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MacDonald, Thomas Harris

Published onJul 30, 2021
MacDonald, Thomas Harris

(July 23, 1881 – April 7, 1957)

Quick Facts

Alumni, civil engineer, chief engineer for the Iowa State Highway Commission, and director of the U.S. Bureau Public Roads.

Source: Federal Highway Administration

Thomas Harris MacDonald was born in Leadville, Colorado in 1881. His family moved to Poweshiek County, Iowa, in 1884, and he attended elementary and high school in Montezuma. He first attended Iowa State Normal School (now the University of Northern Iowa), but transferred to Iowa State College (now Iowa State University) after one year. A student of Anson Marston, MacDonald received his civil engineering degree in 1904. His senior thesis, written with L. T. Gaylord, was titled Iowa Good Roads Investigations.

Studying roads in Story and Linn counties, MacDonald and Gaylord sought to replicate the conditions encountered by Iowa farmer. Based on the collected data, they asserted, not surprisingly, that hard-surfaced roads required the least draft. The power required to pull a load on dirt roads could be seven times greater than the draft necessary on hard-surfaced roads. After graduation, MacDonald joined the fledgling Iowa State Highway Commission (ISHC) as the Assistant in Charge of Good Roads Investigation.

In 1905 MacDonald became the ISHC's chief engineer, with oversight of the state road program. That same year, he traveled on two "Good Road" trains promoting the ISHC and better roads across the state. That model, used successfully by Iowa State College to promote better farming of corn in 1904,[1] also proved effective for introducing road improvement to Iowans across the state.

As chief engineer, MacDonald disseminated information from commission meetings to the engineering staff and county officials. In addition, MacDonald served on the Engineering Experiment Station (EES) staff while at the ISHC. The commission required a diligent and effective chief to provide focus for the agency and to serve as a credible representative to the public and legislators. MacDonald proved to be such a leader.

By 1909 he realized the necessity to establish the commission as an entity independent from the college. MacDonald objected to the college's practice of referring to the Highway Commission as the "Good Roads Department," as if it were but another academic unit at the college. MacDonald also wanted an environment with less interruption. However, when the time for separating the commission from the college arrived, he expressed concern that "there will be a determined effort to remove the work from the college to Des Moines.” When the separation occurred in 1913, MacDonald's opinion prevailed, and the commission's successor, the Iowa Department of Transportation (IDOT), remained in Ames. MacDonald served the department until 1919, when he was appointed commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads (BPR).

As commissioner of the BPR, MacDonald furthered his reputation as a champion of systematic and scientific analysis of the national road network. He quickly established a precedent for effective management and credibility with state and federal officials. He knew many of the other state engineers, and used his reputation to build trust and establish the federal-state planning system that became the basis for the national program. He backed a federal aid program, and when he first took the position it was unknown if the U.S. Congress would support such a system. He worked with the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO) to standardize signage and design standards. In 1924 he worked with the National Research Council to create a Highway Research Board, an agency that has continued into the 21st century as the Transportation Research Board, serving on its executive committee until his retirement.

During the Great Depression and World War II, MacDonald promoted road building for economic stability and national security. After World War II, he proposed a program of interstate highways that would be the model for the federal interstate highway system. He received the National Medal of Merit from President Truman in 1946, but was forced to retire in 1953 when the Eisenhower administration decided to restructure highway authority, creating a deputy undersecretary for transportation to oversee public road expenditures.

Upon his retirement, the Des Moines Register remarked that MacDonald deserved the title the "father of the nation's highway system." When he became the director of the BPR, the country had about 250,000 miles of public roads, many in poor condition with no prospect of improvement. By the time he retired, American drivers had access to 3.5 million miles of public roads, and most, if not all, were in better condition. He owned a national reputation for his 34 years of federal service.

After his departure from the BPR, Texas A&M University hired him to work at its Texas Transportation Institute. He assisted the Texas Highway Commission in addition to his work with the university.

After his death in 1957, a Washington Post obituary referred to MacDonald as "the father of all good roads in the United States." He deserved the title, as he shaped the American road system more than any single person and established a professional highway commission for the state of Iowa prior to his federal position.

Selections of text republished with permission from the Iowa Biographical Dictionary, edited by David Hudson, Marvin Bergman, and Loren Horton. Published by the University of Iowa Press, Iowa City, IA. Online publication, 2009.

Selected Sources

L. T. Gaylord and T. H. Mac-Donald, "Iowa Good Roads Investigations" (senior thesis, Iowa State College, 1904)

T. H. MacDonald, "Four Years of Road Building under the Federal-Aid Act," Public Roads 3 (June 1920), 3–14

T. H. MacDonald, "Proposed Program of Highway Research," in The Proceedings of the Ninth Annual Meeting of the Highway Research Board, ed. Roy Crum (1930), 24–28

Bruce Seeley, Building the American Highway System (1987)

Tom Lewis, Divided Highways: Building the Interstate Highway, Transforming American Life (1997)

William Thompson, Transportation in Iowa: A Historical Summary (1989).

Landis, Leo. "MacDonald, Thomas Harris" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 9 June 2017

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