SAVANNAH, Ga. - The Georgia Historical Society is in the front seat of a multiorganization effort to study the old Dixie Highway, a circa-1915 route from Michigan to Miami that usually was unpaved, often unmarked and is now largely forgotten.
The decadelong development of the highway, which coincided with the mass production of the affordable Ford Model T, helped ignite the birth of automobile tourism in Georgia, said W. Todd Groce, president and chief executive officer of the GHS.
But the genesis of the project was in Chattanooga.
The April 1915 organizational meeting of the Dixie Highway Association at the Patten Hotel on Market Street drew more than 5,000 people, according to the Chattanooga History Center and the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture.
Chattanooga was chosen because it was roughly the halfway point between the planned ends of the road. The first meeting included governors from Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia and Florida. Five local members of the Chattanooga Automobile Club and eight other men pledged $1,000 each for the formation of the Dixie Highway Association.
In 2003, the Chattanooga Regional History Museum, now the Chattanooga History Center, developed an exhibit about the Dixie Highway's importance in the development of both transportation and tourism in America.
Before the advent of such cross-state avenues as the Dixie Highway, said Groce, tourists usually took trains to Savannah and other popular destinations.
The historical society, in its downtown Savannah location, has a number of Coastal Georgia-centric artifacts from the early-automotive era now on display. They include a 1921 Road Guide of Georgia, six early 1900s postcards illustrating the Dixie Highway route through Midway and Darien, and a 32-page, circa 1900-1912 Savannah Automobile Club Guidebook.
The Dixie Highway was one of the first road systems in Georgia to connect cities with rural areas, said Groce.
The GHS will be the repository for new information and additional artifacts gathered by the Dixie Highway project, a multilaned effort that also includes the Georgia Department of Transportation, the Federal Highway Administration and New South Associates, an Atlanta-based firm that hosted a statewide series of public meetings on the old route and set up a Facebook page to continue and expand the discussion.
The public meetings, which included one in Savannah, brought together the general public, state and local planners and economic development officials, said researchers of New South Associates in an email interview.
"We have learned that the public often has differing recollections of what routes actually constituted the Dixie Highway," said the researchers.
The circa-1915 Dixie Highway was not a single, specific route, but rather an "assemblage of the best roads" then available through each state. The Dixie Highway Association's goal was to put together a connection that would take travelers from the Midwest through the South, and eventually to Miami.
Georgia's "best roads" at that time were paved with bricks within city limits, but were largely otherwise made of gravel, clay and dirt.
A 1916 auto guide described the Ogeechee Road as "11 miles of good shell road," added the researchers. Other familiar routes that were in use back then included the Augusta Road (Ga. 21).
The auto guide also listed the old DeSoto Hotel on Liberty Street as a destination. Most large towns such as Savannah already had established hotels and restaurants, said the researchers. The first gas stations were built in the first decades of the 20th century.
The public outreach portion of the Dixie Highway study is ongoing, said Madeline White of the GDOT. Additional outreach opportunities are expected to evolve as it progresses.