As the sun set on the 19th century, steamships and railroads were still all the rage. Little did Americans know the following century would belong to the automobile. But for cars to become a truly common way of getting around in the United States, they needed roads. And at least part of that story lies with the efforts of a group of bicycling enthusiasts and a long-lost agency, called the Office of Road Inquiry.
The Office of Road Inquiry was established in 1893, largely in response to the advocacy of a small group of cycling aficionados, known as the Good Roads Movement, and its supporters. At the time, roads outside of city centers were notoriously inconsistent in quality. Mostly made of dirt, rural roads tended to be dusty and filled with potholes, turning into mud pits when it rained — an accident waiting to happen. Tough on horse-drawn carriage axles, dirt roads were even harder on bicycles, which had become popular in the 1860s and surged in use in the 1890s due to improvements enabling a smoother ride. The Good Roads Movement argued that better roads wouldn’t just benefit bike riders, but also make it easier for farmers to bring their goods to markets in the cities. Members enlisted the support of journalists, farmers, politicians and engineers to advocate for better roads.
The government responded by appointing General Roy Stone to head the newly established Office of Road Inquiry under the Department of Agriculture. Stone was a Civil War hero who had become an advocate for the Good Roads Movement. He believed that better roads, like the construction of the railroads and development of steamships, would facilitate progress, and that the federal government should be involved. Congress granted Stone a $10,000 budget, and his new agency quickly got to work promoting the construction of new rural roads using asphalt and cement. The agency teamed with state governments to build rural highways and roads inside the national parks of the West.
But with a limited budget and a country full of bad roads, much of Stone’s work was educational. The Office of Road Inquiry employed a method called “Object Lesson Roads,” paving small sections of road at a time, so that it could show local towns the benefits of better roads firsthand, at low cost. The strategy helped to encourage local public and private investment in road improvement. The young agency also placed an emphasis on scientific testing, encouraging agricultural colleges to experiment on what materials worked best and cost the least for constructing roads.
The Office of Road Inquiry was short-lived, but its impact has been long lasting. By the time the small agency was renamed as the Office of Public Roads in 1905, its budget had increased to $50,000, and it had a full-time staff of 10 agents. Though not a prolific paver of roads, the Office of Road Inquiry helped to persuade Americans that good roads were worthy of public investment, and its legacy has lived on in what today is known as the Federal Highway Administration.