In 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed legislation creating the interstate highway system that links just about every major city in the United States. The very first stretch of this was an eight-mile stretch of I-70, which started in Missouri and ended in Topeka, Kansas.
Now, at 2,151 miles, I-70 runs from Baltimore, Maryland, to Provo, Utah. Since it was finished, Kansas and Missouri have been shaped by I-70.
Charlie Nemmers, Director of the Transportation Infrastructure Center at the University of Missouri, told KCUR’s Central Standard host Gina Kaufmann that opening up the interstate leveraged the economies of Kansas and Missouri tremendously.
Before I-70 was built, Nemmers said, “you couldn’t move goods and services,” such as fruits, vegetables, and farm products.
“Now with the interstate you can travel four times that in a day. So it just opened up everything, it made relevant the farm materials from Missouri. It made the aircraft industry in St. Louis blossom because they were able to get parts and movements around the country,” he said.
“It brings in a lot more economic activity, because when you have good transportation that attracts businesses and industries. It’s a catalyst,” he added.
The flipside of this economic boost was that building the interstate disrupted the communities in and around Kansas City. Monroe Dodd, KCUR’s resident historian, said before I-70 was built, “there was in essence a cityscape that was completely connected … it was all one smooth landscape.”
But after I-70 was built, the city was literally divided.
“Communities were sliced in two, and the homeowners and others had to move,” Dodd said.
The same can be said about the neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city — namely, Strawberry Hill.
“They were very tight neighborhoods, culturally, ethnically, and what the interstate did was basically slice off part of Strawberry Hill,” Dodd said. “That meant a certain diaspora of the neighborhoods … [I-70] in effect broke up neighborhoods.”
But despite the division, I-70 was a major boon for the U.S. as a whole.
“Ultimately, the nation’s commerce, vacationing families, people commuting around town, are helped to get places faster by the interstate system,” Dodd said.
Nemmers agreed that the interstate system was integral to American culture.
“Yes there’s good things and yes there’s bad things, but I think in total the interstate has a positive impact on our whole culture,” Nemmers said.
In fact, I-70 has had such a positive impact on our culture that Kansas songwriter Heidi Gluck even wrote a song about it, called “Sadness Is Psychedelic.” And LuAnn Cadden wrote a book, Driving Across Missouri: A Guide to I-70.
“I think when you look off the interstate with new eyes, in a new way, that you can find … stories that will make that drive more enjoyable for you,” Cadden said.
Diane Krauthamer is the digital intern for KCUR 89.3.