The Bankhead Highway was one of the nation’s first paved transcontinental highways. It went through 14 southern states and connected Washington, D.C. to San Diego, California. The highway traveled more than 850 miles through Texas, from Texarkana to El Paso, and connected cities and towns in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Arlington especially benefited from the Bankhead Highway, as it helped our city establish its identity.
You’ve likely heard of Route 66, as it’s one of the most famous roads in the U.S. A lesser-known road, yet one that possibly had just as much of an impact, is the Bankhead Highway. It played a pivotal role in transportation and commerce at a local, regional, and even national level. The highway was named for U.S. Senator John Bankhead, an early supporter of the project, who believed that automobiles would be the future of transportation. Unfortunately, he passed away before the highway’s completion. Plans for the road began in 1916, with construction completed in the 1920s. While workers built the railroad incrementally from a starting location, all states worked on the Bankhead Highway simultaneously, making progress faster.
The Bankhead Highway went through 14 southern states and connected Washington, D.C. to San Diego, California—a distance of 3,000 miles—and was one of the nation’s first paved transcontinental highways. The highway traveled more than 850 miles through Texas, from Texarkana to El Paso, and locally connected Dallas, Grand Prairie, Arlington, Fort Worth, Weatherford, and Mineral Wells. It also connected many other towns and cities along the way. Towns along the route benefitted and even survived on the related industries as “highway tourism” began to unfold. Businesses sprang up along the highway, especially ones catered to motorists, such as restaurants, car dealerships, garages, gas stations, and tourist camps, also known as motor courts or motels.
Impact in Arlington
In Arlington, city leaders initially wanted the Bankhead Highway built along State Highway 1, known today as Abram Street, since it was already an established commerce district. But, the road crossed the railroad tracks twice in Arlington, and it was deemed too dangerous for the anticipated traffic. Instead, the Bankhead Highway was built nearby along U.S. 80, known today as Division Street. The new highway opened for traffic in late 1922.
Much of Arlington’s early commerce development occurred along these east-west routes, stretching the town horizontally. Notable attractions on the Bankhead Highway arrived in the 1920s, including the Top O’ Hill Terrace casino and the Arlington Downs racetrack. Both would help bring visitors to Arlington and establish our city’s tourism industry. They would later become recognized as City of Arlington Local Landmarks. Further, the new highway undoubtedly helped bring the General Motors Assembly Plant and the Great Southwest Industrial District to Arlington in the late 1950s. Both would have a tremendous economic impact, with the GM Plant still one of the city’s largest employers and the industrial district leading to the idea for the Six Flags amusement park. These developments brought more residents and visitors to Arlington.
Today, Six Flags is the anchor for our ever-growing Entertainment District, which consists of amusement parks, sports stadiums, museums, hotels, restaurants, and nightlife. Indeed, without the success of Six Flags, it’s likely that the Texas Rangers baseball team and Dallas Cowboys football team would have their stadiums elsewhere. The ripple effect of the Bankhead Highway through Arlington is immeasurable. It’s possible that if the highway had been a few miles away or bypassed Arlington altogether, our city would look much different.
For about 35 years, the Bankhead Highway served as the primary corridor through Arlington and the most direct route connecting the larger cities of Dallas and Fort Worth. However, its popularity began to fade when the Dallas-Fort Worth Turnpike (now known as Interstate 30) opened a few miles north in 1957. Although the turnpike was a toll road, traffic boomed. Many motorists preferred the turnpike as it was a much faster and more efficient method of travel. (There were 80 traffic lights along the Bankhead Highway from downtown Dallas to downtown Fort Worth. It was very much stop-and-go.)
Commerce and economic activity began to dwindle as much of the traffic relocated. The landscape would change again about 20 years later with Interstate 20. With two major highways now going east-west through the area, Division Street became more for local traffic than regional transportation. The busier highways also took commerce away from downtown Arlington. The area is amid a revitalization today, but it took many years for that rebirth to begin.
For over 100 years, the road—whether known as U.S. 80, the Bankhead Highway, or Division Street—has played a vital role in our city. As a major east-west thoroughfare, it has impacted our transportation, commerce, and tourism while helping transform our small town into a thriving city. It had a similar effect on other communities. Take what it did for Arlington and multiply that times the hundreds of towns along its route, and the overall impact of the Bankhead Highway becomes incredibly significant.
Texas designated Arlington’s portion of the Bankhead as a Historic Texas Highway in 2009. In 2011, it received a Texas Historical Marker. The marker, located at Center and Division streets across from the historic Vandergriff Building, recognizes the impact of the route on Arlington.
Today, Division Street in Arlington retains the spirit of the old highway and its motorists—with many restaurants, car dealerships, service stations, and motels still on its path. There are flashes of nostalgia back to another time, and many places have historical significance. The eight-mile stretch of road intersects with most of the major north-south streets in town.
Road less traveled, but worth remembering
With modern roads, we hate the traffic, curse the construction, and groan that 70 MPH on the highway is too slow. But back then, 100 years ago, when the Bankhead Highway came along, paved roads were a new and revolutionary way of travel. Indeed, the journey was often more awe-inspiring than the destination. While the Bankhead Highway was once a thriving route, today, it’s often the road less traveled. Formerly known as the Broadway of America, it’s an iconic American road that deserves preservation, recognition, and remembrance. It’s a slice of Americana from a bygone era.
For more info about the Bankhead Highway, check out this short introductory video from the Texas Historical Commission’s YouTube channel.
Blog post and photos by Jason S. Sullivan, 02-16-23