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The Bankhead Highway

A picture of the men and equipment of the Arizona Highway Department who were in charge of building and maintaining roads like the Bankhead Highway.

A picture of the men and equipment of the Arizona Highway Department who were in charge of building and maintaining roads like the Bankhead Highway.

In 1922, there were 14,000 cars in Maricopa County with more than 8,000 cars being owned by Phoenix residents. That year, Phoenix was host to three simultaneous conventions of the United States Good Roads Association, the National Good Roads Show and the Bankhead National Highway Convention. The meetings drew more than 800 delegates from more than 28 states.
The meetings for the groups were not held at a luxurious convention center. The meetings were held in the grandstand at the Arizona State Fairgrounds.

Former New Mexico Gov. O. A. Larrazola welcomed the delegates. He recalled the pioneering of Arizona by saying: “…yesterday… the adventurous pioneer, rifle in hand, and following the then familiar prairie schooner, plodded these pathless plains, under the scorching sun of a vast desert…with nothing to relieve the tired gaze of the traveler…but the lonely giant cactus… now, behold… palaces arise today where the rude cabin of the daring prospector once stood; schools, colleges and universities… have changed the uncouth, unpolished and uncultured character of the country to modern Athenaeum…”

Of course, in good Western style, delegates were treated to Old West touches.

An Indian Village was built at the fairgrounds for the delegates’ entertainment. During the day, Indians performed such activities as basket and blanket weaving along with beadwork demonstrations.

Phoenix also provided a look at the cowboy life. A cowboy parade was held through downtown Phoenix. The delegates were offered daily introductions to the rodeo with demonstrations of “calf roping, a cowboy race, exhibition bull and steer riding, bulldogging from a speeding automobile, ladies’ bronco riding contests, men’s trick and fancy riding contests,” according to a report.

During the meetings, many issues were discussed that still have some relevance today. One resolution called for public domain lands to be turned over to the states for administration and disposal. It was pointed out that 71 percent of Arizona was public domain acreage. It was asserted public domain lands were a drain on the federal government to a tune of $1 million to $2 million per year.

The Bankhead Highway was one of the transcontinental highways supported by the federal government. It was named in honor of the late United States Sen. John H. Bankhead of Alabama. Bankhead was the last Civil War veteran to serve in the U.S. Senate and was the grandfather of actress Tallulah Bankhead. Bankhead also spearheaded the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916 that established national road building and maintenance efforts by the federal government.

The Bankhead National Highway was part of the reason that Van Buren Street is lined with many old motels.

The Bankhead Highway ran from Washington, D. C. to San Diego through the Southern states. In Arizona it weaved through Apache, Douglas, Bisbee, Tombstone, Benson, Vail, Tucson, Florence, Chandler, Mesa, Tempe, Phoenix, Coldwater, Arlington, Buckeye, Gillespie Dam, Gila Bend, Piedra, Tartron, Sentinel, Stanwick, Aztec, Crystoval, Mahaw Station, Pembroke, Tacna, Adona, Dome, and Yuma. Through Phoenix, the highway ran down Van Buren Street.

Support for these roads was considered vital for the growth of the country. One speaker commented “…the time has come when the American farmer is demanding…the same community advantages that the urbanites have…the world is just awakening to the advantage of modern transportation facilities in lowering the cost of distribution.”

The delegates could see highways being built from Canada to Mexico City and from the Atlantic to the Pacific by the federal government.

As the highways became busier and busier, the delegates envisioned “a multitude of airships, soaring through the boundless blue of the heavens, bearing commodities and mail and passengers to the four corners of the earth.”

The delegates also passed a resolution calling upon Congress and President Harding to create an interstate highway system to interconnect the capitals of the 48 states and Washington, D.C.
Finally, the meeting came to a close. That weekend, delegates were taken by some 250 private vehicles to Globe and then on to Tucson and Nogales to see the sights and celebrate the new roads in Arizona. It was noted that on the new road to Globe, it took only four hours to travel the 92 miles from Phoenix.

In Nogales, the delegates watched a baseball game north of the border.

Delegates who went south of border were treated to a bull fight where “the bulls will be vicious and mad, thus affording genuine sport in the arena.”

The Bankhead National Highway carried millions of travelers through Arizona. In 1977, the section of the highway from Benson to the California state line was eliminated. In 1989, the final section of the Bankhead Highway from the New Mexico state line to Benson was eliminated. The Bankhead National Highway still carries travelers from Washington, D. C. to Dallas.

- Mike Miller. Photo courtesy of Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records, Archives Division, Phoenix, #00-0009.

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