Producer, videographer, audio: Ernie Lee Martin
Drivin’ the Dixie Highway
In 1915, the automobile was a new-fangled, temperamental, and expensive machine, still very much a luxury item. But mass production was beginning to change that, and some far-sighted civic leaders and entrepreneurs were beginning to see its potential as a means for allowing Americans to travel as never before—and spend their vacation dollars in far-flung places.
One such group was the Dixie Highway Association, formed that year to promote the dream of a road linking the Canadian border with Miami Beach. In the next 30 years, before World War II gas rationing put an end to most recreational driving, the Dixie Highway became one of the busiest roads in the nation.
Two branches of the Dixie ran through Kentucky. One followed U.S. 31 from Louisville through Kentucky’s cave country and then on to Bowling Green and Nashville; today’s Interstate 65 parallels its route. On this edition of Kentucky Life, we travel the eastern branch, which linked the North with the Smoky Mountains and, eventually, Florida.
Our trip begins in Covington, where host Dave Shuffett visits the Roebling Suspension Bridge. Completed in 1866, the bridge was the longest in the world at the time. The city fathers took a chance on an unknown young German emigré engineer named John August Roebling, who later put the engineering principles and design ideas he practiced in Covington to good use on the Brooklyn Bridge. His Covington bridge originally carried foot traffic and wagons over the Ohio River to and from Cincinnati, then streetcars. When U.S. 25 was being routed, it was a ready-made crossing point.
Once in Northern Kentucky, travelers along the Dixie Highway were tempted by the “Gourmet Strip,” a string of restaurants offering hearty Southern cooking and hospitality. A few, like the Greyhound Tavern, are still operating.
Other popular Dixie Highway stops, though, are just memories now. In Corinth, we visit the site of Fisher’s Tourist Camp (photo above), a motel, restaurant, and lake resort that for years was known as the only place for fashionable tourists to stop between Northern Kentucky and Lexington. For many, Fisher’s was a destination in itself. Today, the stone gas-station building is the only structure standing.
Another highlight of our trip is the Dogpatch Trading Post, a roadside attraction which lured travelers with concrete yard ornaments, knick-knacks, and souvenirs from states from Michigan to Florida. A forerunner of all the tourist traps to come, it also advertised publicity stunts ranging from alligator wrestling to a man “buried alive” in snakes.
Today, Interstate 75 follows the route of the Dixie Highway almost exactly, except at the point where it exits Kentucky. Where I-75 drops almost straight south, the Dixie veered southeast to traverse the Cumberland Gap along the route of an even older “tourist” trail: the Wilderness Road. Outside Middlesboro, you can still see some of the then state-of-the-art brick-paved roadbed of the Dixie.
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