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Known as "Chief" during his career. Thomas was seen as an American civil engineer and a politician with tremendous influence in building the interstate highway system.: Thomas H. MacDonald

Thomas H. MacDonald
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Thomas H. MacDonald

Thomas Harris “Chief” MacDonald was seen as an American civil engineer and politician who put forth tremendous influence in building the interstate highway system. He was born in 1881 in a Colorado log-cabin, followed by his families return to Poweshiek County when he was young. Growing up in Montezuma he attended public school and graduated high school at the beginning of the twentieth century. 

His father John MacDonald was a partner in T. Harris & Company, a grain and lumber dealer founded by his maternal grandfather, Thomas grew up dealing with the poor condition of local roads. Roads which were unusable in the spring and fall of each year. He went to Iowa State College to learn road building as a student of Anson Marston; he received his BS in civil engineering in 1904 and went to work for the college.

In 1913, the State of Iowa created a three-man highway commission, MacDonald was appointed chief engineer. In this position he worked with the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO) which resulted in the Federal Road Act of 1916. In 1919 he was named chief of the Bureau of Public Roads and held that position for 34 years until his retirement in 1953. Johnson was known as The Chief or Mr. MacDonald, never “Tom.”

Over the next few years MacDonald reshaped the federal-aid highway program building a partnership with the states. The U.S. Congress adopted his concept of limiting funds to a federal-aid system by passing the Federal Highway Act of 1921, which proved to be a success. It was MacDonald who in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s helped develop the foundation of the interstate highway system. He continued working on the interstate highway concept, nurturing the project until his retirement in 1953. 

In 1919 a young Army captain named Dwight D. Eisenhower departed with 294 other Army troops for the military’s first mobile caravan across the United States. Traveling poor road conditions caused the caravan to average just five miles per hour for the 63-day trek from Washington, D. C. to San Francisco. It was this trip and future ones in Germany that would influence the young soldier to shape public policy related to roads in the decades to come.

MacDonald and his top assistant, Herbert Fairbank were internationally recognized as highway authorities. They helped the State highway agencies create the Nation’s first “interstate system” in the form of paved two-lane U.S. numbered highways. They wrote the 1939 report to Congress, Toll Roads and Free Roads, which conceived what is now called the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.

At the time of his retirement in 1953, American Association of State Highway Officials magazine, American Highways, summed up the highway community’s view of The Chief and I quote, “In his retirement from public service, it can properly be said that it marks the end of an era of highway progress of proportions undreamed of at the time he assumed office. Unquestionably, America’s leadership in the highway field, and highway progress in the years to come to a considerable degree, will be a reflection of the vision and the integrity of Thomas Harris MacDonald.”  

With great honor we recognize Thomas H. MacDonald as a Hero of Industry and Technology for his contribution to transportation for his forward thinking and role in being among the first to conceive the concept for the interstate highway system. Accepting in honor of MacDonald and on behalf of the Iowa Department of Transportation is John Adam, Highway Division Director. 

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