The first highway in the world

There are many things that make our lives easier every day and we do not know much about. Sometimes we do not even think of their origin. Few know when and where the first traffic light, the first paid parking, the first automated gas station appeared. I happened to find out that the first highway in the world appeared near New York in 1908. It was a coincidence because this does not really show up. I have found enough information about the actual route, but it is not much talk about being the first of its kind.

Today, when millions of cars run on infinite US highways, few drivers think of the beginning of this phenomenon. In 1908 the world was completely different. The cars had barely appeared in the world and with great difficulty conquered the space from wagons, trams and pedestrians. The battle took place in the cities where many cars circulated. Gravel roads outside the city make every trip a true adventure. We should not forget that at that time the cars were part of the luxury of the bourgeoisie and they were considered to be the most fragile and whimsical thing in the world. The biggest obstacle for the owner of a car that lived in the early twentieth century was chaotic pedestrians, horse trams, irregular intersections and railroad crossings.


Semaphores did not influence the speed of movement simply because they did not exist at that time. The first traffic light appeared in 1914 in the State of Ohio, and in New York it was only in 1917. The new road was called Long Island Motor Parkway and was designed so that drivers do not give up on city problems and run on a straight surface. This road was the first in history built exclusively for car traffic. The road looked like today’s. It was covered with concrete, with protective fences, and the entrances and exits were the same as today. The bends were prolonged as to racing, making it possible to reach the maximum speed. The road was paid and there was no speed limit.

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Young William Kissam Vanderbilt II, known as Willy K, had been the great-grandson of the founder of the Dynasty, Cornelius Vanderbilt, who had made money on railways and naval vessels. Willy K was a fan of speed. He started with horse racing and continued with sailing on yachts. In 1900, he won the Sir Thomas Lipton Cup (named in honor of that Lipton who sold tea) with his Virginia yacht. When the cars appeared, Willy K began studying them until he had become the greatest passion of his life. In 1904, he set a new world record with his Mercedes, reaching a speed of 92.3 miles an hour, defeating Henry Ford, which one month before reached 91.37 miles per hour.

Despite the fact that the beginning of the 20th century was the rise of motoring, the people who were interested in the races had seen a return of the American industry to the European one. No American car could win a prestigious cup. The racing drivers were weak and the cars dangled. To create competition, Willy K decided to create the Vanderbilt Cup.

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The first race took place in 1904 on a public road covered with gravel in Long Island. The distance was 30 miles. In 1906, drivers from the United States and Europe participated in the race, and over 200,000 spectators came to see this event. The cars that participated were unsafe, simple and very fast. Although they were produced by famous brands, no cars were produced in series. Some cars are even very interesting for today. For example, in 1906 the race was attended by the Stanley Steamer with a steam engine. It had been a real steam-punk construction. The spectators called the “teapot flying” machine. This monstrous aggregate has also managed to establish a world record reaching 200 km per hour.

Vanderbilt decides to build a new racing road that would be safe for drivers and viewers. In 1906 he created the company that had to build the road. The company dealing with this project was headed by Henry Ford, John Jacob Astor IV, August Belmont and others. Vanderbilt has promised to build such roads in other cities in America if this project is successful.


The concept of this road was original. The idea was for the road to be used for annual races, and in the other days of the year to be used by citizens to get from New York to Long Island using the maximum capacity of the car. For the construction of the road a suitable place was chosen. In that area lived the richest people of New York City at that time. Construction began in 1908 due to land purchase issues. The construction of the road was attended by Italian workers, who did not even speak English. Work was predominantly manual. In 1908, the world’s first 9-mile highway (highway) was inaugurated.



Text by C. Cătălin CREŢU

Source: New York Times

© The Bunget Arts & Culture 2018

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