By Leslie Wolfenden, THC Historic Resources Survey Coordinator
After surveying and documenting more than 850 miles of highway, conducting countless hours of archival research, snapping more than 10,000 digital photos, and writing multiple reports, the Texas Historical Commission’s (THC) Bankhead Highway resource team is nearing the end of the road.
During the course of the two-year project, team members discovered myriad interesting facts, resources, and phenomena now available at www.thc.texas.gov/bankhead and the THC’s Historic Sites Atlas. The transcontinental roadway, which stretched across the state from Texarkana to El Paso, is lined with remarkable 1920s–60s motels, restaurants, and gas stations built for automobile travelers.
Of particular intrigue are the team's numerous findings categorized as sidebar interests—hidden gems found during the research process that add previously unknown stories and details to the colorful heritage of the “Broadway of America.” These sidebar interests are listed on the Historic Texas Highways and Bankhead Highway web pages.
According to Bratten Thomason, director of the THC’s History Programs Division, an example of a sidebar interest is the Green Book, a travel guidebook for African Americans published between 1936 and 1966 during segregation. “Unfortunately during that time, many African Americans were not welcome in a lot of the Bankhead’s traveler-oriented businesses, so these guidebooks listed what amenities were available in specific towns along the way,” Thomason says.
These amenities included hotels, restaurants, barber shops, drug stores, gas stations, liquor stores, and night clubs. Although very few of these locations remain today, the THC’s Bankhead resource team discovered one: The A. Winston Tourist Home in El Paso, now known as El Torito Grocery, was the only Green Book resource found along the historic highway.
Another documented sidebar interest was an all-metal gas station discovered during a Bankhead road trip. After conducting follow-up research, team members learned it was a Union Metal catalog gas station. “Union Metal is better known for making street lamps,” Thomason explains. “But our staff found an old catalog that featured this specific gas station design.”
Resource team members are currently faced with several questions at this point in the process. What do they do with all the accumulated data? How do they make it available to consultants, researchers, and the general public? And how do they get heritage tourists motivated to experience the Bankhead Highway for themselves?
Texas travelers can use the Bankhead section of the THC website to plan ahead for which sections of the highway they may wish to drive (or have their co-pilot navigate) to see the extant road-related resources. Additionally, travelers can click on the map’s “Google Man” icon to access a street view. The red-pinned items are for National Register listed, National Register eligible, Recorded Texas Historic Landmarks, State Antiquities Landmarks, and “contributing-to-a-district” resources. Clicking on a red pin will show a pop-up window with a short description and thumbnail image; the description links directly to an entry with more information and a larger image.
In addition, the THC published a full-color Bankhead Highway brochure to be displayed at Texas Travel Information Centers and entities along the Bankhead, such as convention and visitors bureaus, chambers of commerce, museums, and libraries. The brochure, designed by the agency’s Public Information and Education Department, is available by request (call 512.463.6255) or download.
THC staff also created a short video with vintage music and archival photographs, demonstrating how brick roadways were constructed in the first half of the 20th century. Posted on the Bankhead web page, this video shows a wide variety of vehicles and equipment, ranging from horse-drawn sleds to steamrollers to tar heaters.
In the coming months, resource team members will create lesson plans and other media options using the tremendous amount of data gathered during the Bankhead project. The THC has hired a youth education specialist, Lisa Worley, to develop new ways to use THC programs to inspire, educate, and inform young Texans about the importance of preserving their state’s historic resources.
The Bankhead Highway project—part of a team effort with the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) and cultural resources management firm Hardy-Heck-Moore, Inc.—was sponsored and administered through the THC¹s Historic Texas Highways Program. Special funding was allocated by the Texas Legislature and a TxDOT grant, courtesy of federal Transportation Enhancement funds.
Even as the Bankhead Highway research materials are being filed away, THC staff kicked off the second Historic Texas Highways project: documenting the international Meridian Highway. This historic roadway ran roughly along present-day U.S. Hwy. 81 and I-35 from the Wichita Falls area to Laredo, with an offshoot from Waco to Galveston. Resource team members will use the same equipment and techniques as they did with the Bankhead project, while incorporating some lessons learned during the process.
“With both of these projects, we’re hoping our efforts to provide research, images, and traveling materials to the public will help heritage tourists have many happy hours exploring our historic Texas highways,” Thomason says.
This article was originally published in the Fall 2014 issue of The Medallion.