Road construction in Podhale, 1935.

In the first decade of the Second Republic of Poland, the first priority was to repair wartime damage and maintain the road network
in a condition meeting the demands of the economy. Investments in new roads were a lower priority even though numerous local
governments were building new roads at their own expense and initiative, which was the main progress factor.

Whilst by 1928 the national government had built about 300 km of roads, local governments (primarily counties) had built more than 2,800 km. In 1928 alone, 180 km of state roads and 900 km of local roads were under construction. In the first decade of the interwar period, road metal, broken stone and cobblestone technology dominated in road construction. The so-called improved roads – made with sett, asphalt or paving stone – constituted only a small proportion of the roads, but they were becoming more common with the increase in motor traffic. The proportion of the load imposed on state roads (regular measurements taken for state roads only) by motor traffic rose from 9 percent in 1926 (35 tons per day) to 30 percent in 1930 (143 tons per day), and there were no signs indicating that the trend would be reversed. Under such circumstances, building modern road surfaces became a must.

Construction of a road bridge on the Skawa River in Maków Podhalański, 1935
Construction of a road bridge on the Skawa River in Maków Podhalański, 1935

Thanks to natural resources in the form of considerable oil deposits, bitumen binders, i.e. tar and asphalts, were soon introduced. Tar was used in surfaces for light (up to 500 vehicles per day) and medium traffic (up to 1,000 vehicles per day), while asphalts dominated in roads intended for heavy traffic exceeding 1,000 vehicles per day. The output capacity of the largest tar producer – the Coking Plants Union in Katowice – was approx. 30,000 tonnes per annum, exceeding the then demand of 3,000 tonnes ten times. Polish refineries also provided quantities of asphalt that met the demands of road building and maintenance entirely. In 1937, about 6,000 tonnes were used while the output exceeded 20,000 tonnes.

From 1930 concrete was used for road construction in Poland. Although the first such road surface was made in 1912 in Franciszkańska Street in Cracow, for a long time there were few instances of that innovative technology. Earlier, concrete was only applied on very short stretches and the technologies applied were rather primitive. Only about 200 km of concrete roads were built before the outbreak of World War II. The need to build modern motor roads was certainly appreciated, but it was not such a straightforward matter as it seems looking from today’s perspective.

Land surveying, 1933.
Construction of a road bridge on the Skawa River in Maków Podhalański, 1935
Road construction in Podhale, 1935.
Road construction in Podhale, 1935.
Road construction in Podhale, 1935.
Road construction in Podhale, 1935.

While in the west of Europe motor traffic accounted for about 80% of the entire road traffic, in Poland it accounted for only 20% in 1934. The above considerations made it necessary to use ”special types of surfaces resistant to the impact of iron cart wheel rims, horseshoes and horseshoe nails. Such surfaces were expensive; hence, given the meagre funds available at that time, the scope of road modernisation works carried out in the interwar period was limited”.

In March 1939, Professor Nestorowicz published an article in the journal Drogowiec (Road Engineer). Entitled: The Problem of Building Highways (Motorways) in Poland, it summarized nearly two decades of discussions and efforts towards the development of a motorway network in Poland. While he recognized the necessity to build a network of high-speed roads, he was also an unsparing realist: ”One cannot predict the start date of motorway construction. In any event, it will not happen before the network of ordinary roads is improved. The construction of motorways on specific routes could begin earlier only if requested by authorities responsible for national defence. (…) spending on the construction of motorways must not deplete funds needed for maintaining, improving and expanding the network of ordinary roads”.

The author was well aware of the different circumstances in Poland and Western Europe: ”It would be completely unreasonable to begin the construction of motorways [in Poland] now on a similar scale as such roads were being built in Germany.

However, economic and technical research on the construction of the road network Poland needs should be commenced forthwith”. In the final part of his paper, Nestorowicz encloses a list of proposed motorways to be built in Poland, divided into two categories according to their importance and urgency. The construction of nearly 5,000 km of motorways was planned over the next thirty years. For obvious political reasons, those projects were never carried out.

In 1936-1939 construction works on the ‘first-priority’ route of Gdynia-Bydgoszcz-Łódź-Katowice were carried out; the road was designed as a single carriageway with a concrete surface. Before the outbreak of World War II, an 11-kilometre stretch between Osiek, Skórcz and Lubichowo was opened although work was not completed between Warlubie and Osiek.

Construction of the road bridge on the Skawa river in Maków Podhalański, 1935.
Installation of an asphalt machine, Żory-Rybnik-Dębicz, 1933

The pre-war motorway received a bituminous surface and is now part of regional road no. 214 from Łeba and Warlubie where it joins national road no. 1.

It is difficult to assess the interwar period unequivocally. On the one hand, the investments were much too limited compared with the
needs. On the other hand, one has to take into account the disastrous condition of infrastructure and administration that basically had to be built anew after the end of World War I. Beyond any doubt, one has to appreciate the enthusiasts, such as Melchior Nestorowicz, who regarded their work as a vocation and devoted all their efforts and talent to the common good. The ethos of people dedicated to road engineering and working together during the two decades after World War I bore fruit later, during the rebuilding of Poland from the ravages of World War II.

In 1939, the overall figures were as follows: Poland had 64,500 km of paved roads (including 14,000 km of state roads, more than 35,000 km of regional and county roads, and about 13,000 km of local roads). Progress was definitely achieved in qualitative terms: when Poland regained independence, there were about 500 km of roads with an improved surface, and 20 years on, there were over 7,000 km of such roads. Their quality was so high that many of them survived for more than 30 years. In total, 20,000 kilometres of new roads were built; their density increased to 16.5 km per 100 sq km.

Road surface laying, Żory-Rybnik-Dębicz, 1933
Road surface rolling, Żory-Rybnik-Dębicz, 1933.
Mixing of improved soil with dry cement, interwar period.
Road surfacing works, Żory-Rybnik-Dębicz, 1933.