The epic road trip that inspired the interstate highway system

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In the early summer of 1919, Dwight Eisenhower was in the funk. With his wife and toddler son living 1,500 miles away in Denver, the 28-year-old Lt. Col. stationed at Maryland’s Camp Meade wasted his considerable boredom playing bridge with his fellow soldiers and drowning his heartache. ‘have been kept in the United States during World War I. Needing a way out of his slump, the future president found excitement in an endeavor still undertaken by millions today: the great American road trip.

Upon learning that two volunteer tank officers from Camp Meade were needed to participate in a military convoy from coast to coast to San Francisco, Eisenhower immediately offered his services. It might not have given a young soldier the thrill of combat, but in 1919 a trip across the country was indeed, as Eisenhower described it, a “real adventure.”

Captain Dwight Eisenhower stands next to a tank at Camp Meade, Maryland in 1919.

“For those who have only known concrete and tarmac freeways with gentle slopes and designed curves, such a trip may seem trivial,” Eisenhower wrote in “At Ease: Stories I Tell to Friends.” “At that time, we weren’t sure this could be accomplished at all. Nothing like it had ever been attempted. At the dawn of the automobile age, drivers were more likely to encounter roads leading to nowhere rather than the open road. Few of the highways were paved. Dirt roads can be muddy quagmires or ruts that make teeth chatter from the sun. Sixty miles an hour was a daredevil’s dream, and there were many roads that could only be traveled at the pace of a brisk walk.

The War Department viewed the cross-country trailer – undertaken just months after the end of World War I – as part of a victory lap and part of a publicity stunt. Urged on by automakers, gasoline companies, and tire manufacturers, the military saw the convoy as a way both to test the capabilities of the Army’s Motor Transport Corps and to highlight the poor condition. American roads.

On the morning of July 7, 1919, the great “motor truck train” slowly rumbled westward from Washington, DC, following an elaborate groundbreaking ceremony for the Zero Milestone, the point from which all the highway kilometers to the nation’s capital are to be measured, just south of the White House. The 81-vehicle convoy, which included ambulances, tankers, field kitchens, passenger cars carrying journalists and auto company representatives, searchlight trucks and even a five-ton trailer carrying a pontoon boat dubbed Mayflower II, traveled four hours before the trouble began. . A kitchen trailer broke its coupling, a fan belt snapped on an observation car, and another truck suffered a broken magneto before the convoy camped overnight in Frederick, Maryland, where Eisenhower joined the more than 250 enlisted men and two dozen officers. The troops had traveled only 46 miles in seven hours, a snail rate of just over six miles an hour.

Transcontinental road convoy

An ambulance with the Transcontinental truck convoy overturned in a ditch east of Chicago Heights, Ill., Pictured July 19, 1919.

Over the next few days, unexpected detours occurred when the roofs of the covered bridges turned out to be too low for army workshop trucks. The convoy stopped several times for stripped gears, boiled radiators and vehicles stuck to their hubs in the mud. The custom-designed Militor tractor truck, which cost the military $ 40,000, quickly proved its tremendous value for towing vehicle after vehicle through roadside ditches and mud holes with its electric winch. One night, the Militor even arrived at the camp with four trucks in tow.

Band concerts, street dances, banquets and endless speeches by local politicians greeted the three-kilometer-long convoy as it crossed the country. Once the trailer passed through Illinois, it also left behind paved sections of the Lincoln Highway, the transcontinental route it had joined in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Scouts riding a fleet of Harley-Davidson and Indian motorcycles sped half an hour past the convoy to inspect road conditions and lead the way with painted arrows. In Nebraska, trucks waded through sand as slippery as ice. Outside North Platte, 25 trucks, including the Militor itself, slipped into a roadside ditch. On a hellish stretch, it took the convoy seven hours to cross 200 meters of quicksand.

Two days were lost in Nebraska, but conditions worsened on the Utah section of the Lincoln Highway, which Eisenhower said was “a succession of dust, ruts, pits and holes.” The troops were forced to clear the piles of sand from the road and vehicles were stranded several times in the desert where no rain had fallen for 18 weeks. When dozens of trucks got stuck in the salt marshes, the soldiers used their collective strength to tow them by hand. Like the sun-beaten pioneers, the troops suffered from a lack of water, which was rationed to one cup for dinner and another for the night. The commander even posted guards around the tanker to prevent theft until a horse-drawn Utah Highway Commission water cargo arrived.

Once in California, the convoy returned to the roadway and reached a top speed of 10 miles per hour. After being transported by ferry to the city docks, the vehicles marched through the flag-festooned streets of San Francisco to the terminus of the Lincoln Highway six days late. The trailer had traveled 3,242 miles through 11 states in 62 days, an average of 52 miles per day.

Eisenhower (right), stopping for a chicken dinner on the lawn of Firestone Homestead Farm in Ohio, July 13, 1919.

Eisenhower (right), stopping for a chicken dinner on the lawn of Firestone Homestead Farm in Ohio, July 13, 1919.

The vehicles behaved well, given the conditions, but the road conditions were found to be totally inadequate. “I think every officer in the convoy had recommended in their report that efforts be made to interest our people in producing better roads,” wrote Eisenhower, who lamented the lack of investment in maintaining existing roads. “It seems obvious that a very small amount of money spent at the right time would have kept the road in good condition. “

As the Supreme Allied Commander in World War II, Eisenhower saw firsthand how Nazi Germany’s high-speed highway system enabled his troops to quickly mobilize to fight on two fronts. “After seeing the highways of modern Germany and knowing the asset these highways represented to the Germans, I decided, as president, to focus on this type of road construction,” wrote Eisenhower. The 1919 trip, however, also remained at the forefront of his mind. “The old convoy reminded me of good two-lane highways, but Germany made me see the wisdom of wider ribbons across the country.” With American roads remaining in poor condition for decades after his difficult journey across the country, Eisenhower championed the creation of the American Interstate Highway System, which was officially named in his honor in 1990.


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