by Bob Blake

Have you ever driven along a highway and wondered why the road was numbered 904 instead of 628 or 527? Why do some roads bear three digit numbers and others have two…or maybe a name? How does this disorder fit in our complex spaghetti of pavement? I pondered too, and discovered these revelations. 

First of all, our North Carolina roads have been renumbered several times. The first attempt began with passage of the “Good Roads Bill” almost a hundred years ago. By the 1920s, the automobile had become America’s primary mode of travel. Motorists demanded exact routes! 

The state’s first numbering efforts began during this period. Originally, the state’s nine major roads were labeled in multiples of ten. The road from Murphy to Beaufort, N.C. traversed the center of the state and bore the number 10. The other east-west route from the Tennessee to Wilmington became 20. North-south routes were designated 30 through 80. Roads that did not pass directly and link the entire state bore two-digits, with the first numeral that of the primary road it first crossed. Thus, the north/south road crossing highway 20 became 21. Less significant highways used the same format but with three digits – such as 273, 274 and 904 to the coast. Some county roads bore only names. Total confusion!

The numbering system may have worked for North Carolina residents but frequently confused interstate travelers. A motorist became lost when highway 80 in Virginia became 49 when he crossed the state line! Worse, a few states preferred only names! 

To sort out the tangled threads of roadways lacing America, the federal government passed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1925.  The legislation permitted named roadways to retain their title, but added a number as well.  Road signs became uniform across state lines with a federal shield designating a national route. Have you ever noticed a route marker soon after crossing an intersection? This is called a “reassurance sign” and is usually posted within a half mile from a major road crossing. 

In the deal, each state performed the construction and the federal government provided consistent standards and some financing. Before the Interstate system began in 1959, North Carolina added only a few new federal highways – such as U.S. 441 and U.S. 401

The Interstate Highway System, correctly known as the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, was authorized by the U.S. government in 1956. This series of controlled-access roads now weaves over 46,000 miles through all fifty states, including Hawaii and Alaska. States continue to add links to the system when their roadways achieve tough Interstate standards. Much of highway 74 to the coast will become Interstate 74 as the new segments and bypasses comply with the federal regulations. 

Can you imagine a 1930’s traveler going coast to coast without a stop sign or red light? That is now possible on Interstate 40 and similar cross country routes.