“Good Roads” pioneer. Watson was born in Ridge Spring on June 29, 1869, to Tillman Watson, a contractor, and Helen O’Neall Mauldin. Watson graduated from the University of South Carolina in 1889. Two years later he joined the staff of Columbia’s State newspaper. He married Margaret Smith Miller on December 17, 1896. In 1904 Governor Duncan Clinch Heyward appointed him head of the redesigned Department of Agriculture, Commerce and Immigration.
As commissioner, Watson advocated the diversification of agriculture. He tracked the progress of the boll weevil across the South and wanted to end South Carolina’s dependence on cotton. Watson had other ideas for improving life in South Carolina. A “good roads” exponent, he led his department into the highway business. When the department was reorganized in 1909, he recommended creating a highway department within the Department of Agriculture and espoused sand-clay surfaced roads as the wave of the future. In 1911 Watson reported that only ten percent of South Carolina’s roads were treated, and five years later he warned in his annual report that recent federal legislation would force South Carolina to address the state of her roads.
The acme of Watson’s efforts to improve highway transportation was the publication of free route map brochures beginning in 1912. These brochures included directions, maps, and traffic regulations. A New York City magazine for travelers applauded the effort as the first by any state. During his tenure with the Department of Agriculture, Watson’s staff produced state highway maps in 1914 and 1916. These maps included primary and secondary roads with distances between destinations. In 1916 he reported that the maps were so popular that the print run of 3,500 was exhausted by September. The map featured color-coded markings that matched signs posted on the highways, guiding travelers to their destinations.
In 1916 Watson reported the completion of the Appalachian highway that ran from Columbia to the mountains. Watson also spearheaded a campaign to rehabilitate the historic State Road from Columbia to Charleston. When the commissioner’s position became an elected one in 1916, he faced no opposition in the election.
Despite these achievements, good highway construction in South Carolina was a rarity. For eight years Watson lobbied for the registration of motor vehicles and the establishment of a highway department staff with capable engineers. When the Highway Commission was created on March 10, 1917, Governor Richard I. Manning took a small step toward those goals. On October 27, 1917, Watson died of asthma in Columbia, and he was buried in Ridge Spring.
Moore, John Hammond. The South Carolina Highway Department, 1917– 1987. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987.