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The Invisible Track Highway

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Texas only had 100 miles of paved road in 1923, the same year that the Texas Highway Department (now the Texas Department of Transportation) assumed responsibility for the maintenance of the state’s roads through an act of the 35th legislature. Gov. Jim “Pa” Ferguson signed the legislation creating the highway department in 1917, and for the rest of his public life he milked the department like it was his own cash cow — which it actually was.

That tendency toward graft and corruption led to Ferguson’s impeachment early in his second term. The impeachment, which included seven charges of misapplication of public funds, prohibited him from holding public office, but Pa steered his wife, Miriam “Ma” Ferguson, into the governor’s mansion seven years after he was removed from office.

Pa Ferguson was a poor boy who grew up to be a lawyer who didn’t have to take a bar exam because his father knew somebody who knew somebody. Consequently, he might have interpreted the bill that created the highway agency as allowing him to do with the department pretty much what he pleased. Since he was pleased to make sure that he and his friends and family made a lot of money, that’s what he did with it.

In 1924, Ma picked up where Pa left off by awarding highway contracts based on who spent the most money on advertisements in a scream sheet called the “The Ferguson Forum” that Pa — not coincidentally, because there are few coincidences in the Fergusons’ story — published from his home in Temple.

Maybe the Fergusons considered an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work old fashioned and hokey, or maybe they were as delusional as they were dishonest, but they followed dreams that honest people just can’t conjure.

One of those dreams was a short-lived stretch of road between Belton and Temple known as the “invisible track” highway. Ferguson, by no coincidence, lived in Temple.

The project languished in limbo while the Fergusons were out of office, but no one ever officially killed it either, so the Fergusons revived it soon after Ma’s inauguration. They might have actually thought the road was special, that the concave rollers used to create “tracks” in the highway would revolutionize highway building, just like Frank Denison, the contractor, said it would.

But it wasn’t like Denison knew anything about building highways — he had never built so much as a mile of road. He subcontracted the work to a Fort Worth contractor, who agreed to buy all of the equipment needed to build the highway from Denison’s hardware store.

Denison brought in S.B. Moore, the man who created the process of building an invisible track highway, as a consulting engineer. Denison might or might not have known that Moore’s idea had been used once, in Louisiana, and declared a failure. It probably didn’t matter one way or the other.

Pa’s cousin, Fred Ferguson, sold most of the gravel used in the project — and it must have been some mighty fine gravel, because it was by far the most expensive available anywhere. The nine-mile road and its invisible tracks ended up costing somewhere around $250,000, or more than $3 million in today’s dollars.

Attorney General Dan Moody opened an investigation to find out what Ma Ferguson was doing, how she was doing it, and who was benefitting from what she — and Pa — did. According to the Texas Highway Department publication “From Pioneer Paths to Superhighways,” Moody’s investigation revealed that contractors were being paid taxpayer dollars for work that was never performed, and contracts were awarded with neither competitive bids nor any incentive to hold down costs.

“He soon challenged Ma Ferguson in the 1926 governor’s race. Jim Ferguson attempted to ridicule Moody as a do-gooder, calling him a ‘young Moses [who] has outgrown his britches and is now jumping on Jesus.’ But public outrage was too great, and Moody swept to victory on a program of progressive reform,” according to the publication.

The old invisible track highway wasn’t good for the long haul. The asphalt part of a mixture that also included bricks, concrete and gravel didn’t hold up well and made rough riders out of everyday motorists. Local leaders, as local leaders will do when talking about local projects, declared it the safest road in the world — the world! The state left the highway as it was for six years as a testament to the Fergusons’ foolishness but eventually paved it over and built a new bridge over the Leon River.

The Fergusons’ shenanigans so offended the people of Texas that it took them seven years to elect Ma to another term. Though she’d lost the 1926 primary to Moody and the 1930 primary to Ross Sterling, she beat Sterling in the 1932 primaries and Republican Orville Bullington in the general election.

Ma ran for governor again in 1940, but voters removed the Fergusons’ collective hands from the state’s cookie jar by electing W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel. Even so, she garnered 100,000 votes in her final run for office.

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