Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Blakeslee Monument: the traffic stopping memorial to the Father of Good Roads

We've talked many times before about having to stop on the side of a highway to get a good look at a historic marker. The process usually involves a two-second debate over the need to stop ("Wanna check it out?" "Yes."), possibly a five minute look for a decent place to do a U-turn, then a backtrack and maybe even a dash across the road to check it out.

It's something to see, but safely! The Blakeslee Monument, in all its
highway-island glory. Photo by Bill Coughlin, January 10, 2012,
courtesy HMdb.org.
This one takes the process to an extreme: it's challenging to get to, standing, as it does, on a triangular traffic island bordered by U.S. 1&9, Broadway and Wallis Avenue in Jersey City. Try making a U-turn there! Anyway, I've known about it for a while (I could swear I read about the marker in one of Robert Sullivan's books, either The Meadowlands or Cross Country, but I can't seem to find it in either one), but just haven't had the opportunity to get a photo of it (thanks, HMdb.org, for the assist).

The really cool aspect of this monument on a traffic island is what it celebrates: a roads advocate. At the same time, a guy who dedicated his life to reducing the hassles of driving, becomes, himself an impediment to those road enthusiasts who want to honor him with a visit.

Ironies aside, the Blakeslee Monument celebrates the contributions of one George E. Blakeslee, who is said, by some, to be the father of good roads or the pioneer of the modern highway. The tangles of macadam and concrete we rely on today had to come from somewhere, and people like Blakeslee had the foresight to realize that without sound pavement and logical routes, motorists and commerce would, well, go nowhere.

As we learned from our look into the confusing history of our numbered state roads, New Jersey's first concerted effort to standardize the highway system came in 1916 with the passage of the Egan Good Roads Bill. Through it, the state established funding for 13 numbered highways linking our major cities. Travelers accustomed to roads designed for horse-drawn traffic would now enjoy the benefits of more durable thoroughfares engineered for more punishing motor vehicle traffic.

Photo by Bill Coughlin, January 10, 2012,
courtesy HMdb.org.  
George Blakeslee was the driving force behind that bill, which called for a $7 million bond issue to pay for paving roads with "granite, asphalt or wood blocks, brick, concrete, bituminous concrete, asphalt or other pavement having a hard surface and durable character." (Macadam, while cheaper to install than concrete or brick, was more expensive to maintain over the long run.) Not a legislator himself, he instead went with the time-honored tradition of paying a lawyer to write the legislation and finding a lawmaker to introduce it. In this case, the lawmaker was Senator Charles Egan of Hudson County.

Blakeslee's motivations weren't completely altruistic: he had his own parochial interest in improving the state's road system. Having first sold bicycles in the 1890s, he later opened a Cadillac showroom on Kennedy Boulevard in Jersey City and owned a network of gasoline stations in Hudson County. He'd clearly benefit from an improvement to the unreliable patchwork of existing roads, but, as he said himself, the wide variability of road conditions spoke for itself.

The Good Roads bill was passed by the Legislature and signed by Governor James Fairman Fielder, yet required approval through a public question on the November 1916 ballot. Despite the concerns of the State Chamber of Commerce, which questioned whether motor vehicle fees and fines would sufficiently cover the expense of the bond issue, voters approved the bill, and the state highway commission was formed a year later.

When a vehicular tunnel under the Hudson River was first proposed a few years later, Blakeslee advocated for a viaduct connecting what was then the Lincoln Highway to what became the Holland Tunnel. Not surprisingly, it appears to be just about where the Blakeslee Monument stands today. Originally dedicated in 1931, the marker memorializes the naming of Route 1 as the Blakeslee Route in honor of his dedication to the improvement of the state's and nation's roads. The Father of Good Roads didn't live long enough to see it, though: he died of pneumonia in 1919, having taken ill when returning to Jersey City from Detroit via train.



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