Who doesn’t hate being stuck in a traffic jam on a crowded interstate highway (usually in or near a major city)? Most of us would agree that the U.S. interstate highway system (known formally as the Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways) is one of the best highway networks in the world. It is supplemented by the various older federal highways, such as U.S. Route 40. None of that seems to matter, though, when you are in your car or truck in the middle of gridlock…
That is why several previous FreightWaves Classics articles have highlighted the U.S. Army’s Cross-Country Motor Transport Train, which at this time 102 years ago, was slogging across the United States. And it truly was a slog…
The Transcontinental Convoy traveling on the “Lincoln Highway.” (Photo: Detroit Public Library Digital Collection)
As noted in the August 23 Classics article, the convoy began its trip on July 7, 1919; 79 Army vehicles left Washington, D.C. to drive to San Francisco along the Lincoln Highway. The Lincoln Highway was one of the nation’s first transcontinental routes and was 3,389 miles long. The convoy included nearly 300 soldiers and U.S. War Department observers (among them was Lt. Col. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who would play a key role in the development of America’s highways later in his life).
At that time, sections of the Lincoln Highway consisted of dirt and gravel tracks – and in some locations the highway’s “pavement” was loose sand. Poor weather and steep grades made the road impassable at times. Numerous bridges (particularly in the western U.S.) were demolished and rebuilt to allow the convoy’s heavy vehicles to proceed. The trip to San Francisco Bay took 62 days; the convoy’s average speed was just 6.07 mph.
Dealing with mud was just one of the convoy’s issues along its route. (Photo: Detroit Library Digital Collection)
Hell in Nevada
So, 102 years ago today, the Army convoy was crossing Nevada. For most of August 26, 1919 it made its way through what was among the hardest parts of the entire transcontinental journey. A headline a few days later in the Washington Times said it best: “U.S. TRUCK TRAIN MIRED IN NEVADA DESERT.” The Times report also stated, “After leaving Orr’s Ranch, the last station in Utah, the road led over a long stretch of desolate, mountainous, Nevada desert. It was here that the worst difficulties of the trip were met.”
An article in Motor World magazine reported the convoy’s difficulties more thoroughly the following month: “Participants in the convoy described how much of this part of the trip was made through clouds of low-hanging, penetrating dust and extreme heat, over a deplorable desert trail, with alkali dust and the sand up to two feet deep on the level but with numerous hidden holes in a country that has had no rain for more than four months.”
The route of the Transcontinental Convoy as shown on this C-SPAN map.
The articles in the Washington Times and Motor World were echoed in a written report on the transcontinental journey written by Lt. Colonel Dwight D. Eisenhower. He submitted his report in November 1919 to the chief of the Motor Transport Corps.
In his report, Eisenhower wrote this about the trip through Nevada, “From Orr’s Ranch, Utah, to Carson City, Nevada, the road is one succession of dust, ruts, pits and holes. This stretch was not improved in any way, and consisted only of a track across the desert.”
The convoy proceeds across a reasonably flat dirt road along its route through Iowa. (Photo: prccd.org)
The state of U.S. roads
And while August 26, 1919 was the convoy’s worst day to-date, there had been “highway”-related issues almost from the start. The Lincoln Highway (and almost all “highways” of the time) was substandard even for the times… While many roads had been paved in and around major cities, most roads (of all kinds) across the United States were still unimproved dirt tracks from the days of horses and wagons.
Fifteen years before the convoy traveled across the country, the federal government performed the first national road census. The census showed how pathetic the country’s roads were in 1904. There were approximately two million miles of rural roads nationwide. At that time, only 141 miles of America’s rural roads were paved. Of that small amount, only 18 miles were covered with blacktop. The remaining (nearly) two million miles consisted of dirt and mud. And their navigability varied greatly by region, season and weather.
While there were very few cars in the United States in the early 1900s (and most were located in major cities), automobile sales began to grow quickly after Henry Ford began to sell his Model T cars in 1908. Within a few years there were many automobile manufacturers, and trucks began to be built as well. A 5,500% increase in motor vehicle registrations in the U.S. took place from 1900 to 1910 (in part, the increase was so large because the base number was so small). However, with cars and trucks becoming more common, roads (and road conditions) grew more important.
At least in major cities, paved roads of one kind or another began to become more common. However, that was not the case outside the major urban areas.
In the 1913 appropriations legislation for the U.S. Post Office, $500,000 (about $13.8 million today) was earmarked for an experimental project to improve roads on which mail was delivered. This is considered the first federal-aid program; the first project finished was the Waterloo Post Road from Florence to Waterloo, Alabama.
The following year, the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO; now AASHTO) was founded. This led to the states beginning to create their own departments of transportation. As the states began to spend money to improve their roads, it also increased the pressure on the federal government to help fund road construction.
Two years later, in 1916, Congress passed the Federal-Aid Road Act, which gave funding to states to improve their roads. However, there were few rules about how the money was to be spent and little consistency in the ways states built their roads.
World War I brings changes
World War I began in Europe in August 1914. A by-product of the war was a rapid change in the performance and use of trucks. Before the war, trucks were slow-moving, made of iron and steel, destroyed streets and roads (many only had iron wheels) and could carry only limited amounts of freight. Following the outbreak of the war, U.S. manufacturers began receiving orders for trucks from the European allies. Trucks became necessary vehicles of war. For example, during the battle of Verdun, the French Army utilized over 8,000 trucks to carry ammunition and supplies to soldiers at the front and to bring wounded to field hospitals.
In order to fulfill the orders, new trucks had to be transported from Detroit to Philadelphia and then loaded on ships for the trip across the Atlantic Ocean. Routes to link Detroit, Philadelphia and New York were built. Trucks were also used to transport cargo that was diverted from the U.S. rail system, which was nationalized by the U.S. government and overwhelmed transporting its “normal” freight as well as war materiel used in Europe.
During the war, trucks’ practicality became obvious, as did the need for multiple modes of transportation. More than any other factor, the war caused many to understand the importance of good roads and that trucks were a viable alternative to railroads and shipping channels.
Back to the convoy
According to the War Department (precursor of the Department of Defense), the purpose of the convoy was to test the military’s mobility during wartime conditions. There were other reasons as well; the Associated Press reported at the time the convoy left Washington, D.C. that its purpose was “to develop a through route from coast to coast for motor transport and demonstrate the practicability of long distance commercial transportation by motor trucks.”
On August 25, the convoy resumed after staying overnight in Ely, in eastern Nevada. Among the hardships that day was attempting to move the convoy’s vehicles up steep and winding passes more than 7,000 feet above sea level.
After spending the night of August 25 at an old mining camp, at 7:15 a.m. on August 26 the convoy continued its trip. As noted above, travel that day was no improvement from August 25. First Lieutenant Elwell R. Jackson kept a daily log throughout the convoy’s journey. His entry for August 26 included, “Narrow mountain and desert trails at natural grades, with uneven and rutted surfaces. About five miles across alkali flats with dust-filled ruts and chuckholes, necessitating slow and tedious going.” Lastly, Jackson wrote, “Remarkable that all equipment remains serviceable with abuse given.”
Then-Lt. Col. Eisenhower (far right) and others in Iowa. (Photo: Iowa DOT virtual museum)
Despite the harsh terrain, the Cross-Country Motor Transport Train made it through Nevada and went on to complete its journey to San Francisco.
Perhaps the next time any of us are stuck in a traffic jam we ought to think back to the road conditions the convoy encountered across the United States just over 100 years ago… And perhaps we should be very grateful that Lt. Colonel Eisenhower was along for the trip!