The Lee Highway was a national auto trail in the United States, connecting New York City and San Francisco, California via the South and Southwest. After receiving a letter on January 15, 1919 from Dr. Samuel Myrtle Johnson of Roswell, New Mexico, David Carlisle Humphreys of Lexington, Virginia put out a call for a meeting in Roanoke, Virginia to form a new national highway association. On December 3, 1919 five hundred men from five states met in Roanoke to officially form the Lee Highway Association. The auto trail was named after Robert E. Lee.
From the memoirs of Katherine Johnson Balcomb (April 3, 1894—Feb. 2, 1980), published in The Balcomb Family Tree Book: "Promoting a coast-to-coast highway across the southern tier of states as a memorial to General Robert E. Lee was considered by my father [Samuel Myrtle Johnson] as his crowning achievement. As the number and speed of automobiles increased, there arose a demand for good roads to run them on. Cities along logical routes for highways banded together to promote construction of roads to come through their towns. The first transcontinental highway that was thus promoted was conceived as a memorial to Abraham Lincoln and ran through the northern states. Father's concept was a companion highway that would start at Washington, run south and then west to the Pacific coast. He organized The Lee Highway Association and set about selling the idea to the cities along its logical routing. The idea, of course, had a great appeal in the South and he was able to induce prominent men to serve in the Association. The first president was Claudius Houston, Tennessee, undersecretary to Herbert Hoover. Cordell Hull, later to become Secretary of State, served on the board and later as president of the Association. Father had the title of Director General and received a good salary and liberal expense money."
The route of the Lee Highway is now roughly designated by the following routes:
- US 1: New York to Washington, D.C.
- US 29: Washington to Warrenton, Virginia
- US 211: Warrenton to New Market, Virginia
- US 11: New Market to Bristol, Virginia
- US 11W: Bristol to Knoxville, Tennessee
- US 11: Knoxville to Chattanooga, Tennessee
- US 72: Chattanooga to Corinth, Mississippi
- US 45, Corinth to Selmer, Tennessee
- US 64, Selmer to Memphis, Tennessee
- US 70, Memphis to Alamogordo, New Mexico
- US 54, Alamogordo to El Paso, Texas
- US 180, El Paso to Las Cruces, New Mexico
- US 70, Las Cruces to Globe, Arizona
- US 60, Globe to Phoenix, Arizona
- Arizona SR 85 (former US 80) and Old US 80, Phoenix to Gila Bend, Arizona
- I-8 (former US 80), Gila Bend to San Diego, California
- I-5 (former US 101), San Diego to Los Angeles, California
- US 101, Los Angeles to San Francisco, California
Present day name usage
Much of the original route is still known by the name "Lee Highway". The following cities and areas of the U.S. (listed from East to West) still have roads that use the name:
- The Lee Highway was defined by the General Assembly on March 20, 1922 to run from the District of Columbia at the Francis Scott Key Bridge to Bristol at the border with Tennessee. This was defined as U.S. Route 211 and U.S. Route 11 in 1926; US 211 northeast of Warrenton is now U.S. Route 29. It now uses the following business routes:
- The portion of US 11 known as Apperson Drive in Salem, Virginia and Brandon Avenue SW in Roanoke, Virginia is also commonly called Lee Highway. Other sections of US 11 in the Roanoke Valley are not typically referred to as Lee Highway. In the county of Botetourt, US 11 transitions from Williamson Road to Lee Highway and is thus named at least until Buchanan, Virginia
- Huntsville, Alabama
- Florence, Alabama
- Corinth, Mississippi
The "Lee Highway Blues" is a standard of southern string band music, widely attributed to G. B. Grayson of the popular Grayson and Whitter string band of the late 1920s, who recorded it under the title "Going Down The Lee Highway" but almost certainly composed by fiddler James ("Uncle Jimmy" or "Fiddlin' Jim") McCarroll of the Roane County Ramblers. The tune has been used as a fiddler's showpiece especially in the Virginia area by well-known fiddlers, notably Scotty Stoneman (who referred to it as Talkin' Fiddle Blues), and by string band revivalists such as the Highwoods String Band.
For an outstanding rendition of Lee Highway Blues see CMH Records, Inc., CD9037, artist: Chubby Wise. This cut was also recorded on Pioneering Women of Bluegrass, Alice Gerrard & Hazel Dickens; this album is in the Smithsonian collection.
David Bromberg wrote and performs a whimsical bluegrass tune, "The New Lee Highway Blues", describing the tribulations of traveling on an endless highway of one horse towns.
Also, fiddler Ken Clark performed a tune called Lee Highway Ramble.
- Rand McNally Auto Road Atlas, 1926, accessed via the Broer Map Library: shows the route between Washington, D.C. and New Mexico, except in western Tennessee
- Virginia Hart, The Story of American Roads, 1950, p. 240: lists the cities on the route
- The Lee Highway - AmericanRoads.us
- United States Route 80 The Dixie Overland Highway - FHWA
- Dr. S. M. Johnson - A Dreamer of Dreams - FHWA
- Dr. S. M. Johnson Photo Gallery Along Lee Highway (Mid-1920s) - FHWA
- My Grandfather's Lee Highway - HFCI