65 Years Ago: Ellis Armstrong and America’s Interstate Highway System

Described as the largest public works project in the history of the world, the monumental Federal-Aid Highway Act that finally made possible the building of a planned super highway system was signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower on June 29, 1956.

This map shows the National System of Interstate Highways. Note the original plan shows Denver as the I-70 terminus. Additional mileage was later added to the system, which allowed I-70 to continue west to I-15 in Utah. Box 112, Folder 1, Ellis Armstrong Papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Wyoming was eager to begin construction on its 914 miles of Interstate. Soon after the federal highway act was passed, the Wyoming Highway Commission approved its first highway project, and construction commenced in September 1956 on a 13-mile section of I-25 north of Cheyenne between the U.S. 85 Exit (Torrington Highway) and Whitaker Road. This was one of thousands of sections of Interstate to be constructed across the nation.

The 1956 highway act expanded the national Interstate Highway System to 41,000 miles. Overseeing such a massive and coordinated building project would require the efforts of many individuals, including Commissioner of Public Roads Ellis Armstrong. Armstrong, who donated a large set of his professional papers to the American Heritage Center, was one of only four individuals to hold the position of Commissioner of Public Roads. The commissioner was the executive director of day-to-day operations within the Bureau of Public Roads. Thomas MacDonald (1939-1953), Francis du Pont (1953-1955), and Charles Curtiss (1955-1957) previously held this position. Armstrong was the last to hold the position.

Though the position that Armstrong held from 1958-1961 was abolished when a change in organization occurred in the Federal Highway Administration in October 1961, Armstrong left the position in March to become the president of the Better Highways Information Foundation. This organization was dedicated to public information with the goal of promoting the highway program across the nation with a focus on active state and local support for highway development.

Ellis Armstrong, November 1969.
Box 2, Newcomb B. Bennett Papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Ellis Leroy Armstrong was born in Cedar City, Utah, on May 30, 1914. He remembers the days in the rural West where automobiles and improved roads were rare. In a March 8, 1961 address to the Fourth Annual Highway Conference, Armstrong said, “As a youngster, I remember our mode of transportation was the wagon and the old white-top buggy and that we’d clop, clop, clop to town every week or so for necessities.” He set that in contrast to the reality that came with the automobile and the national roads system of the 1950s and early 1960s, stating. “Summer before last, my family and I took a 6,000 mile trip across America during our two-week summer vacation.” He went on to describe this incredible evolution in transportation:

“The changes that are occurring are not the slow, comfortable changes of the past, but are sudden, and rapid, and often they are violent. And they are affecting everybody, everywhere in this world of ours grown small.”

He described the effort to transition as an, “accelerated highway program (that) is an attempt to catch up with the needs of our present automotive society. We got way behind during the War, when highways were expendable and expended and unfortunately, no one quite appreciated beforehand the highway problems created by the more and more and more cars that flooded our highways when civilian operations resumed following the War.”

The major response to this challenge was the 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act. Armstrong said of the act,

“After extensive investigations, studies, deliberations, and review, the (highway act) launched the world’s greatest public works construction program to catch up with our needs.” He then went on to describe how the nation must view this massive program: “This is a program that requires a broad perspective to appreciate. Planning, designing, and construction of highways has become complex. Highway building and operation has become (one of the) biggest single operations of State governments.”

From “Proceedings of the Fourth Annual Highway Conference,” Box 110, Folder 4, Ellis Armstrong Papers.

In his leadership role with the Better Highways Information Foundation, he described the activities of the organization, which included, in part, ensuring that each state had at least one good-roads organization to disseminate information; working closely with each state highway department offering information that could be used in press releases, speeches, and radio spots; and traveling around the nation speaking at major conventions and to regional groups.

Armstrong was described as, “one of a vanishing breed that believes an engineer is a public servant” (January 3, 1988 Denver Post newspaper clipping, Ellis Armstrong Biographical File.) Armstrong lived to see the completion of the entire Wyoming Interstate System and the majority of the Interstate Highway Project across the nation. After a long career that also included serving as Director of the Utah Highway Department and as the Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, Ellis Armstrong passed away at his home in Utah on January 26, 2001.

In Wyoming, the majority of the 403-mile-long I-80 was completed on October 4, 1970, when the Laramie-Rawlins section opened. The final link, a nine-mile section east of Cheyenne to Archer opened on May 4, 1977. The 301-mile I-25 was completed on February 2, 1982, when a section near Kaycee was completed.

Completed sections of I-80, shown in red, in 1966, in the southeast corner of the state.
Source: 1966 Official Wyoming Highway Map.
Completed sections of I-25, shown in red, are featured on the 1966 Official Wyoming Highway Map. Significant progress had been made just ten years after the signing of the Federal-Aid Highway Act.
Source: 1966 Official Wyoming Highway Map.

The 209-mile I-90 was completed on October 10, 1985, marking the end of Wyoming’s portion of the Interstate Project. The final section to be completed was between Ranchester and the Montana border. The project was held up for several years, due to Montana’s delay in selecting the location of the highway near the state line. Today, thousands and thousands of cars and commercial trucks travel daily on Wyoming’s 914 miles of Interstate Highways. 

Progress on I-90 as of spring 1966 is shown in red.
Source: 1966 Official Wyoming Highway Map.

Post contributed by AHC Reference Archivist John Waggener.


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