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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.
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
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.)
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.