||In late June 2006, a caravan of vehicles organized by the American
Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) will
travel across the United States from San Francisco, California to
Washington, D. C. to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Interstate
The AASHTO Anniversary Caravan of 2006 will follow Interstate
80 much of the way. It will be retracing, in reverse, the approximate route of a
famous previous expedition, the Transcontinental Army Motor Convoy, which
followed the Lincoln Highway across the country from Washington to San Francisco
PHOTO (ABOVE): Soldiers pushing a disabled truck during the
1919 Army Transcontinental Motor Convoy, Eisenhower Library Audiovisual
Department, photo 86-19-190
The remainder of this section will describe the 1919 Army
Convoy; report on its three-day trip across Illinois and relate what the 1919
Army Convoy meant for the future of American Roads.
ORIGINS AND PURPOSES OF THE 1919 ARMY CONVOY
World War I (1914-1918) was the first large scale military
conflict that employed vehicles powered by the relatively new internal
combustion engine. Airplanes, trucks, motorcars, and tanks were used on both
sides. However, they lacked the reliability, flexibility, and capacity for
moving large masses of troops or equipment over long distances on inferior
European roads. The vast majority of WWI military transportation on land was
done by horses and railroad trains; nevertheless, by the end of the war, most
military leaders saw the potential for increased use of motorized troops and
equipment in military campaigns of the future.
The end of the war also inspired the leaders of the Good
Roads Movement to resume their public relations (PR) campaign to convince the
public to demand better roads from state and local governments. The PR campaign
had been put on hold during the 1917-1918 period while America was engaged in
WWI. Early in 1919, Lincoln Highway Association leader Harry Ostermann had
persuaded the War Department to conduct a transcontinental motor convoy trip
from the East Coast to San Francisco on the marked route of the Lincoln Highway.
The purpose of the convoy was two fold: 1) it was to be a
training exercise and 2) a test of the feasibility of the long distance movement
of military men and supplies by auto and truck.
From the Good Roads Movement’s viewpoint, the convoy was
meant to produce positive PR by demonstrating that long distance motor travel
was possible. It was also meant to heighten awareness of existing poor roads
that comprised much of the Lincoln Highway and other roads in the Unites States.
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AN EPIC JOURNEY FULL OF CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES
Amid much hoopla, speeches and fanfare, a 76-vehicle combined
“public-private” convoy, including 56 military vehicles, 209 officers and
enlisted men, and dozens of private citizens took off from the White House on
July 7, 1919. (LH/MAIN STREET, p. 83).
Later that evening, the convoy was joined by two,
last minute volunteer Army officers. They were Lieutenant Colonel Dwight
D. Eisenhower and Major Sereno Brett, who were to serve as observers for
the Army Tank Corps. PHOTO: Major Sereno Brett, Harvey
Firestone, Jr., and Lt. Colonel Dwight Eisenhower at 1919 Army Convoy
stopover at the Firestone Homestead, Columbania, Ohio, July 13, 1919.
Eisenhower Library Audiovisual Department, photo 70-520-3.
The convoy was to operate as if the country was at war and
that an Asiatic enemy had destroyed railroad lines, bridges, and tunnels. They
were also to act as if they would be traveling through enemy territory and thus,
had to be self-contained and self-sustaining over the 3,250-mile route.
Maintaining the illusion of being at war or being truly self-sustaining proved
to be very difficult, as was the trip itself.
Among some of the military personnel, there was even doubt
whether or not the convoy could actually make it across the continent. The
vehicles were untested over long distances. Many sections of the Lincoln Highway
were unimproved dirt roads. Finally, few military personnel; especially enlisted
men, had much experience with motor vehicle driving or maintenance. Eisenhower
later wrote that the trek was a genuine adventure. “We were not sure it could be
accomplished at all. Nothing of the sort had ever been attempted.”
At first, in the East from Washington through Indiana, the
roads were generally good but mechanical problems with the various vehicles and
logistical problems slowed the convoy’s progress. Military discipline among the
men also was “conspicuous by its absence,” according to one observer. About the
familiarity of the men with operating trucks, Eisenhower wrote:
All drivers had claimed lengthy experience in
driving trucks; some of them, it turned out, had never handled anything
more advanced than a Model T. Most colored the air with expression in
starting and stopping that indicated a longer association with teams of
horses than with internal combustion engines. (EISENHOWER REPORT)
As the convoy (also referred to as the “train” by some) headed into Illinois and
the West, road conditions along the Lincoln Highway presented serious challenges
that often delayed and sometimes halted the convoy. The Highway ran on dirt
roads through most of Illinois, but the weather was dry, so it was possible to
cross the state in a few days. Of the roads between Illinois and California,
Eisenhower, in his post-trip report wrote:
The dirt roads of Iowa are well graded and are
good in dry weather; but would be impossible in wet weather. In
Nebraska, the first real sand was encountered, and two days were
lost in western part of this state due to bad, sandy roads. Wyoming
roads west of Cheyenne are poor dirt ones, with weak culverts and
bridges. In one day, 14 of these were counted, broken through by the
train. The desert roads in the southwest portion of this state are
very poor. In western Utah, on the Salt Lake Desert, the road
becomes almost impossible to heavy vehicles. From Orr’s Ranch, Utah,
to Carson City, Nevada, 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. At many points on the road water
is twenty miles distant, and parts of the road are ninety miles from
the nearest railroad. (EISENHOWER REPORT)
In fact, one of the biggest problems was the poor
state of the bridges along the Lincoln Highway. PHOTO:
Army Truck testing the holding power of one of many small bridges
crossed during the Army Transcontinental Motor Convoy, 1919.
Eisenhower Library Audiovisual Department, photo 81-17-25.
Advance notice of the convoy spread and its arrival
in towns along the Lincoln Highway were occasions for celebrations and
plenty of speeches imploring listeners to demand more public funding for
“Good Roads.” The convoy passed through 350 communities, and it was
estimated that more than 3,000,000 people witnessed it along the route.
Millions more followed the trek in newspapers and early motion picture
“newsreels.” PHOTO: 1919 Army Transcontinental Motor
Convoy on Review, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1919.
Eisenhower Library Audiovisual Department, photo 81-17-55.
The convoy did make it. Battered, but unbowed, the caravan arrived at the gates
of Lincoln Park in San Francisco. However, it had taken until September 6, 1919
for it to reach its destination, a grueling sixty-two (62) days!
In November 1919, Lieutenant Colonel Eisenhower wrote a seven-page report
relaying the observations he made during the Army Convoy to the Chief of the
Army’s Motor Transport Corps (M.T.C.). He summarized the results as follows:
The truck train was well received at all points
along the route. It seemed that there was a great deal of sentiment for
the improving of highways, and, from the standpoint of promoting this
sentiment, the trip was an undoubted success. As stated before in this
paper, it is believed that the M. T. C. should pay more attention to
disciplinary drills for officers and men, and that all should be
intelligent, snappy soldiers before giving them the responsibility of
operating trucks. Extended trips by trucks through the middle western
part of the United States are impracticable until roads are improved,
and then only a light truck should be used on long hauls. Through the
eastern part of the United States, the truck can be efficiently used in
the Military Service, especially in problems involving a haul of
approximately 100 miles, which could be negotiated by light trucks in
one day. (EISENHOWER REPORT.)
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THE 1919 ARMY MOTOR CONVOY IN ILLINOIS
The 1919 Army Transcontinental Army Convoy crossed into Illinois on the
afternoon of Saturday, July 19, 1919. It stopped the next day for a Sunday rest
period in Chicago Heights. The trip was resumed on Monday July 21, 1919, and the
convoy camped over that night in DeKalb. On Tuesday July 22, 1919, the convoy
left DeKalb and crossed over the Mississippi River Bridge at Fulton, Illinois
and entered into Iowa that evening.
During the two full days it spent on the road in Illinois, the convoy covered
about 172 miles in a little over 21 hours on the road. It was fairly lucky with
the weather and thus the roads, but as the following account from the convoy’s
daily log reveals, it had its share of problems with the vehicles, drivers, and
equipment in its journey across the Land of Lincoln.
(Read the official Army
account of the convoy’s journey thru Illinois).
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