The Dixie Highway – America’s love affair with cars

As snowbirds speed down modern Interstates to Florida, remember that in 1923 the Dixie Highway had just reached Tampa. In three more backbreaking years the Tamiami Trail would cross the Everglades to Miami. Speed on the Dixie Highway averaged 12.9 mph in 1923, so a trip from Chicago to Miami took two weeks!


As the Dixie Highway pushed south, signage had local variations.

Roads versus trains in 1900s Florida

As late as 1910, good highways eluded most Americans, so people rode trains. Locally, they traveled by wagon, buggy or city streetcar. Local roads were all dirt. “Improved roads” were graded dirt, clay or gravel. And when it rained … mayhem ensued.

Counties paid farmers to grade the roads and pull the joy riders out. At Erehwon Retreat we’re glad not to be hosting guests in the 1920s!


The Dixie Highway was surfaced in stages.

In 1880 railroad mileage (250,000 miles) vastly exceeded navigable roads. Railroads had a monopoly! Express trains averaged 58 mph compared to the 13mph by road. 

In 1914, Carl G Fisher dreamed of connecting hundreds of short roads into interstates looping from the Mackinac MI ferry to Miami. Creating the Highway, and later a Federal highway system, created arguments about federal power and local control between many stakeholders: automobile brands, farmers, and the Good Roads movement.  In the South, prison commissions (chain gang labor) and racial control were hot topics.

At the same time, auto manufacture soared. Between 1900 and 1908, 485 automobile companies emerged, although barely half survived to 1909. Henry Ford’s Model N cost $600 in 1906 but his Model T was selling for $345 in 1916. By 1918 half the cars on the road were Model Ts. Only one thing was missing – roads that could withstand heavy rain.

The Florida map of the Dixie Highway in 1926

Fisher wanted easy travel to his Miami Beach developments. Initially his road was called the Cotton Belt route, but by 1915, when construction began, it became the Old Dixie Highway, promoting a romantic image of the Old South.

By the 1920s vacationing in Florida was growing exponentially

If you are driving on I-75 and want to track the Old Dixie Highway …