The role of Visionary Leadership and the Art of Collaboration
By Dr. Lance Barry
Since the founding of the United States, our leaders have recognized the connection between the ease of travel and the incremental improvement of commerce, wealth, and security. The first federally funded road, the National Road, was conceived by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to reach the western settlements. As president, Jefferson signed the National Road Act into law on March 29th, 1806. This act allowed federal funds to be applied to the construction costs of the National Road. He believed that connecting the country from east to west starting in Cumberland, Maryland and ending in Vandalia, Illinois would allow ease of travel and delivery of goods, and thereby elevate this country’s economy. The 620 miles of “National Road” became a linchpin in the growth of the United States and the touchstone for collaboration for future road projects. The National Road incorporated and supplemented the highest standards of road design at that time. Large scale bridge building and a broken stone upper layer to prevent wagon wheel ruts are two examples of major advancements in the road construction techniques utilized. The construction process was completed by 1839. Later known as Route 40, the first federally funded highway quickly became the “Mainstreet of America” as travel and commerce along its route expanded. It was the topic of song, paintings, and poetry. The towns and villages distant from the National Road suffered as new towns and businesses sprang up along the route, but the utilization of the National Road diminished when travel patterns shifted to trains in the mid 1850’s. However, the 1900’s saw the rise of the automobile and the National Road was popular again. Soon, many wealthy residents desired to locate their homes along the National Road. Its winding path is credited with the creation of many “Millionaire Rows” across America.
Shortly after the end of World War II, the Federal Interstate Highway System was conceived. In the early 1950’s, construction began on a massive project spanning 1,575 miles of highway from Sault Ste. Marie in Northern Michigan to Tampa Bay. Roughly 25 years later, Interstate 75 was completed at a cost of more than 3 billion dollars. I-75 became a vital portion of the 42,500 miles of Interstate Highway in the United States at that time.
The Georgia portion of I-75 is 355.1 miles in length. At a public hearing in the auditorium of Cartersville High School on June 11th, 1965, the Georgia Highway Department shared possible routes of I-75 through Bartow County with a crowd of nearly 1,000 people. Atlanta Journal-Constitution staff reporter Richard B. Matthews wrote, “Of course, the ‘Bird watchers’ and ‘outdoor nuts’ were there, too, talking about how the road would ruin the environment, but no one paid much attention to them”. Everything changed when Dr. Phillip Greear stepped in. He was the head of Biology and Earth Sciences at Shorter College from 1962-1985 and served on the Board of Directors of the Georgia Nature Conservancy. Dr. Greear was a World War II veteran who was passionate about conservation after witnessing the devastation of war. He took the reins to lead the fight against the proposed lake route. He proposed to stop the progress of I-75 over Lake Allatoona, noting that the Etowah Darter Fish was only found in the Etowah River and two of its tributaries.
He hypothesized that the construction of I-75 near Lake Allatoona could, and eventually would, destroy this endangered species’ habitat. Following the hearing, the proposed lake route never gained traction.
Other routes through Bartow County were considered at the time with respect to cost and environmental impact. Several obstacles were considered and solved in the effort to expedite the completion of I-75 in Georgia.
Key challenges included environmental disruption to Lake Allatoona, land rights issues, project funding, and the endangered species impacted by road construction. The previous Georgia DOT Commissioner, Bert Lance, removed the environmental concerns by placing the final route decision in the hands of Dr. Eugene Odum who was a nationally known environmentalist at the University of Georgia. The final route chosen for Bartow County was termed “Line T” and was heavily influenced by the efforts of the immediate past president of the Cartersville Chamber of Commerce, Herschel Wisebram and Former Georgia DOT Commissioner Bert Lance.
In 1973, in the case of ‘Finish Allatoona’s Interstate Right v. Volpe’, the court’s determination was in favor of progressing with the “Line T” route.
Financing concerns contributed to the delay in completion of I-75 in Georgia. Governor Busbee won budget approval by getting congress and the general assembly to approve pre-financing of the remaining general obligation bonds and repaying the principal with funds from the Federal Highway Trust Fund as they became available.
The final segment of this momentous undertaking was completed on December 21st, 1977, near Lake Allatoona in Emerson, Georgia. The son of Rev. O.L. and Julia Stiles, recently retired U.S. Army Col. Fred O. Stiles was the first motorist to use the left lane of the northbound section of I-75. He was driving a Toyota. The history of roads traversing Georgia from north to south included the western routing of the Dixie Highway, Highway 41, and then finally Interstate 75. The “Ballad of Interstate 75” was written in 1977 by Jon P. Shulenberger and recorded by Terry Dearmore to commemorate the opening of the highway. As with the National Road, commerce and wealth grew along the route of I-75.
The leadership of Governor George Busbee, Chairman of the Committee for Interstate 75, Harold S. Willingham, Former Georgia DOT Commissioner Bert Lance, and the Georgia Director of the DOT Thomas Moreland were invaluable to the completion of the project. These men were supplemented by strong leadership in Bartow County that recognized the importance of I-75 and sought to provide maximum benefit to citizens. Chief among the many forces that shaped the Bartow County section of I-75 was Georgia Representative Joe Frank Harris, Chairman of the Georgia House Appropriations Committee, who would later become the 78th Governor of Georgia from 1983-1991. He and other local leaders recognized that a Cartersville I-75 access connector was the key to the future of Bartow County’s prosperity. His ability to collaborate with local, state, and federal leaders for Bartow County resulted in growth and prosperity for all the citizens of Bartow County, which we continue to enjoy today.
Rep. Harris worked closely with Cartersville Mayor John Dent, Bartow County Commissioner Olin Tatum, past Bartow County Commissioner Wayne Self, Georgia State Senator Nathan Dean, Cartersville Chamber of Commerce President Herschel Wisebram, as well as Future Georgia Supreme Court Justice Robert Benham. The completion of I-75 moved Georgia from the 37th best highway system in America to the 14th best spot in 3 years. The population of Bartow County in 1977 was 39,074 and in 2023 it has grown to 112,800. The official listing of all property owners, the assessed value of the property they own, and the taxes levied (Tax Digest) was just shy of 500 million dollars in 1978. In 2023 the Bartow County Tax Digest has surpassed 15 billion dollars. This represents a 30-fold increase in the tax digest since the completion of I-75.
Bartow County is now attracting billion-dollar projects that are under construction in 2023, and these are anticipated to further elevate the prosperity of our county, and our state.
Rev. Don Harp of Sam Jones Memorial First United Methodist Church gave the invocation at the I-75 opening day ceremonies. Rep. Joe Frank Harris was the keynote speaker. The musical entertainment was provided by the Cass and Cartersville high school bands. Other persons of note on the stage that day included Mayor John Dent, Bartow County Commissioner Olin Tatum, Georgia Senator Nathan Dean, and Georgia Representative Ernest Raulston.
Today, citizens continue to benefit from the leadership of so many who carried Bartow County in their hearts and helped I-75 become a thriving reality.