A common question raised over the past 20 years about the I-69/NAFTA Highway has been, "Who's behind this multi-billion transfer of wealth to the politically connected elite?" Until just a few days ago, the answer among knowledgeable commoners had always been to state the obvious, "The Evansville power structure," which has lobbied for a straight-line route to Indianapolis since the 1960s.

A just-released book on the subject, however, drills the answer down to a specific name and face. And it will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Indiana politics that he was an aristocratic land baron with a 1920s view of the planet, whose personal family fortunes will swell to even greater enormity if and when the highway reaches his town.
"In the first chapter of this eloquently written narrative, Dellinger makes it clear that David Graham isn't a prototypical, Southern Indiana good-old-boy."
Early in Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of America's Last Great Highway, released by Scribner on Aug. 24, author Matt Dellinger introduces Washington Ind.'s David Graham with a quick overview of his ancestry: "His family has been pre-eminent in this rural pocket of southwestern Indiana for more than a century. Through farming, banking, industry and real estate, generation after generation left its mark."

While Dellinger probably wouldn't put it these terms, David's mark will be a scar, as his new-terrain I-69 extension destroys hundreds of homes and businesses; obliterates thousands of acres of farms, forests, wetlands and ecologically unique life- and landforms; stains the cultural legacies of rural communities from Evansville to Indianapolis; and wreaks economic havoc on communities between Evansville and Terre Haute.

Also not surprisingly, Graham's descendants, by contrast, will profit tremendously from the boondoggle. When Dellinger started his book in 2002, they owned roughly 1,000 acres of farmland just outside of Washington along U.S. 50, on which three of the four loops of an I-69 exit ramp were planned. "If Interstate 69 were to be built, this would become a very valuable piece of property," Dellinger writes.


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By 2009, Graham's nephew Tom told Dellinger that the Evansville consulting firm Bernardin, Lochmueller & Associates, which is also engineering I-69 for the state, had completed a master plan for Washington that anticipated industrial and residential developments on the Graham family's land along U.S. 50.

"Even luckier for the Grahams," Dellinger writes, seemingly without irony, "the state has decided to alter the alignment of U.S. 50 in a way that will give the Grahams land on all four corners, not just three."

***

In the first chapter of this eloquently written narrative, Dellinger makes it clear that David Graham isn't a prototypical, Southern Indiana good-old-boy. His great grandfather James was among the earliest settlers to migrate from Kentucky to Indiana in the 1820s. His grandfather Ziba was a pioneering industrialist, whose vision was driven by discovery of "a rich vein of bituminous coal" and the transportation industry, specifically the railroad that ran through Washington and Daviess County.

David's father Robert and uncles Joseph and Ray, using the family fortune, developed businesses of their own, which included a factory in Evansville that produced some of the first trucks made in America and a line of its best cars. They also continued the family farm, which had grown from James' 121 acres to 5,000 when David was born in 1927.
"While the Graham family's roots were in Indiana, Dellinger says David spent his youth 'shuttling -- by car' between 'compounds' and homes in Washington, Florida and Michigan."
While the Graham family's roots were in Indiana, Dellinger says David spent his youth "shuttling -- by car" between "compounds" and homes in Washington, Florida and Michigan, where they had one in Detroit and another on the northern tip of the Lower Peninsula.

David was born in Florida. And he was the first in his family to be educated outside Indiana, attending Georgetown Preparatory School and Georgetown University in Washington D.C. There he met his future wife Stuart, whom Dellinger says "was a descendant of one of the founding families of Maryland."

After selling real estate with his father in Florida, David and Stuart returned to Indiana in their 20s so David could run the family's turkey operation and involve himself in local business and politics. "He became chairman of a local bank, and for a time he led the city planning commission," Dellinger writes. "Graham never ran for office, but he became involved in local Republican Party politics as a fund-raiser and organizer."

David Graham met Mitch Daniels when the future Indiana governor ran Senator Richard Lugar's successful first campaign for office in 1976. Graham was the campaign's chairperson for Daviess County. He would later write Daniels a letter of recommendation for admission to Georgetown Law School.

All of the Graham's eight children eventually abandoned Indiana, and mother and father almost followed suit, Dellinger writes. But Stuart enjoyed her work teaching, and when David retired in 1987 at 60, as required by the family business, they stuck around Southwest Indiana. "Graham, perhaps wanting to continue the family legacy, endeavored to spend his retirement years helping his community become the kind of place where young people might be less inclined to leave."

***

Among the issues that drew Graham's interest were the latest incarnations of the Evansville-to-Indianapolis highway discussions. Four studies commissioned by the state in 1966, 1980, 1982 and 1985 had rejected it, concluding the economic returns could not justify the enormous investment.

The latest such examination, released in February 1990, had reached the same conclusion just a few weeks before David Graham hosted at his home an economist from the Hudson Institute in Indianapolis. Known as the Donohue Study after the lead consulting firm from Waterloo, Iowa, the federally funded study found the proposed road "at best marginal from a cost-effectiveness standpoint," the Federal Highway Administration had told Congress.
"Graham never ran for office, but he became involved in local Republican Party politics as a fund-raiser and organizer."
David Reed, Graham's houseguest in the spring of 1990, was a research fellow at the conservative Hudson think tank, whose director at the time was Mitch Daniels. Reed was working on a project, requested by Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton and funded by the Indianapolis-based pharmaceutical manufacturer Eli Lilly & Company, to examine alternatives for rural development in Southern Indiana.

Reed scoffed at the Southwest Indiana highway plans Graham and a couple other project boosters presented at that breakfast meeting over omelets prepared by the host himself. Their vision, he said, was too limited. "You'll never get to first base unless you can get other people interested in this highway, other states interested," is how Dellinger says Reed responded, "because nobody gives a damn about Indiana."

In what Dellinger calls an epiphany, Reed that morning suggested extending I-69 from the Canadian border at Port Huron, Mich., to Mexico. At Daniels's insistence, Reed subsequently downplayed his call for a transnational highway passing through Evansville in his Hudson study, "The Future of Southern Rural Indiana: Paradigms and Prospects for Rural Development." The discussion appeared as a four-page addendum at the end.

"But the dream of an international highway was so well suited to Graham's interests and biography that he internalized it immediately," Dellinger wrote. "It was Graham who would take the idea and run with it -- or drive with it, as the case turned out to be."

***

Graham took his newly refined vision to the Southwestern Indiana Regional Highway Coalition, whose membership included Keith Lochmueller, a partner at Bernardin, Lochmueller & Associates. He proposed the group sell the idea of an transnational highway on "safety and economics," Dellinger writes.

The group approached Indiana political leaders, like Lugar, Gov. Evan Bayh and Lt. Gov. Frank O'Bannon, both Democrats, who expressed support but weren't willing to take up the call. "No one was ready to accept the responsibility of organizing a multistate campaign for the project," Dellinger says.
"The dream of an international highway was so well suited to Graham's interests and biography that he internalized it immediately. It was Graham who would take the idea and run with it."
That task fell to David Graham, who owned a home outside of Mexico City. On a drive back in the summer of 1991, David made cold-call stops to strategically selected community leaders in Texas, Louisiana and Tennessee, planting the seed for the I-69 highway.

In a book titled The Graham Legacy, Dellinger says, David, the closest of the three brothers to their father, says of his father: "Dad's chief stock in trade was his ability to sell you on an idea, make you think it was yours, and then subtly encourage you to develop it as fast as possible."

The first to bite on the younger Graham's I-69 salesmanship was a former Shreveport, La., Chamber of Commerce president named David Caruthers, who soon enlisted the active support of Democratic Louisiana Sen. Bennett Johnston.

At a meeting in Greenville, Miss., in November 1992, the multi-state lobbying group calling itself the Mid-Continent Highway Coalition was officially born. Caruthers was named the group's president.

The coalition decided each state would have presidents and vice presidents. Graham became Indiana's vice president. His longtime friend from Daviess County, James Newland, was named executive director.

***

In July 2008, just four months before Mitch Daniels was re-elected Indiana governor, construction began on the first 1.77 miles of I-69 north of Evansville at the intersection of I-164 and I-64. Work officially began at a ceremonial groundbreaking on July 16.

Due to widespread and increasingly militant public opposition to I-69, the highway lobby celebrants held the event inside the Evansville Convention Center, 20 miles from the highway, surrounded by a perimeter of heavily armed police and security forces outside the facility.
"A few minutes before the program was to begin, David Graham emerged from a door near the stage with Governor Daniels and James Newland."
No one was allowed inside, except invited guests and the press, including Matt Dellinger.

"A few minutes before the program was to begin, David Graham emerged from a door near the stage with Governor Daniels and James Newland," he writes. Daniels was the last to speak, declaring the groundbreaking a beautiful beginning. "Starting today, I-69 becomes real," he said.

Off to the side, behind the wheel of a front-end loader, sat the vice president of Gohmann Asphalt, the contractor chosen to build the first stretch, with a load of dirt from the I-69 construction site, which he promptly dumped on a blue tarp that had been spread in front of the stage.

"The governor and six other public officials lined up along the mound with golden-bladed shovels," Dellinger writes. "On cue they dug in and held their scoopfuls for the cameras before throwing the dirt back over the pile."

Other dignitaries lined up for a second of "make-believe digging," he continues, and those to Daniels's right yielded their shovels to Graham and Newland, who by that time were 81 and 89 years old.

"They went at it like kids in a sandbox and tossed their heaps of dirt with all of their modest might," Dellinger continues. "The governor staked his shovel into the dirt and put his arms around Graham and Newland."

After the three engaged in a brief, private conversation before flashing cameras, the event broke up into small, chatty groups.

"Graham and Newland," Dellinger wrote, "took one more moment to make a last plunge with their spades."

Steven Higgs can be reached at editor@BloomingtonAlternative.com.