River Bridge Company in cooperation with a few Texas investors and operated a much larger structure on the site between 1890 and 1908.11 Such toll spans owned and operated by Native Americans, though relatively few in number and attracting more involvement by non-Indians, formed important links on roadways of this period. While toll bridges would remain part of Oklahoma's road system until the 1930s, Indian ownership virtually disappeared by the early 1900s.
Destructive floods in 1902 persuaded Oklahomans to make road improvements, so thought the president of the territory's Good Roads Association, who also believed this disaster taught people the "economy and wisdom of building perminent bridges and their superiority over cheap wooden structures."12 Washouts of this kind heightened public awareness, but, in the long run, more important factors seemed to be at work.
For shaping a society and altering its landscape few forces matched the power of the automobile, the first examples of which appeared in the territory around the turn of the century. By 1905 Tulsa reportedly had over two hundred automobiles on its streets and by 1912 the state claimed sixty five hundred motor vehicles. Motorists gave their enthusiastic endorsement to organizations advocating good roads that sprung up across the nation and became the chief proponents of state road departments. The lobbying efforts of this group in Oklahoma played a major role in creating the State Highway Department in1911.
Almost at once, the governor chose newspaperman Sidney Suggs of Ardmore the first road commissioner, reconizing his leadership of the good roads association and his campaign for the new state department. Suggs held the view--one shared by some reform thinkers at the time--that roads were moral agents capable of preserving the virtues of country life threatened by the growth of cities. "That men will be saved from the penitentiaries and women from the unmentionable life into which so many are forced by the environments of the city," would be benifits derived from better roads, he wrote President Taft in 1911.13
Progress came slowly, however. The town of Watonga took credit for having the state's forst paved highway in 1909 when an engineer from the U. S. Office of Public Roads supervised a group of local men in building a few miles of gravel roadway. By 1910, its records showing only twenty"three miles of hard surfaced roadway, Oklahoma ranked last among states in this important category, a yardstick for measuring development.14
The laws and customs throughout the country at the time placed road and bridge matters under the control of local government, a power jealously guarded by most Oklahoma counties. An exception appliled to tribal lands over which the Bureau of Indian Affairs and other federal agancies had jurisdiction. Where the counties were concerned, commissioners contended with tight budgets and their own lack of knowledge about the technical side of road and bridge building. Professional engineers were in short supply and they cost money the counties did not have. In response to pressure for improvements, county officials adopted low-cost solutions. To a great extent they made use of local builders to construct small timber spans or stone arch bridges. Under the right conditions, such as in Kay County, abundant local material in the hands of skilled stonemasons produced some excellent stone bridges.