Not many have heard of Philip Bracken Fleming — but he helped change America's roadways

Maj. Gen. Philip Bracken Fleming

By WILL SMITH | The Hawk Eye, Burlington, Iowa | Published: October 15, 2017

BURLINGTON, Iowa (Tribune News Service) — Burlington has been home to a lot of historical figures, and their stories have been recounted through historical society exhibits, presentations and even the "The Hawk Eye" itself.

But not many are familiar with U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Philip Bracken Fleming, who was born in Burlington Oct. 15, 1887. That's the same year well known conservationist Aldo Leopold was born, and Fleming proved to be just as important for his contributions to the modern freeway system.

"I had never heard of him," said Burlington resident Jarred Lassiter, who took it upon himself to do some digging into Fleming's life.

Lassiter is an urban planner for the Southeast Iowa Regional Planning Commission, and stumbled upon Fleming's story quite by accident. He's a bit of a history buff, making his home in an apartment within a historic house in the Heritage Hill district.

Known as the Carson-Tracy House, the structure was built in 1888, and is featured as a point of interest on the Heritage Hill district walking tour.

"There were a lot of movers and shakers that lived in that part of town," Lassiter said.

William Carson, who lived at the house, became a lumber tycoon in the area, and his daughter married Philip Bracken Fleming — a name Lassiter had never encountered before. An obituary of Fleming is available at the Heritage Center Museum of Iowa (located in the former Burlington Public Library), but there isn't much more to remember him by.

"I've been collecting stuff I've happened to find about this guy," Lassiter said. "I wanted to find a platform to draw attention to his achievements."

So Lassiter emailed "The Hawk Eye," and the rest, quite literally, is history.

Life of a general

Like many soldiers, Fleming counted Burlington as his home, but his residence was all around the world. A World War I veteran who served under two presidents, Fleming graduated from the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York. He was convinced his class was the best since the academy was founded, though many graduates felt the same way about their own classmates.

Fleming was a junior officer during the first World War, and served seven years at West Point as an instructor of engineering, post engineer officer, commander of engineer troops and graduate manager of athletics.

He really started making a name for himself serving as deputy administrator of President Franklin Roosevelt's Wage and Hour Division, and was also administrator of the Department of Labor and Federal Works.

Fleming continued to serve on multiple agencies, and become chairman of the National Highway Safety Conference under President Harry Truman, as well as head of the Federal Military Works Agency. The highway system was in poor shape at the time, and Fleming visited with the viceroy of India for consultation on that country's road system.

Life of an urban planner

Fleming contributed to a 1943 report that included plans for larger highways passing through urban areas — a model that eventually became the modern freeway system. Fleming said that previous highways had "built cross-roads communities into thriving cities" but had "just about wiped out other towns."

He knew what an important role the freeway system would play in American society, and advised caution.

"So it seems to me that the highway planner needs to approach his task in a prayerful attitude," Fleming said. "He is building not only for the present, but for the long future, and thereby helping to shape the coming pattern of civilization."

Fleming was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for his civil service, and retired as Major General in 1947.

His service to his country was far from over, though. Fleming served on the U.S. Federal Maritime Commission from 1949 to 1951, was under-secretary of commerce, and served as U.S. Ambassador to Costa Rica from 1951 to 1953.

Fleming was known for his friendliness and wit, and attended weekly White House cabinet meetings from the time of the Pearl Harbor attack to 1949.

Fleming died at the age of 67 in Washington D.C., leaving behind a son and daughter.

©2017 The Hawk Eye (Burlington, Iowa)
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