Lee Highway was dreamed up by Presbyterian minister, Dr. S.M. Johnson in the early 1900s.

Dr. Johnson was convinced that the automobile would change America in the 20th century. By the end of 1918, he had conceived an idea to build a direct highway, named in honor of General Lee, from Washington to Memphis where it would meet the original line of the Southern National Highway that would take the route through Roswell, New Mexico to San Diego.

When he mentioned the idea to AAA officials, they informed him that a movement was underway in Virginia to establish a Lee Memorial Highway. Professor D. W. Humphreys, a professor of engineering at Washington and Lee University at Lexington, Virginia, had proposed extending the Valley Turnpike, the Shenandoah Valley's main highway, to link Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and Chattanooga, Tennessee.

The highway, to honor General Robert E Lee,  was originally designed to travel from his burial site in Washington to the gulf in New Orleans.

Late in 1920, the route was set between Bristol, Virginia/Tennessee, and Knoxville via Kingsport, Rogersville, Tate Springs, and Rutledge. On January 20, 1921, the route to Chattanooga was finalized via Lenoir City, Loudon, Sweetwater, Athens, and Cleveland.

The Board of Directors, meeting in Chattanooga on February 28, 1921, decided to abandon New Orleans as a stop on the Lee Highway.

The adopted resolution observed that serious difficulties have been encountered in the effort to locate the cross-continent route from New Orleans, including the fact that feasible routes have already been preempted by other highways. 

Therefore be it resolved: the Executive Committee is requested to investigate the cross-continent routing with a view to a decision before organizing the line from Chattanooga south.

In July, the association met in Houston with officers of the Old Spanish Trail Association to consider linking the Lee Highway to the Old Spanish Trail (St. Augustine, Florida, to San Diego). The Old Spanish Trail Association, which had been formed in December 1915, was one of the stronger named trail associations.

Designation of the western segment would be in flux for several years. In some cases, the preferred route was not included when that State's 7-percent Federal-aid system was approved under the Federal Highway Act of 1921. With no Federal-aid funds available to improve the segment, an eligible alternative had to be found that would be eligible. The western routing would eventually traverse:

Arkansas-Forrest City, Brinkley, Little Rock, Hot Springs, and DeQueen;

Texas-Idabel, Hugo, Durant, Ardmore, Healdton, Loco, Walters, Frederick, Vernon, Paducah, Plainview, Muleshoe, Farwell;

New Mexico-Elida, Roswell, Glencoe, Tularosa, Alamogordo, Newman, El Paso (Texas), Las Cruces, Deming, Lordsburg;

Arizona-Duncan, Safford, Globe, Phoenix, Buckeye, Gila Bend, Aztec, Wellton, Yuma;

California-El Centro, Jacumba, San Diego.

The Southwest had few routing options, so the Lee Highway Association was unable to find a separate route for its highway. In the three Southwestern States, segments of the Lee Highway followed segments of Apache Trail, Atlantic-Pacific Highway, Bankhead Highway, Broadway of America, Old Spanish Trail, and others. The association approved extensions to New York City and San Francisco, but these were over existing highways; the primary concern of the association was improving the main roadway from Washington to San Diego.

In November 1926, when AASHO adopted the U.S. numbered highway system to replace the named trails, the Lee Highway was split, east to west, among U.S. 211, U.S. 11, U.S. 72, U.S. 70, U.S. 366, and U.S. 80.

To read more about Lee Highway, click here to visit the Federal Highway Administrations website.