Meet the Father of Good Roads — the Man Who Made Mud a Minor Matter

Some people are Rhodes Scholars. Horatio Earle was a Roads Scholar.

“A happy man is he that causes others to happy be.” — Horatio Earle
“A happy man is he that causes others to happy be.” — Horatio Earle. Photo credit: Michigan Department of Transportation Photography Unit.

Horatio Earle (1855–1935), or “Good Roads” Earle, as he was often referred to, was born in Mt. Holly, VT.

His early professional career included selling farm equipment. In 1889, he and his family moved to Detroit, where he started continued selling and also developing agricultural tools.

Earle was also a renowned bicycle enthusiast, who later in life, said “I often hear now-a-days, the automobile instigated good roads; that the automobile is the parent of good roads. Well, the truth is, the bicycle is the father of the good roads movement in this country.”

In short, when it came to advocating on behalf of bicyclists, you could say Earle was … well-spoken.

Earle also organized the first International Good Roads Conference in 1900, demonstrating cutting-edge road building techniques in Port Huron, MI.

As president of the League of American Wheelmen, he urged the state of Michigan to build more modern, safer roads and streets and vowed to conquer impediments to travel such as sand, clay and “the Mighty Monarch Mud, who rules the road to the exclusion of everyone.”

Source: m-bike.org

His efforts culminated in 1892, when the League succeeded in having Michigan’s legislature establish a state highway commission to recommend road improvements. In 1905, Michigan’s State Highway Department (later renamed the Michigan Department of Transportation) was born, with an annual operating budget of $10,000, a staff of five and Earle as its first commissioner.

Earle, sometimes referred to as “the Father of Good Roads,” was also instrumental in ushering in more commerce and tourism in Michigan through better, safe travel throughout the state, including in Detroit, where, in 1909, working with the Wayne County Road Commission, he oversaw the construction of America’s first mile of concrete rural highway on Woodward Avenue. The project was finished in less than three months at a cost of $13,537, including $1,000 in state aid, and became a must-see tourist attraction.

Under the leadership of Horatio Earle, Detroit’s Woodward Avenue became the first rural U.S. public road to have a portion (one mile) paved with concrete. The concrete section of the road, as shown in this painting by Carl Rakeman, was opened to the public on July 4, 1909.

Earle also saw the future of U.S. transportation.

If Dwight David “Ike” Eisenhower was the father of the U.S. Interstate System, Earle was like Ike, before Ike.

In 1902, he formed the American Road Makers (later renamed the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) and advocated for federal legislation to create a “Capital Connecting Government Highway,” which he said, would connect “every state capital with every other state capital, and every capital with the United States Capital, Washington.”

Michigan historical marker commemorating Horatio Sawyer Earle in front of the Michigan Department of Transportation building in Lansing, Michigan. Credit: Michigan Department of Transportation.

Horatio Earle was inducted in the ARTBA Transportation Development Foundation’s Hall of Fame in its 2014 Class as an Industry Leader.

This year, on Father’s Day, and any other time you are out and about, in the rain or shortly thereafter, you can thank him for making an unpaved surface a road less traveled. Anything less would just be mud in your eye.

Happy Father’s Day from FHWA to our nation’s fathers, past and present, including Horatio Earle, America’s “Father of Good Roads.”

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The official publication of the U.S. Department of Transportation. Publishing fun and informative pieces from transportation leaders, agencies, and stakeholders.

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