Summers: History of Cummings Highway

This is the cover of a Dixie Highway Association magazine from 1919. (Photo Courtesy the Chattanooga History Center)

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Cummings Highway at the base of Lookout Mountain now functions primarily as an escape route from the congestion on I-24. But once it was part of the national highway system started in 1915 known as the "Dixie Highway."

Circuit Judge Michael Allison and Hamilton County Judge Will Cummings played important roles in establishing the more than 5,000-mile route from northern Michigan to Miami. The rapid development of the automobile in the early 1900s demonstrated a need for paved roads to traverse the country.

The original idea for the Dixie Highway came from Carl Graham Fisher, a native of Indiana and a land speculator who acquired large tracts of land near Miami heavily damaged by a hurricane. Fisher was experienced in promoting road building through his work with the Lincoln Highway connecting San Francisco to New York City.

By 1914, Fisher and his colleague from Michigan, W.S. Gilbreath, had created enough support for the north to south highway to present their plans to a meeting of the American Road Congress in Atlanta.

After receiving support for a national road system, the two speculators convinced Tennessee Gov. Tom C. Rye and Indiana Gov. Samuel M. Ralston to schedule an organizational meeting in Chattanooga on April 3, 1915.

Drivers in the Chattanooga Automobile Club strongly supported the idea of improved roads. More than 5,000 people attended the meeting, along with governors from seven states.

In reality, there were two routes of travel designated as Eastern and Western. Both went through Tennessee and Chattanooga.

On Oct. 9, 1915, the Dixie Highway Tour left Chicago in a caravan of 500 automobiles. About 50 cars were able to complete the trip to Miami. A headquarters was set up in the newly constructed Patten Hotel in Chattanooga, which was near the halfway point of the Chicago-Miami route. Five members of the Chattanooga Automobile Club, along with eight other mid-Westerners, pledged $1,000 each to form the Dixie Highway Association.

The original incorporators of the charter for the association included Chattanoogans T.R. Preston, founding president of Hamilton National Bank (now First Tennessee); C.E. James, president of Signal Mountain Land Co.; M.E. Temple, secretary of Chattanooga Furniture Co; John A. Patten, president of Chattanooga Medicine Co; C.H. Huston, vice president of Chattanooga Trust Co; and W.R. Long, president of Model Laundry Co.

Newspaper accounts described the heated discussions over proposed routes of travel as the "Second Battle of Chattanooga." Financing the route depended on local funds, and some counties and communities refused to participate.

Each of the seven states involved in the Dixie Highway had two directors. Circuit Judge M.M. Allison was elected president of the association and became instrumental in the successful completion of the highway after C.E. James refused to serve because of the route dispute.

A stone monument at the high point of the Dixie Highway on Suck Creek Mountain memorializes Judge Allison for his extraordinary leadership and support. Part of the inscription read that the highway "was founded upon his faith, his hope and his far vision; his indefatigable labor throughout the states wherein it winds its useful way made possible its realization."

Hamilton County Judge Will Cummings was also an important leader in the construction of the Dixie Highway. In 1906, he purchased a Dorris sedan in St. Louis and became the first Chattanoogan to own an automobile. Cummings recognized the need for a good highway system. Through his friendship with the Tennessee governor and other public officials, he obtained the first two federal aid grants for highway projects in the South - in the Wauhatchie Pike and Suck Creek areas.

The judge had extensive real estate holdings at Wauhatchie and was subsequently attacked by his political enemies of improving his own property with grant funds. Other businesses that later benefited from the creation of the Dixie Highway were Rock City and Ruby Falls, whose nationally known attractions continue to serve tourists today.

Much of the Dixie Highway was graded and paved by 1927 with the passage over Monteagle Mountain the last to be completed. The project demonstrated that road building during the early 20th century involved boosterism, business and political will. These efforts laid the foundation for economic development, the federal highway program and a changed landscape of the region.

Jerry Summers is an attorney at Summers, Rufolo, and Rodgers. Mickey Robbins, an investment adviser at Patten and Patten, contributed to this article. For more visit