Historic Highway Fans Gather in Mobile to Commemorate Old Spanish Trail Highway Centennial

Centennial Celebration for Highway that Created Interstate 10

Highway enthusiasts from across the country will gather at Mobile’s historic Battle House Hotel for a celebration of the Old Spanish Trail highway’s 100th birthday from Dec. 10-12. Events, which have been more than ten years in the planning, will include lectures, a motorcade along the route, tours, and a recreation of an old-time “smoker.”

In 1915, in Mobile, Alabama, a group of city promoters and Rotary Club members hatched an idea to build a highway between New Orleans and Miami that eventually became Interstate 10.

They realized that their city, situated between Florida and "The Big Easy," could catch the new tourist trade — imagined caravans of wealthy Northerners, heading south to escape the cold.

Within weeks, the idea bounded beyond its original ambition to become a 2,792-mile transcontinental highway, linking sunny St. Augustine to balmy San Diego.

Drama followed as routes were fought over, construction blew through budget limits and natural barriers, tempers flared, and dreams were shattered.

Unlike other southern transcontinental highways that stitched together existing roads across the continent’s flat interior, much of the Old Spanish Trail was forged over formerly impassable swamplands in the Southeast. It includes five major outlets into the Gulf of Mexico.

The celebration will run from Dec. 10-12 at the Battle House Renaissance Hotel and Spa, where the first OST convention took place on the same date in 1915. Activities will include lectures on the trail, a motorcade to a tourist camp site, a tour of the I-10 Tunnel underneath Mobile Bay, a motorcade along parts of the route, and a “Cruise-In for Horseless Carriages” at the local KFC.

The event will include a recreation of the 1915 OST “smoker,” an informal gathering, with cigars and libations, where the early promoters hashed out ideas and brokered deals. All activities are free but registration is required.

The OST highway — not to be confused with the 19th century burro route of the same name, played on the image of early Spanish padres and conquistadors.

The highway runs from the Spanish forts and moss-draped avenues of St. Augustine, Florida, through the bottom of Alabama and Mississippi with their classic mansions and white-sand Gulf beaches, through New Orleans and the Cajun Country, all the way across Texas (encountering everything from wide open desert spaces to watery oases). It continued through the pecan orchards and ghost towns of southern New Mexico, across the cactus lands of Arizona, and finally into San Diego, ending at Point Loma at the edge of the Pacific Ocean. It was a true ocean-to-ocean highway, connecting the beaches and old Spanish towns of the Atlantic to those of the Pacific. 

Progress on the highway stalled in the late teens due to the war and the mounting expenses caused by the need for bridges across the route’s many waterways. But after several years the project shifted west to Texas and took on new vigor.

It was completed in 1929 under the direction of Harral Ayres, a highway booster based in San Antonio, Texas. The romantically named highway eventually set the course for Interstate 10, from Jacksonville, Florida to Tucson, Arizona.

The lure of the Old Spanish Trail continued to captivate motorists until the early 1960s, when new interstates it fostered directed traffic away from the old road. Through the years it has attracted the attention of those seeking a slower pace, and food and lodging with regional flavors.

Remnants of the old highway include so-called “milestones” — large boulders and stones marking the trail — in St. Augustine, San Antonio and San Diego, and dozens of scenic two-lane roads still bearing the name.

Sections of the old highway have been selected as “best roads” by travel organizations and forms parts of several officially designated Scenic Highways.

Charlotte Kahl, chair of the OST 100 organization, who has put in 100,000 miles promoting the Old Spanish Trail, sees the event as a way to re-launch the highway in the 21st century.

Her goal is to bring attention to the road and its attractions and make it “tourist ready.”

If enough interest is generated from the first centennial celebration, the organizers will do it all over again next year in Pensacola, the site of the 1916 Old Spanish Trail conference. They will then follow the sequence of conferences at different cities along the route through 2029.

Kahl, 73, is thinking about the historic route and planning for the future. “I recruited a new board this summer, saying none of the members could be born before 1960. Someone will have to help me on and off the bus at the 2029 motorcade in San Antonio.”