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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 Highway System.

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 in 1919. 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. Return to Top

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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