Places in Time

Interstate 35 dramatically changed Waco 's face

By Joseph Gyure, Waco Tribune-Herald

See entire Tribune-Herald series on I-35

Waco 's Barbara Spradlin remembers she was 12 or 13 years old when a woman carrying a clipboard came up to her family's home on South Sixth Street between Clay and Dutton avenues in 1950.

That visit may have been a forerunner of one of the most important events in Waco 's historys — the construction of Interstate 35.

The woman told Spradlin's parents that plans were being made to build a highway. The route was still undecided, the woman said, but she was asking if they were willing to relocate.

After the woman left, Spradlin remembers her father saying, “That woman is crazy. They are no more going to build a highway here than nothing.”

Interstate 35 starts a stone's throw from Lake Superior in Minnesota and ends a few blocks from a Mexican border checkpoint. I-35 has been called the Main Street of Texas because it links three of Texas ' four largest metropolitan areas. It is also the superhighway of the Great Plains and a critical route for businesses benefiting from the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The 1,789-mile-long freeway wrecked homes, but it encouraged suburbs, opening up homeownership to many city workers. Just as the location of a train station put cities on the map in earlier times, the path chosen for an interstate determined a town's fate.

“If you're not on the interstate, you're in trouble,” said Tom Kelly, a Baylor University economist.

The route of I-35 may not have been that original of a thought.

The Texas State Archives include a proposed state highway map that show a clearly identifiable image on I-35, with a path of highway running from Laredo to Gainesville . Highways to Dallas and Fort Worth intersect at Hillsboro and Denton , just like today's I-35E and I-35W.

The map is of a June 1917 proposal.

Beginning in the 1930s, the primary route from Temple to Waco was the two-lane U.S. Highway 81. Drivers from Waco to Dallas would take U.S. 77.

The first part of Interstate 35 in the Waco area was a four-lane stretch from Temple to the Falls County line built in 1957, according to Kenneth Roberts of the Texas Department of Transportation.

Construction in the Waco city limits began in 1958. Construction of I-35 in Waco was finally finished in October 1972.

I-35 was opened as stages were completed across the nation. In 1970, 1,010 miles of the interstate were open, 56 percent of I-35's final length.

The last detour signs left I-35 in Texas in 1982. The final segment of the interstate was opened on Oct. 28, 1992, with a ceremony marking the connection of I-35 with the new Leif Erikson Tunnel in Duluth , Minn.


In Waco , Interstate 35 and its access roads are labeled as Jack Kultgen Expressway. J.H. “Jack” Kultgen was heavily involved in civic affairs since he moved to Waco to run the Ford dealership in 1936.

While he was also involved in water issues — Trib articles from the 1960s credited him with getting the headquarters of the Brazos River Authority placed in Waco and fighting for the Waco Dam — highways were always an interest.

He led the Texas Good Roads Association, which lobbied government agencies for improvements. This led to his appointment to the Texas Highway Commission in 1963 and the chairmanship of the body in 1968.

“Three or four times a year he would attend ceremonies whenever they would open a stretch, not only of 35 but also the other interstates,” said David Kultgen, Jack Kultgen's son.

In 1967, the Waco City Council passed the resolution to rename the highway.

Originally, Interstate 35 through Waco was to go through the city's east side, roughly where La Salle Avenue runs.

Routing I-35 through Waco was the state's idea, but planners used a circuitous way to get the map changed, according to a 1974 interview with Jack Kultgen on file at Baylor University 's Texas Collection.

Kultgen recalled a struggle with the state to get La Salle Avenue paved before “there was any idea of Highway 35.”

“The Highway Commission rather wanted to build Highway 35, the interstate, through the city of Waco and the federal government — the ‘feds' we referred to them as — wanted to build it around Waco,” Kultgen said. “They didn't want to touch the town. The theory of the government was to pass these towns way on the outside and just tap them with little roads and the Highway Commission wanted to come through the town with this road, to try it.

“The Highway Commission, whom I knew though my connection with the Texas Good Roads Association, called me and very quietly and confidentially said that they would be receptive to building the 35 through Waco if they city commission were to request it. ... If they could do this, they would pave La Salle Street for us.

“Well, of course, La Salle Street was really the bone of contention. Business people were fighting and having meetings about it. So, I went down to the city commission and had no difficulty whatever” — Kultgen chucked according to the transcript — “in getting them to request the highway though Waco .”

One of the places endangered by the construction of the interstate was the Earle-Napier-Kinnard House, which was built in 1858 and reportedly the city's second brick home. Roger Conger, the president of the Heritage Society of Waco, and other Waco residents went to Austin to argue to save the house.

As a result of the protests, the interstate makes a slight jog to the east, placing the interstate closer to Baylor than earlier planned.

“Now, we're worried about the expansion,” said Pam Crow, executive director of the Historic Waco Foundation. However, Crow said she's been told the interstate has many options for expansion that will save the house again.

A historic house that was moved indirectly because of the interstate was the Earle-Harrison House.

Citizens National Bank owned the house and the land at the 800 block of South Fourth Street , a lot on the southbound frontage road that was well-suited for commercial development.

The G.H. Pape Foundation offered to save the Greek Revival home from 1856. The house was given to the foundation, which then moved it to its current location at 1901 N. Fifth St .

The interstate gave many parts of Waco an involuntary face-lift. But few Waco institutions faced such a dramatic change as University High School .

During wartime, the school was known as Waco Technical High School with mechanical arts classes taught on the south side of 26th Street and students living in a batch of six buildings on the north side.

When Waco Tech became a regular high school, the six-pack of dorms became classroom buildings.

Bob Neill, University High Class of 1958, remembers eight classrooms in each building, but there was no main lobby connecting the whole floor. Students would take an entrance or a stairwell to a lobby that would connect to two classrooms, restrooms and “a shower facility that nobody used except teachers to smoke,” Neill said.

“We had more of a college campus atmosphere where we went from one building to the next,” said Jim Shannon, a 1958 graduate of University High.

The college feel was probably why the students chose the name University High School , Neill said.

The layout also had some implications for social life. Neill remembered having to run out of class, meet the cheerleader he was dating, and run to his next class without being tardy. “That worked out so good that we kept it going some 40-odd years,” he said, referring to his wife, Frances.

The lack of an interstate also encouraged another pursuit: eating. “We would walk down the streets and take 'em straight to the Health Camp,” Shannon said.

When the interstate came, five of the six buildings were destroyed. The new classrooms had a more typical arrangement.

“People wouldn't think of (the name) now with a single building,” Neill said.

Most Texans don't know Dewitt Greer but all know his work. As state highway engineer for the Texas Department of Transportation from 1940 to 1968, his ideas affected roads big and small.

Greer believed that interstate highways should serve not only long-distance travelers but also local drivers, according to “An Informal History of TxDOT,” which is on the department's Web site. He insisted on Texas freeways having more exit and entrance ramps than federal officials wanted.

He also pushed for the long frontage roads along Texas interstates. While other states have frontage roads designed solely get people on and off the freeway, Texas frontage roads allow people to drive from city to city without getting on the freeway.

Greer was also the guiding force for the state's network of farm-to-market roads and ranch roads, helping write the 1947 bill authorizing the system and demanding quality during the construction.

“Dewitt was a very, very high-type man,” Jack Kultgen told the Texas Collection in 1974. “He's the soul of honesty, he's a strict disciplinarian and he runs a tight show. ...

“He could sit on that (Highway) Commission behind the bench there and when they started talking about a road in deep East Texas , he knew exactly what they were talking about; he'd been there.”

Francis C. Turner, a native of Dallas , held key federal highway positions during the birth of the interstate highway system, including chief engineer and director of public roads. In 1969, he was appointed federal highway administrator.

His position left him in an uncomfortable spot in the early 1970s, according to Divided Highways by Tom Lewis. He went to visit his parents in Fort Worth and saw that I-35W would destroy their house. The stake for the center line was outside his parents' kitchen window.

Turner's mother asked him, “Frank, can't you do anything?” Turner replied, “I can but I won't. You'll just have to move.”

There's a lot of maroon in the interstate highway system. Texas A&M University has many connections with interstate highways, including Turner, who graduated from A&M in 1926.

Thomas H. MacDonald served as the leader of the federal Bureau of Public Roads from 1919 to 1952, making "The Chief" the leading mind behind U.S. highways in the era before the interstate highway system. He was forced out in 1953, in part because the new commerce secretary wanted more authority and in part because some had doubts a man in his 70s was up to creating the interstates.

Rather than retiring, MacDonald went to Texas A&M and founded the MacDonald Highway Transportation Center. He died on April 7, 1957, of a heart attack while smoking a cigar in a chair at the Memorial Student Center on the campus of Texas A&M College.

MacDonald's center became part of the Texas Transportation Institute. Part of the Texas A&M System, TTI advises state and federal agencies and private businesses on transportation construction and efficiency.

Much of interstate highways' design came from millions of dollars in testing and research on construction design, driver safety and motorists' preferences. One of the more unusual battles took place in 1957 over the color scheme of the interstate instruction signs.

The federal Bureau of Public Roads asked a committee of the American Association of State Highway Officials to study an select the color scheme. The panel chose green signs with white writing.

However, the federal highway administrator, Bertram Tallamy, tried to veto the colors. He preferred the dark blue signs he chose for the New York State Thruway.

So the AASHO conducted a test, inviting hundreds of drivers to drive an otherwise closed highway. They saw green signs, blue signs and black signs and were asked to name their preference. The green signs got 58 percent of the votes, and Tallamy acquiesced.

One of the reasons Tallamy opposed the green signs — he was going color blind. According to Divided Highways, the green signs looked pale yellow to him.


The oldest stretch of I-35 is the Kansas Turnpike. The turnpike, which runs from the Oklahoma border to Wichita to Emporia to Topeka , was completed in 1956.

While the turnpike is listed as part of the interstate system, no federal dollars were used to build the expressway. Tolls, not federal dollars, still cover all of the turnpike's maintenance costs.

When the turnpike was built, the state of Kansas expected Oklahoma to return the favor and build its own turnpike at the same time. However, when the Kansas Turnpike was done, Oklahoma was still trying to raise the money for its segment.

The result was a modern expressway coming to a sudden stop at the border. Until the next stretch of what became I-35 was built, Oklahoma farmer Amos Switzer was finding surprised lead-footed drivers in his cow field almost every day, says The Roads That Built America by Dan McNichol.


It's a sign on the south edge of Guthrie , Okla. , that comparatively few people probably notice. If you visit Guthrie's Oklahoma Sports Museum , you might meet a volunteer, Jessie Bradshaw, who can tell you an interesting story.

When I-35 was designed it was supposed to have two exit ramps for Guthrie but it was built with only one, she said.

Jessie's husband, Cleo, fought to get the second exit restored. For 16 years, the retiree pressured government officials, making several trips to Washington to argue his case.

Finally, the exchange was built and opened in August 2000. Cleo had died the month before at age 84.

The sign says “Cleo Bradshaw Interchange.”

“The lesson to me is people don't know how much talent retired people have,” Jessie Bradshaw said.


Interstate 35 has never captured writers' imagination as the defunct Route 66 did. However, a couple of literary efforts about I-35 do exist.

Simon Winchester traveled the incomplete interstate in 1974 to get a sense of America during the Watergate scandal. The book, American Heartbeat, was not a commercial success, but Winchester has since written several best sellers, include The Professor and the Madman and Krakatoa.

In 2000, Texas writer Larry McMurtry, author of Lonesome Dove, traveled I-35 and several highways and wrote about his reflections in the book Roads. One passage of note:

“Just as there are passages of Tolstoy of which I never tire, there are stretches of road whose beauty I can never exhaust, an example being the wonderful stretch of rangeland south of Emporia , Kansas , on the 35, where dun prairies stretch away without interruption to very distant horizons, with not one tree to violate one's sight line. ...

“On the other hand there are parts of this same highway, the 35, that I never want to drive again, the principal one being the long stretch from Dallas to San Antonio — an old, crumbling interstate that passes through endlessly repetitive stretches of ugly urban sprawl.”

On July 7, 1919, a military convoy left Washington , D.C. , with orders to “proceed by way of the Lincoln Highway to San Francisco without delay.” Part of the convoy was 28-year-old Lt. Col. Dwight David Eisenhower.

Eisenhower biographer Stephen Ambrose says Eisenhower volunteered for the assignment as a lark: a chance to see the country, camp out and do some fishing.

However, the nightmarish journey laid a seed that grew into the interstate highway system when Eisenhower became president decades later.

The first 46 miles took 7 hours as mechanical problems began early. But as the trip went on, road conditions — as well as towns full of well-wishers — delayed the journey even more.

In some places, the Lincoln Highway was little more that dirt. Other segments were all but destroyed by the convoy, which was three miles long. Wooden bridges buckled and trucks got stuck in mud or quicksand. Sometimes a scout party had to be sent out just to find the road. The 3,000-mile journey took 62 days.

When Eisenhower was supreme commander of the Allied Forces in World War II, he also got to ride on Germany 's Autobahn. The Nazi superhighway impressed him with how much easier it was to travel than U.S. roads, and how essential it was to improve to American highways.

He fought for the interstate highway system from the moment he became president in 1953. While he would cite the need to be able to evacuate cities in case of a nuclear attack, his primary rationale was economic: the construction would provide jobs and the improved infrastructure would boost U.S. businesses.

Eisenhower signed the legislation authorizing his dream in 1956. It was his favorite domestic achievement, Ambrose says.

In 1990, the system got a new official name: the Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways.


Interstate numbers:

  • $3.07 billion — Cost to build Interstate 35.
  • 13 — The number of years the interstate system was originally estimated to take to build. Construction continues, but the system planned in 1956 is 99.9 percent complete.
  • 16 — Number of interstate highways in the New York City metropolitan area, the most of any metro area.
  • 1,214 — Estimated number of rest areas on the interstate system.
  • 3,020 — The length in miles of Interstate 90. The freeway from Seattle to Boston is the longest interstate.
  • 3,233 — The number of interstate miles in Texas , the most of any state.
  • 26:10 — Estimated driving time in hours and minutes from Laredo to Duluth , according to Rand McNalley.


Interstate quotes:

“This nation doesn't have superhighways because she is rich. She is rich because she had the vision to build such highways.”

— Dewitt Greer


“When we get these thruways across the whole country, as we will and must, it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a single thing.”

— John Steinbeck, Travels With Charley


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