Route 211: One of America’s oldest, shortest highways runs through Rappahannock

Route 211 is the main highway through Rappahannock County. Its formal name is US 211, that is, United States Highway 211. It deserves some recognition.

First, it is one of the shortest US highways, being only 59.09 miles long. Second, it is among the oldest, having been designated US 211 in 1927 after the federal highway system was set up in 1926.

In addition, Route 211 is unique in that most odd-numbered highways run north-south and have low numbers, the prime example being US 1 running from Maine to Florida.

But Route 211 runs west to east and has a high number. It also is wholly contained in Virginia and has always started at New Market. But at one time it ran all the way to Washington, D.C. — to the Zero Milestone, south of the White House. Now Route 211 ends in Warrenton.

Source: Federal Highway Administration.
US 211 that runs through Rappahannock County is just a tiny section of Lee Highway.

Route 211 also has a remarkable legacy. It is part of Lee Highway and at one time it was a notable tourist attraction for Rappahannock County. This was back in the 1920s when many highways had famous names attached to them. Lee Highway was the counterpart of the Lincoln Highway.

The Lincoln Highway was the first transcontinental highway and was named in honor of Abraham Lincoln, the president during the Civil War. Lee Highway was named after Robert E. Lee, famous in the South during the Civil War and forever afterwards. Lee Highway was promoted as the only all-weather transcontinental highway in the United States.

Both highways started in New York City and ended in San Francisco, the Lincoln Highway running mostly straight across the United States, while Lee Highway swept down from New York City to Washington, D.C., and thence south and west across the southern United States to San Diego before swinging northward to San Francisco.

The Lincoln Highway has always had a very strong supporting organization, with annual meetings and much publicity. Lee Highway is now hardly remembered.

But in Virginia at least, Lee Highway is still heavily referenced by highway signs, even if its route number changes along its way, becoming Route 29, 211, and 11 on its way to the Tennessee border from Arlington.

All along these routes there are signs for “Lee Highway” or “Lee hwy” at every numbered crossroads, or on overhead traffic signals, or along the edges of the roadway.

In Rappahannock County Lee Highway is still the postal address for many establishments along Route 211. And one must not forget that in the old days there was a Lee Highway Hotel in Sperryville, now called the Hopkins Ordinary.

Lee Boulevard

One of the dreams of the prime mover of the Lee Highway Association, Dr. Samuel Myrtle Johnson, was to have Lee Highway approach Washington, D.C. from the Shenandoah Valley by a 200-foot wide boulevard lined with beautiful trees, flowers, and other greenery.

One suggestion was that beautiful mansions with wide lawns in front of them should line either side. This “Lee Boulevard” would end by sweeping up over Arlington Heights at the Potomac River so travelers would see a resplendent Washington, D.C. suddenly laid out before them, with the Washington monument and the capital shining in the distance.

This was not to be, but the present Lee Highway in Rappahannock County, Route 211, still retains some of the elements of Dr. Johnson’s dream. It is wide, has dual lanes with a wide median strip, and some beautiful farmland lines its edges.

New York connection

Source: New York Tribune, August 14, 1921, Graphic Section
You might say that the proposed Hudson River Bridge would have linked New York City with Rappahannock County.

Of all the elements of Lee Highway that would have really have impressed people in Rappahannock County was its beginning in New York City.

Back in the 1920s there was neither a bridge across the Hudson River, nor a tunnel under it for cars and trucks. All vehicles used heavy-duty ferryboats between New Jersey and Manhattan.

In the 1920s, it was proposed that a massive bridge, the Hudson River Bridge, be built to link New Jersey to Manhattan at West 57th Street.

This bridge, designed by a famed bridge builder, Dr. Gustav Lindenthal, was to be 235 feet wide, 7,460 feet long from West 57th Street to Weehawken, N.J, and would rise 200 feet above the Hudson River. It would have 24 traffic lanes and two pedestrian walkways on its upper deck, and space for 12 railroads on its lower deck. There would be a 16-floor office building at one end.

To grasp the size of this bridge imagine that you are on Route 211 at the eastern border of Rappahannock County. Next, imagine driving onto the bridge at that point. There would be 12 westbound lanes and 12 eastbound lanes.

You would then drive on the bridge until you were 200 feet over the landscape and then come down after 1.4 miles near Hackley’s store in Amissville. That is how wide, high, and long the Hudson River Bridge was to be at the start of Lee Highway in New York City.

The bridge was never built as the George Washington Bridge turned out to be more practical.

People thought big in the old days, what with tunnels under the Hudson River, the building of Pennsylvania Station, the Empire State Building, the Lincoln Highway and Lee Highway, Yankee Stadium, etc.

So now when you drive Route 211 remember its history. Show a little appreciation. At least keep it clean and uncluttered.

Don Audette
About Don Audette 23 Articles

Don Audette has a place in Sperryville, is a longtime member of the Rappahannock Lions and writes about local history in his “Yesterdays” column for the Rappahannock News.