By Chris Daigle
It’s hard to imagine as you whiz past Houston on Interstate 10, that its great grandfather is a patch of asphalt 20 feet wide, meandering through the Houston tree line, with a silent history going back to the beginning of the 20th century.
It starts at the driveway to Motorcars Limited, a garage for Land Rovers and Jaguars for the rich, and ends right where Washington Avenue changes to Hempstead Highway and all points northwest to Austin. If this stretch of road could talk, it would tell you it was a significant piece of American road travel.
In the early 20th century, as the automobile gained in popularity, a system of roads began to develop informally through the efforts of private interests. These were known as auto trails. They existed without the support of the federal government. The first of these auto trails was the Lincoln Highway, announced in 1912.
With the need for new roads being so significant, dozens of new auto trails began construction in that decade. One such roadway was the Jefferson Davis Highway, sponsored by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The UDC planned for this highway to start in Arlington, Virginia, and travel through the southern states until it stopped in San Diego, California. It was to use existing roadways and would extend north to the Canadaian/U.S. border. This highway was named for Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate states, a senator, and Secretary of War. Because of unintended conflict between the National Auto Trail movement and the federal government, it is unclear whether the road reached its final form.
By the mid-1920s, the system of auto trails had grown cumbersome. The federal government had imposed a number system on the nation’s highways, using even numbers for east-west routes and odd numbers for north-south routes. Sections of each trail were assigned different numbers.
The full Jefferson Davis Highway is not shown on maps, but it went through 10 states. The section that went through Texas traversed the Sabine River to El Paso, roughly the route the current Interstate 10 follows currently. It was routed through Houston, Austin, San Antonio, Alpine, and Van Horn. At least 18 markers still exist across the state. Although there is a stone marker on Washington Avenue, the Texas Department of Transportation did not assign the name “Jefferson Davis Highway” to any state highway.
The cause of the demise of the Jefferson Davis Highway may have been the United Daughters of the Confederacy themselves. In addition to the transcontinental route, they also set up another route running through Kentucky to Mississippi. This led to confusion about where the highway actually traveled to. Maps show several Jefferson Davis Highways, and the route was absorbed into the federal government’s numbered highway system. It was numbered U.S. 90 through Houston, which is visible on some maps.
In 1956, President Eisenhower created the Federal Highway Act, establishing hundreds of new roads nationwide. The name of Houston’s stretch of asphalt west of town was named Katy Road, likely named for the Katy railroad that ran next to it all the way to its namesake and beyond. A sleek new two-lane beauty was installed next to her in the late 1950s, and when the massive Interstate 10 passed through Houston from 1966 to 1968, our hero to the west was suddenly put in the back seat and renamed Old Katy Road.
It’s easy to imagine this stretch of asphalt hosting rusty farm trucks bringing produce from Brookshire or crops from the rice fields to Houston for the City Market, the scenery dotted with filling stations and general stores all the way into town instead of movie theatres, Wal-Marts, and stations selling $4.00+ gasoline.
For a while, the quiet overgrown quarter-mile path took us on a road trip – a road trip into history.