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FreightWaves Classics: Cross-Country Motor Transport Train reaches San Francisco

The U.S. Army Cross-Country Motor Transport Train. (Photo: U.S. Army)

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On September 6, 1919, the U.S. Army’s Cross-Country Motor Transport Train arrived in San Francisco. Its journey spanned 62 days, and after leaving Washington, D.C. on July 7, the Motor Transport Train traveled 3,251 miles. 

On July 7, 1919, at the temporary Zero Milestone marker on the Ellipse south of the White House, dignitaries gathered to launch the first ocean-to-ocean Truck Train Convoy. (Photo: Dwight Eisenhower Library)
On July 7, 1919, at the temporary Zero Milestone marker on the Ellipse south of the White House, dignitaries gathered to launch the first ocean-to-ocean Truck Train Convoy.
(Photo: Dwight Eisenhower Library)

Col. Charles W. McClure, the convoy’s commander, formally confirmed the end of the trip in a telegram sent to the U.S. Department of War on the evening of September 6. The telegram stated:

CONVOY ARRIVED FINAL OBJECTIVE SAN FRANCISCO TEN MORNING ALL EQUIPMENT ROLLING NO MECHANICAL DIFFICULTIES OR CASUALTIES REPORT LATER

MCCLURE COMMANDING

The triumphant parade of the Truck Train Convoy in San Francisco on September 7, 1919. (Photo: Lincoln Highway Association)
The triumphant parade of the Truck Train Convoy in San Francisco on September 7, 1919.
(Photo: Lincoln Highway Association)


The end of a very long and grueling trip

The convoy had arrived in Oakland the previous afternoon. Members of the convoy spent the night there; activities celebrating their visit included a dinner at the Hotel Oakland, fireworks and a dance. At 8:30 a.m. on September 6, the convoy left Oakland, transported on two ferries from Oakland Harbor to San Francisco. (At that time, there were no bridges across San Francisco Bay – construction on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge did not begin until July 8, 1933 and the bridge opened on November 12, 1936.)

This map shows the route of the U.S. Army Cross-Country Motor Transport Train. The convoy went through 11 states and the District of Columbia. (Map: sweetwater.com)
This map shows the route of the U.S. Army Cross-Country Motor Transport Train. The convoy went through 11 states and the District of Columbia. (Map: sweetwater.com)

After disembarking from the ferries, it took the convoy an hour to line up in formation. The convoy then paraded through San Francisco. Bands and cheering spectators welcomed them, and the convoy was accompanied by civilian and military motor escorts. 

The convoy entered Lincoln Park, the western terminus of the Lincoln Highway. Ceremonies commemorating the arrival of the convoy included the dedication of a mile-marker monument similar to the Zero Milestone near the White House. 

James Rolph Jr., the mayor of San Francisco (and a future governor of California) was among those in Lincoln Park to meet the convoy and praise its participants for their achievements. He stated, “Another bright page in our country’s history and another joy for the people of the State of California.” 

The convoy fought muddy roads and many other obstacles along its route. (Photo: Eisenhower Presidential Library)
The convoy fought muddy roads and many other obstacles along its route.
(Photo: Eisenhower Presidential Library)

Members of the convoy also were honored with special medals by the Lincoln Highway Association. The men then ate hot dogs, cookies, pies and coffee served by the Red Cross. Following lunch the convoy was officially disbanded.

The next day’s San Francisco Examiner stated, “The arrival of the motor caravan marks the end of a trail as long as the continent is wide, and is the close of a grueling test of human stamina and endurance.” In addition, the article also reported that the trip took place “under all sorts of conditions, in all kinds of weather, and over all kinds of roads.”

The personnel assigned to the convoy included 24 expeditionary officers, 15 War Department staff observation officers, and 258 enlisted men. First Lieutenant Elwell R. Jackson was one of the officers assigned to the convoy, and he kept a daily log of the trip. In 1920 he wrote an article for Mechanical Engineering magazine that outlined the transcontinental expedition’s experiences. In the article, Jackson wrote, “The interest of the general public in the convoy was evidenced by a whole-hearted hospitality which never failed from beginning to end of the trip, and which was quite as spontaneous in the small towns as in the larger cities.”

In addition, Jackson highlighted other major consequences of the convoy. He noted, “All along the route great interest in the Good Roads Movement was aroused by the passage of the convoy, and it was reported that several states had voted favorably on large uses of road bonds.”

William Stuhler, Major Brett, Paul V. Robinson and Lt. Col. Dwight D. Eisenhower in Columbiana, Ohio. (Photo: Eisenhower Presidential Library)
William Stuhler, Major Brett, Paul V. Robinson and Lt. Col. Dwight D. Eisenhower in Columbiana, Ohio. (Photo: Eisenhower Presidential Library)

One participant becomes President of the United States

Lieutenant Colonel Dwight D. Eisenhower was one of the War Department’s observers on the convoy. In his report, Eisenhower wrote, “The principal objectives of the expedition were to service test the special-purpose vehicles developed for use in the first World War, and to determine by actual experience the possibility and the problems involved in moving an army across the continent, assuming that railroad facilities, bridges, tunnels, etc. had been damaged

or destroyed by agents of an Asiatic enemy. The expedition was assumed to be marching through enemy country and therefore had to be self-sustaining throughout, in addition to surmounting all of the obstacles interposed by mechanical difficulties, unfavorable road, bridge, topographical, and weather conditions.”

Excerpts from the official report compiled by William C. Greany, a Captain in the Motor Transport Corps and the Adjutant and Statistical Officer for the convoy, can be found in the Eisenhower Presidential Library. Writing about the convoy later, Greany stated, it “accomplished an average progress of 58.1 miles per day and 6.07 miles per hour of running time.” The same trip today would only take a few days by car, but “in 1919 there were no transcontinental highways. The route directed for the convoy was the proposed location of the Lincoln Highway (now US-30) which at that time existed largely in the imagination and on paper.”

The 1919 Army Convoy taking a break in Tama, Iowa. (Photo: LHA Archive, Transportation History Collection, Special Collections, University of Michigan)
The 1919 Army Convoy taking a break in Tama, Iowa. (Photo: LHA Archive, Transportation History Collection, Special Collections, University of Michigan)

Greany’s report also stated, “Of the entire distance traversed, 1,778 miles or 54.7% of the mileage was made over dirt roads, wheel paths, mountain trails, desert sands and alkali flats. Of this distance, over 500 miles was practically impassible to the heavy vehicles which were included in the convoy, and was negotiated only through the combined efforts of the most extraordinary character on the part of the personnel. It frequently was necessary to pull and push the vehicles by man-power over wide areas of gumbo mud in the central states and across the desert lands of the far west, for many hours at a time, and to laboriously construct wheel paths of timber, canvas, sage brush or grass for long distances. On a number of days the personnel labored from 15 to 24 hours to accomplish the pre-arranged forced march itinerary.

There were also encountered hundreds of miles of mountain trails, some of the most dangerous character, with steep grades, and numerous sharp turns, where a deviation from the wheel paths meant destruction in the depths below. On the alkali flats dust up to two feet in depth was passed through, while in other localities quicksands were encountered in which certain of the trucks sank to depths up to several feet and had to be rescued by timber, rope and chain tackle and jacks.”

Lt. Col. Eisenhower hand-wrote on this photo: “Hoping it will hold.” (Photo: Eisenhower Presidential Library)
Lt. Col. Eisenhower hand-wrote on this photo: “Hoping it will hold.” (Photo: Eisenhower Presidential Library)

When the convoy left Washington, D.C. in July there were “a total of 79 specialized military vehicles with individual gross weights ranging up to a maximum of 22,450 pounds.” Along the route, “nine vehicles were destroyed or so damaged as to require retirement while en route.”

The U.S. Interstate Highway System

By participating in the convoy, Eisenhower not only “became convinced of the nationwide need for improved roads but ultimately acted on that belief in a significant and far-reaching manner.” Elected the nation’s 34th president, Eisenhower discussed the need for an interstate highway system during his State of the Union Address on January 7, 1954. He considered it important to “protect the vital interest of every citizen in a safe and adequate highway system.”

President Eisenhower's State of the Union Address on January 7, 1954. With the Korean War over, the Interstate Highway System was part of the President's goal of "building a stronger America." (Photo: Dwight Eisenhower Library)
President Eisenhower’s State of the Union Address on January 7, 1954. With the Korean War over, the Interstate Highway System was part of the President’s goal of “building a stronger America.” (Photo: Dwight Eisenhower Library)

Eisenhower championed the legislation that established the Interstate Highway System. Although the 1919 transcontinental trip was not Eisenhower’s sole influence, it unquestionably played a key role. “The old convoy had started me thinking about good, two-lane highways,” he wrote many years later.

Between 1954 and 1956, there were several attempts to pass a national highway bill in Congress. The bills failed because of a controversy over the apportionment of the funding between the federal and state governments. Nonetheless, President Eisenhower renewed his call for a “modern, interstate highway system” during his 1956 State of the Union Address.

President Eisenhower signs the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1954 on May 6, 1954. Watching are (left to right) Sen. William F. Knowland (R-CA), Rep. George a Dondero (R-MI), Rep. Clifford Davis (D-TN), Sen. Francis Case (SD), Rep. Homer D. Angell (R-OR), Sen. Edward Martin (R-PA), and Rep. J. Harry McGregor (R-OH). On the fringe at far right is Rep. George H. Fallon (D-MD), who would play a key role in making the President's vision a reality in 1956. President Eisenhower signed the 1956 legislation while he was hospitalized. (Photo: Dwight Eisenhower Library)
President Eisenhower signs the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1954 on May 6, 1954. Watching are (left to right) Sen. William F. Knowland (R-CA), Rep. George a Dondero (R-MI), Rep. Clifford Davis (D-TN), Sen. Francis Case (SD), Rep. Homer D. Angell (R-OR), Sen. Edward Martin (R-PA), and Rep. J. Harry McGregor (R-OH). On the fringe at far right is Rep. George H. Fallon (D-MD), who would play a key role in making the President’s vision a reality in 1956. President Eisenhower signed the 1956 legislation while he was hospitalized.
(Photo: Dwight Eisenhower Library)

Within a few months, the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 was passed by Congress. Also known as the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956, the legislation established an interstate highway system in the United States. To build the system, $25 billion was authorized for fiscal years 1957 through 1969. President Eisenhower signed the bill into law on June 29, 1956, and construction began soon thereafter.

The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. (Photo: National Archives)
The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. (Photo: National Archives)

For more information on the U.S. Army’s 1919 transcontinental motor convoy a silent film about the convoy is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hZJKxkfF1D8.

FreightWaves Classics thanks the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, the Federal Highway Administration, the National Archives and the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library for information and photos that contributed to this article. 

As part of his safety initiative, President Eisenhower meets with Truck Driver of the Year Gomer W. Bailey and his wife in June 1954. The President and Mr. Bailey discussed highway safety and their shared passion for fishing in the streams of Colorado. 
(Photo: Dwight Eisenhower Library)
As part of his safety initiative, President Eisenhower meets with Truck Driver of the Year Gomer W. Bailey and his wife in June 1954. The President and Mr. Bailey discussed highway safety and their shared passion for fishing in the streams of Colorado.
(Photo: Dwight Eisenhower Library)

Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.