NORTHBOROUGH, Mass. — Growing up in Independence, Iowa, in the 1940s and '50s, Michael Till would sit on his front porch and watch the cars drive by along U.S. Route 20.
Several decades later, Till, a retired university professor and dean of the School of Dentistry at the University of Minnesota, has not lost his love for the routes that traversed this country long before the Interstate Highway System. And he carries a particular affinity for Route 20, the country's longest coast-to-coast road, which stretches some 3,365 miles from Kenmore Square in Boston to Newport, Ore.
Speaking on Tuesday at the Northborough Free Library — which is also on Route 20 — Till shared information gleaned from his latest book, "Along Massachusett's Historic Route 20." Along with its sister volume, "Along New York's Route 20," the book contains hundreds of old postcards that chronicle the road's development throughout it's history.
It started in 1923, when Congress passed the Federal Highway Act that funded 7 percent of each state's highway systems. Though the law allowed each state to choose its own road, it required them to connect the roads into an interstate system.
"These were not new roads," Till said. "These were roads that already existed that the states had identified."
Route 20 was built in 1926 over many older roads. In Massachusetts, for example, the state identified the Boston Post Road, a mail route that dated back to colonial times. To this day, many Massachusetts residents still refer to that part of Route 20 by its original name.
"The final result was really a good, solid road across the country," Till said. And, he added, it has stood the test of time well. "You can't really find Route 66 anymore," Till said, yet Route 20 remains vibrant.
Till began collecting antique postcards several years ago, and he now has more than 2,500 of them. "I enjoy being able to find old cars in the pictures," he said, "because they give the best indication of when the pictures were taken."
Through his research, he has uncovered many facts about Route 20. For example:
- From 1912 to 1952, Route 20 was the only major road in the country with two Major League Baseball parks: Fenway Park and Braves Field. The two stood within a mile of each other until the Boston Braves move to Milwaukee in 1952.
- Four presidents were born along the roads that became Route 20. They were: Millard Fillmore, James Garfield, Rutherford Hayes and Ulysses S. Grant.
- The nation's first traffic signal was installed in 1914 on Euclid Avenue in Cleveland, Ohio, which is on Route 20.
Till expects to learn more about Route 20 as he continues his book series. In the coming years, he hopes to complete one for every state that the road crosses, from the East Coast to the West.