In an earlier FreightWaves Classics article, information about the U.S. Army’s First Transcontinental Motor Convoy was provided, and then-U.S. Army Lt. Col. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s participation was highlighted.
Decades later, the U.S. Interstate Highway System would be named the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways because of his advocacy for the system that began to be built during his presidency.
The 1919 U.S. Army Motor Transport Corps convoy drove over 3,250 miles from Washington, D.C., to Oakland, California. The convoy primarily followed the route of the Lincoln Highway. However, the photos in this article (and hundreds more available online) show that a highway in 1919 and in 2021 are very different! The convoy included 81 U.S. Army vehicles, 24 officers and 258 enlisted men. It took 62 days to cross the United States!
The convoy had four primary goals, including to test the mobility of the military during wartime conditions. Another goal was to “encourage construction of through-route and transcontinental highways.” A report generated after the trip noted “great interest in the Good Roads Movement was aroused by the passage of the Convoy.”
As an observer for the War Department, Lt. Col. Eisenhower saw first-hand the difficulties faced by cars, trucks and travelers on roads that were often impassable. During the convoy the military vehicles suffered frequent breakdowns and mishaps, particularly during the western half of the trip.
Although Eisenhower later said he joined the convoy “partly for a lark, and partly to learn,” his experiences during the convoy were an obvious influence on his later decisions regarding the building of the interstate highway system during his presidential administration.
On this date in 1919, the convoy was in Nebraska. It had entered the state a week earlier after crossing the Missouri River. Early on the morning of August 5 the convoy left North Platte after spending two nights there.
To reach North Platte had been difficult due to the condition of the roads the convoy traveled. “In Nebraska, the first real sand was encountered,” noted Eisenhower in the report he prepared on the transcontinental trip for the chief of the Motor Transport Corps. Eisenhower reported that the western part of the state had “bad, sandy roads.”
Another member of the convoy, First Lieutenant Elwell R. Jackson, wrote similar observations about the road conditions in Nebraska in his daily log of the trip. His entry for August 2 included, “Roads gumbo mud,” and he wrote on August 3, “Roads sandy, some quicksand.”
The challenges of poor roads and mechanical breakdowns caused the convoy to fall behind schedule. It had been scheduled to reach North Platte on August 2. However, the road surfaces were so bad that Lt. Col. Charles W. McClure, the convoy’s commander, ordered the convoy to stop at Gothenburg instead.
On the morning of August 3, the convoy left Gothenburg. North Platte was 34 miles from Gothenburg. However, those 34 miles made for a very difficult journey in 1919. As Jackson wrote, “With the exception of the Engineers’ trucks and the [front-wheel drive vehicles], the Militor [a tractor used for pulling stalled or otherwise stuck vehicles] towed every truck in the Convoy at least once during the day. At one time, nine trucks chained together were unable to move under their own power, and the Militor pulled them through.”
Nonetheless, many of the expedition’s vehicles reached North Platte at 5:15 p.m. “The arrival of the convoy was announced by a prolonged whistle at the water plant, and the streets were lined with hundreds of cars and thousands of spectators,” reported the North Platte Semi-Weekly Tribune. “The train entered the city over the Lincoln Highway, down to Front, west to Locust and thence to the city park.”
However, the final group of convoy vehicles did not reach North Platte until after 10:00 p.m. Eight trucks carrying McClure and the engineering corps had been delayed. As the North Platte Semi-Weekly Tribune explained, “The delay of these trucks was due to the big repair shop truck going through a bridge or culvert east of Maxwell [a village between Gothenburg and North Platte], and a stop was necessary to extricate the truck and repair the damage to the bridge.”
The extended stop of two nights in North Platte gave the convoy’s mechanics time to conduct needed repairs and maintenance on the vehicles.
Eisenhower family reunion
During the convoy, Eisenhower’s wife Mamie and their son were staying with her parents at their home in Denver. She and her father had been tracking the convoy’s progress on a map. Since the convoy was in nearby Nebraska, they decided to join it. Mamie, her son and parents, traveled over 265 miles of rough roads from Denver to North Platte. They drove in a Packard for 13 hours to reach North Platte. Today, that trip would take less than four hours.
The reunion in North Platte was the first time in six months that Eisenhower had seen his wife and son. They remained with the convoy as far as Laramie, Wyoming, before returning to Denver.
The convoy took more than two months to make the coast-to-coast trip. The roads got progressively worse as the convoy moved westward. During its journey, the convoy broke and repaired “dozens of wooden bridges” (including 14 in Wyoming alone) and “practically” all roadways were unpaved from Illinois through Nevada.
The convoy traveled 3,250 miles in 573.5 hours at an average of 5.65 mph over the 56 travel days, averaging 10.24 hours per travel day.
In 2021 it is hard to imagine the poor conditions of the nation’s roads in 1919. The worst stretches of today’s roads, highways and interstates are infinitely better than the roads of a century ago. But the 1919 convoy was the first step in the creation of the nation’s Interstate Highway System.