By Mike Aday
What do Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Ethiopia, Panama and Alaska have in common? They can all boast major roads built by one man, Knoxville native John L. Humbard. Well, technically, a lot of men were involved, but Humbard supervised them all.
Born in Knoxville, Tenn., in 1892, Humbard studied engineering at St. Joseph College in Maryland, after which he operated a successful construction company until the financial crash of the Great Depression forced his business to close in 1932. Soon after Humbard began work as an engineer for the Bureau of Public Roads.
Humbard was tasked with constructing Newfound Gap Road/U.S. Highway 441 from Gatlinburg, Tenn., to Cherokee, N.C. in 1934. He and his crew, CCC enrollees and unemployed local men hired under a government day labor program, began by reconstructing the road previously built by the State of Tennessee to meet federal highway construction standards and to improve the scenic qualities of the road. Roadside landscaping, stone-faced bridges and an attempt to minimize views of the road were all employed as a means of softening the more practical aspects of the state highway construction methods.
In addition to improving the aesthetic qualities of the road, safety improvements were made. The overall grade was increased, which shortened the road by almost a mile and half, and several dangerous hairpin curves were replaced with the famous loop over the road, modelled after Yellowstone’s Corkscrew Bridge. Curving over and under its self, the corkscrew shape provided a safe and gentle grade.
Another feature of the park landscape Humbard helped create is the scenic overlook and memorial plaza at Newfound Gap parking lot. Originally the site of a stone quarry established by the N.C. Highway Department, the landscape was already damaged and so had to be adapted for a new use. The quarry site was cleaned up, a raised stone terrace was constructed to maximize the view, and the setting was soon transformed into the site of the Laura Spellman Rockefeller Memorial, thus making Humbard directly responsible for two of the most recognized features in the park.
At the time of its completion in 1939, Newfound Gap Road was the most technically difficult highway construction project anywhere in the United States. At a cost of $2 million ($37 million in today’s economy), the construction project employed hundreds of men took the lives of several and required innovation and determination.
Humbard would soon take the experiences gained working in the Smokies and apply them to projects in other amazing places. In 1942 he supervised the construction of two highways across the Isthmus of Panama. These roads were designed as part of the defensive installations for protecting the Panama Canal in the early months of WWII. Humbard also helped supervise the construction of the Alaska Highway, another war-era defense project.
His last major work came in 1952 when Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie named him director of the Imperial Ethiopian Highway Authority. A Cold War-era project, the program was a collaborative undertaking between the U.S. State Department, the Bureau of Public Roads, the International World Bank and the Imperial Ethiopian Government. At the project’s completion, more than 5,000 miles of the main highway and 2,500 miles of secondary roads were built. Years of living and working in rough and demanding environments took its toll on the 62-year-old Humbard, who passed away in Knoxville in 1955 after a brief illness.
American religious leader Harry Emerson Fosdick once said, “he who chooses the beginning of the road chooses the place it leads to.” Who knew that John Humbard’s road in the Smokies would take him around the world and back? I’m sure he had no idea!
Mike Aday is the librarian-archivist at the Collections Preservation Center, where artefacts from Great Smoky Mountains National Park are housed. The Collections Preservation Center existence was partly made possible through funding from Great Smoky Mountains Association. Email Mike HERE or call M-F, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at 865-448-2247.