Finding the lost Bankhead Highway

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Dan Smith and the Bankhead

Dan Smith is not shy when it comes to the promotion of the Bankhead Highway. His love of the road is apparent with his self-designed Bankhead shirt and ball-cap. Even his car carries the Bankhead brand with magnetic badges that can be prominently displayed on any metallic surface, today they are on the doors. His car’s trunk is a treasure trove of Bankhead paraphernalia from t-shirts, postcards, maps, photos, and even actual pieces of Bankhead pavement. The only thing that challenges his quantity of tangible Bankhead items is his mind full of Bankhead Highway knowledge and history. All of which, he is excited to share.

Today the Bankhead, once labeled the Broadway of America, is difficult to find unless one knows where to look. Scattered reminders are hidden in plain sight. Out of place blacktop and bridges sit abandoned of their original purpose and useless in the current condition. Vibrant towns that once boasted numerous residents and visitors stand motionless. The grid of the streets create plots where many of the buildings now lay to rest.

There is a stir of life along the Bankhead due to an increase of heritage tourism and revitalization of small-town America. While a multitude of factors have come into play to help breathe life back into the road, Dan Smith, author, historian, and road reviver, maintained the Bankhead’s faint pulse and kept the road alive.

 

Dan Smith wrote the book on the Bankhead Highway, literally, he wrote the book. Texas Highway No. 1 The Highway, is “that book” and currently the only Bankhead Highway guidebook in print. Dan intended the book to be one-half history and one-half travel guide. Dan stated, “I wanted to replicate the old earliest 1920’s guidebooks.” His book is spiral bound because Dan intended the traveler to just, “lay it on the seat next to them.”

How the Bankhead Came to Be

With an origin at Mile Marker Zero, in Washington D.C., the Bankhead would snake its way across the southern half of the lower 48 with its terminus in San Diego, CA. The Bankhead Highway would guarantee America the reliability of all year travel, something the Lincoln Highway could not offer due to its northern route.

The United States Federal Government had allotted money to states for highway construction. With roughly 1000 miles of the Bankhead located in Texas; the lion’s share of the funds would be headed to the Lone Star State. In April of 1917, a large group of important people convened deep in the heart of Texas to make sure that Texas had its share of what would ultimately become the Bankhead Highway.

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Ultimately in less than one week, in 1917, the group would string together commerce and community and like an artisan jeweler, they would create a fine chain of highway that would shine across Texas and America ushering in new businesses and tourism.

Texas would brand its Bankhead Highway section as Texas 1. Collectively the entire route of the Bankhead would come to be known as the Broadway of America.

The Texas Section of the Bankhead Highway

The Abilene Morning News reported in 1929 that the Bankhead Highway was carrying one car per minute. The official count was 1,216 cars in 1,200 minutes explicitly excluding local traffic.

In the 1920’s an oil boom in West Texas utilized the Bankhead to its full extent.

According to the Texas Historical Commission, “The Bankhead Highway provided an indispensable transportation route for oilfield laborers and drilling supplies.” In 1927, the Bankhead was widened to accommodate traffic to oil wells near Midland.

The Bankhead also ushered in a new type of development targeted toward tourists. A multitude of courts, cafes, and gas stations as well as hotels that were grander than anything before.

Such a hotel was the Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells constructed in 1925. The Baker Hotel created quite a footprint in the town of Mineral Wells with 232,000 square feet and rising 14 stories above the town. Four hundred fifty guest rooms and the healing mineral waters awaited Bankhead Highway travelers in what Texas Monthly Magazine describes as “Texas’ premier spa” during its heyday.

Dan envisions an early Bankhead Highway’s travelers’ experiences as, “every day is a whole new world,” when driving, “from here to California.”

World Wars further utilized the Bankhead importance to America’s security and transportation of military traffic. Several World War I military installations were located on the Bankhead. As America became involved in World War II, the Bankhead Highway became vital to the war effort. Local communities became the home of multiple newly constructed military bases and installations. The road, in turn, benefitted with upgrades and improvements during mobilization.

The Bankhead is Lost

While the Bankhead Highway was the primary route early in the 20th century, Bankhead Highway’s history would become a tangled mess of names and numbers, realignments and alternative routes, abandoned fragments, fenced off pavements slowly being reclaimed by Mother Nature, and other sections covered with interstate highway I20 and I10.

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The Bankhead was repeatedly beaten and battered by political and economic forces that resulted in the evolution of the road. The highway would ultimately become a variety of numbers with only a couple of small sections keeping the Bankhead moniker in their names. The Bankhead, pride of the south, testament to America’s dedication to progress and development, and a conduit for West Texas Oil wealth, would fade into history until Dan Smith would accidentally become its savior.

Dan’s Journey to the Bankhead

Dan is an author, historian, and self-proclaimed geek who seems to find the unique and forgotten topics the most fun to research.

Dan is a Floridian, born and raised in Miami. He graduated number two in his class and began a career with the weather service. He does not remember when he became interested in weather but remembers in the seventh-grade winning science fairs with his weather experiments.

Dan recalls a time in graduate school when an assignment sent him on a journey to research, “the most obscure thing I could find.” This led Dan deep into the library to discover dusty journals focused on 19th-century steamboats that navigated narrow Florida rivers.

Dan immerses himself in his interests, while the Bankhead might be his passion, even years after his introduction to the steamboats, he will still use any opportunity to discuss this steamboat with any ear that will listen.

But he will admit that his thoughts and talks will quickly go, “back to the Bankhead Highway.”

His interest and career choice will ultimately bring Dan and his family to Texas and closer to the Bankhead Highway. Fresh out of college and eager to continue his work with the Weather Bureau, Dan was quick to take advantage of a vacancy in Fort Worth, Texas. Dan would spend the next thirty-plus years of his life working with the Weather Service.

New Year’s Day 1970, was, “the first time I was west of the Mississippi.”

He humorously describes his new Texas home as a “new world” and “neat place.” This “neat place” unknown to Dan, will introduce him in a few decades to an old road that will become his passion demanding years of research and attention and ultimately bring Dan recognition and respect from people far and wide. This Texas transplant will arguably be the best thing that has happened to the Bankhead since 1917.

Dan readily admits that he, “literally just stumbled on the Bankhead Highway.”

A random bicycle ride near his home in Fort Worth, Texas, would be an event that would change Dan’s life and ultimately breathe new life into the Bankhead. As for the actual date of the ride, Dan will respond, “your guess is as good as mine”. While the exact date and time is up for debate it was for sure around the year 1983.

Dan’s ride that day took him down a random Texas road, a road that happened to still have Bankhead in its name. A street sign was enough to pique Dan’s interest and when he got home decided to find out more about this Bankhead Highway.

This single sign opened an area of research that would become the focus of Dan’s life and introduce him to over 1000 miles of route in Texas of a road that crossed the country as the Broadway of America.

An endless amount of information about a forgotten road

Dan made calls from Austin, Texas, to Washington, DC, attempting to learn more about the road. He received boxes of information that had been stored away for years. Dan states that the information about, “the Bankhead just grew, and grew, and grew.”

“The more I researched the more I went out and learned things,” and the more people he would meet, “so many people, notebooks full of people.”

Unknown to Dan at the time, the Bankhead was about to have a birthday, and he would be a key player in the celebration.

Dan understands that there is much more to learn about the Bankhead. While he does not look to compare the Bankhead to more well-known and popular routes in America, he feels that the Bankhead has great significance.

Texas celebrating the Bankhead

As the centennial celebration of the Bankhead grew near, the State of Texas and the Texas Historical Commission joined the celebration.

“I heard from the folks with the Historic Commission in Austin (Texas), and they were fixing to give a contract of roughly a million dollars or whatever it was, to a research company to do a study on the Bankhead Highway.”

Dan Smith was soon contacted by the research group that secured the contract.

Curious about their plan, Dan asked, “what are you going to use for a map?”

Their response, “that is why we are calling you.”

Dan’s book became a valuable resource to the state and its research

At this time Dan’s Bankhead book was not complete, but he did have a draft that would soon be ready to publish.

“I gave the only copy to them,” he quickly corrects his statement, “loaned it to them.”

The intention was to create a guide. “My thing was that if they can’t find their way with this then I got work to do,” Dan states with regards to revision.

Both parties mutually benefited. Dan’s book was field-tested, and the group was able to navigate a century-old road.

As for Dan’s relationship and influence with the Texas Historical Commission, he states, “I feel I have been very helpful to them.” He continues that he tries to keep them up to date “with what is going on” with the Bankhead.

Dan pays homage to the Bankhead Highway with signs and his book

The book was not the only homage Dan had for the Bankhead Highway. Dan, together with a local sign maker, started producing Bankhead Highway signs and historical plaques. Dan states with pride, “I’ve put out about 100 of those all the way across the state.”DSC_0011 (2)

The State of Texas also has placed some official signs designating the old Bankhead Highway, but Dan is quick to point out, “My signs were never intended to compete with any state sign,” those placed by the highway department the TDot signs, “are altogether different.”

Dan points out that, “signs go up on city or county property, not TDot,” not interfering or infringing on state or federal rights of way, confessing, “that’s how we get away with it.”

The self-described Johnny Appleseed of the Bankhead Highway peddling BH signs to all takers. He does have a request, “when I give those away (BH signs) my only wish is, put it somewhere people can see it.”

What Dan Smith offered the Bankhead Highway

“I can’t tell what is going to happen to the old road, but at least in my book it will be preserved forever.”

Dan reconnected the broken chain of the Bankhead. His book pieces together the fragments that would have been lost in plain sight. The gems and jewels still exist albeit a bit tarnished and Dan’s travel guide allows the heritage traveler to have an experience a century old.

Today those same communities that built the tourist courts and camps, spas and hotels, gas stations and cafes 100 years ago are looking for ways to bring them back to their original luster.

The heritage tourist, as well as the casual traveler, will find several gems and jewels along today’s route as well as historical and cultural significant interests. Each town down the Bankhead route will offer a multitude of hospitality of yesterday and luxuries of today. These roadside treasures await the heritage tourists as they make their way down the Broadway of America.

The Settles Hotel in Big Spring, as well as the El Capitan in Van Horn, have been reconditioned to their early twentieth-century glory offering five-star overnight accommodations and services.

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The previously mentioned Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells is presently being restored with plans of reopening in 2022. Laird Fairchild discussed the plans with Texas Monthly Magazine and stated the restorations as, “the largest restoration in Texas history of a site listed on the National Register of Historic Places.” Phil Garrett, the Mineral Wells unofficial historian believes that the Baker’s rebirth is, “the most significant historical event since the discovery by our town’s founder of the local mineral water in 1881,” as stated in the article.

Abandoned tourist courts in Abilene and decaying midcentury architecture in Merkel will give the traveler a haunting reminder of how things used to be. Native American and Comanche culture is woven into the route. With the dynamic city of El Paso not ending the journey, but just adding extra layers to a satisfying experience with the mixture of cultures and old west persona.

Today’s Bankhead traveler can still drive on miles and miles of original hand-laid brick roadways. Traveling on a brick road can add to the nostalgia of heritage travel. These hand-laid roads are evidence of the longevity of certain early road engineering. Dan believes that there is, “at least a hundred miles, maybe more,” of vintage Bankhead pavement in Texas adding, “that brick goes all the way across Eastland county.”

These unique experiences will add variety to what Dan calls today’s “great sameness” in traveling experiences.

And just like the State of Texas Dan Smith’s, Texas Highway No.1 The Bankhead Highway in Texas, will be the required travel companion. The guide will inform and educate while keeping the tourist from getting lost.

What the Bankhead Highway offered to Dan Smith

Dan’s humbleness often overshadows his accomplishment.

Dan is identified by many as “America’s Recognized Expert” on the Bankhead Highway, he is quick to affirm, “I don’t make that claim,” but as Texas’ research group confirmed with their call – he is the go-to guy with regards to the Bankhead Highway.

Dan loves to discuss and chat about the Bankhead, “What I am happy about is the fact that I am still at it, that people still give a hoot.”

Dan wishes he would have kept count of the number of formal and organized groups he has spoken to across the state. When Dan is asked about what has brought him the most joy he brightly responds, “all the talks I have given.”

Dan borrows from Jimmy Doolittle’s quote that he will, “never be so lucky again,” and the Bankhead’s history and today’s heritage tourists will never be so lucky that Dan decided to go for a bicycle ride.

 

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