Coast to Coast: The History of Transcontinental Travel, Part 3: Better Roads, Please

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By Ryan Lee Price

Mud road in early 1900s America

Turn of the century cross-country travel by automobile meant traversing poor roads. The trip took weeks, inspiring the US Army to try a journey of its own.

Soon after the turn of the century, some automobile companies were using their products to help promote sales in the shipping industry. In 1908, Packard sent one of its trucks from New York to San Francisco with a three-ton load. The trip took 48 days and helped inspire the US government to try a journey of its own.

The Lincoln Highway
One answer to the need for better roads was a continuous highway from coast to coast. The Lincoln Highway was perhaps the first main road to connect the two coasts, stretching from New York to San Francisco, and its direct impact southwest United States was limited. Most travelers didn’t turn left. In many sections the route made use of old roads, including a 17th-century road in New Jersey laid out by Dutch colonists; the Chambersburg turnpike used by Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to reach Gettysburg; portions of the Mormon Trail; routes used by the Pony Express; and the Donner Pass crossing of the Sierras.

The Lincoln Highway route is marked with a distinctive red, white and blue marker, bearing a blue “L” on the central white field.

The Lincoln Highway was the first transcontinental highway. It was named for the nation’s most honored president, Abraham Lincoln.

According to the 1919 edition of the Encyclopedia Americana, “The route is marked with a distinctive red, white and blue marker, bearing a blue ‘L’ on the central white field. For every mile of improvement secured on the Lincoln Highway, 10 miles have followed as a direct result upon other routes connecting important centers north and south with the main line. Along its entire length the highest type of highway construction is represented in this modern American Appian Way.”

In 1916, Woodrow Wilson announced as part of his election platform: “The happiness, comfort and prosperity of rural life, and the development of the city, are alike conserved by the construction of public highways.” He signed the Federal Aid Road Act, the first federal highway funding law, providing $75 million to build and improve roads.

The US Army Joins the Convoy
When moving people and materiel by railroad alone during World War I proved inadequate, the US Army experimented with truck convoys to supplement the railroad. The two-month ordeal of the US Army Transcontinental Motor Convoy in 1919 convinced the Army of the need for better roads.

1919 United States US Army Motor Convoy from Coast to Coast

US Army Transcontinental Motor Convoy of 1919

Despite this “Appian Way,” the US Army was determined to discover the true conditions of roads to the Pacific and set out on July 7 from Washington DC with 81 vehicles and trailers, including: 34 heavy cargo trucks, 4 light delivery trucks, two mobile machine shops, one blacksmith shop, one wrecking truck, an artillery wheeled tractor that towed nine trucks at once and was equipped with a power winch. There were two spare parts stores, two water tanks, one gasoline tank, one searchlight with an electrical power plant truck, four kitchen trailers, eight touring cars, one reconnaissance car, two staff observation cars, five sidecar motorcycles, and four solo motorcycles. As well as five GMC ambulances with two ambulance trailers, a four-ton pontoon trailer (left in Omaha) and a Renault Whippet FT-17 tank lashed to a flatbed trailer. Dealers en route supplied gasoline and tires to the convoy and the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company provided two trucks that carried spare standard tires.

Most all of the 3,250 miles of roadways were unpaved and undeveloped, creating untold problems, both mechanical and logistical. Most of the men were not trained to use the equipment and literally only one man of the 24 officers (including a young Dwight D. Eisenhower), 15 staff members from the War Department and 258 enlisted men — Henry Ostermann — knew the way across what was then still a patchwork of roads that ranged from concrete to mud (he had driven across the country 19 times).

Passing through 350 towns and communities and being witnessed by nearly three million people, the convoy completed the trip in 63 days, arriving in Oakland, California on September 7, proving that the infrastructure of the country was woefully inadequate to transport much of anything, especially during a time of war.

Route 66 was particularly significant to the trucking industry, which by 1930 had come to rival the railroad for preeminence in the American shipping industry.

In his novel Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck called Route 66, “The “Mother Road,” because it was used during the Dust Bowl and Great Depression in the 1930s by hundreds of thousands of people to flee great hardship.

Get Your Kicks on Route 66
Route 66 was a highway spawned by the demands of a rapidly changing America. Contrasted with the Lincoln, the Dixie, and other highways of its day, Route 66 did not follow the traditionally linear course as did the other highways. Its unusual diagonal course linked hundreds of rural communities in Illinois, Missouri, and Kansas to Chicago; thus enabling farmers to transport grain and produce for redistribution. The diagonal configuration of Route 66 was particularly significant to the trucking industry, which by 1930 had come to rival the railroad for preeminence in the American shipping industry. The “Mother Road,” christened so by John Steinbeck in his novel Grapes of Wrath, between Chicago and the Pacific Coast, traversed essentially flat prairie lands and enjoyed a more temperate climate than northern highways, which made it especially appealing to truckers.

From Chicago, Route 66 began as nothing more than a series of intertwining trails headed west, mostly a cobbling of farm-to-market roads, driveways, paths, old wagon trails, small rudely improved thoroughfares and downtown streets … as long as it pointed westward and got you out of town and toward the next, it was part of what would be called Route 66. More importantly, it ferried people to California, especially during the Great Depression when thousands of tenant farmers searched for a new life and better opportunities.

Until roughly 1926 (though official U.S. Route 66 signs didn’t appear until the following year), travelers would have to brave unmarked roads and meandering byways with trepidation that the next town would be just over the horizon. The road was rough and unforgiving, but the promise of California was a tempting motive, and as more cars became a prevalent part of American culture, more people took to the road.

Interstate Highway System
In an effort not only to connect the country’s population, but also to connect the country’s military installations and to ease the travel of the military, the Interstate Highway System was planned and implemented in earnest after the signing of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1921.

In 1922, the Bureau of Public Roads commissioned General John “Black Jack” Pershing to provide a proposal for a national highway system (based on importance in the event of war). His proposal, referred to as “The Pershing Map,” was 32-feet long and suggested the building of 78,000 miles of road, most of which were completed and formed a substantial portion of the Interstate Highway System.

Throughout the 1920s, road construction boomed with the increased enthusiasm behind traveling and visiting the nation’s newest National Parks. From a 1922 report for the Department of Interior from the National Parks Service, it is clear that the automobile had really mobilized a nation [punctuation is original]: “Undoubtedly the principal factor in the travel movement in this country to-day is the enlarged use of the automobile. It is true the automobile affords a wide freedom in movement of parties limited only by the capacity of the cars, and permits stops at or excursions from any points en route to a particular destination that appeal to the members of the party. It meets the opportunities for out-of-door recreation that we Americans as a sightseeing nation seem to crave, and has come to be considered by many to be the ideal means of vacation travel.”

Having spent two months with the 1919 Army Convoy and seeing the mobilization of Germany with the Reichsautobahn system during World War II, Dwight D. Eisenhower was a strong proponent of the highway system. In 1955 the General Location of National System of Interstate Highways mapped out what became the Interstate System, and Charles Erwin Wilson, who was head of General Motors when President Eisenhower selected him as Secretary of Defense in January 1953, planned out the implementation of the highway system. This was in the midst of the Cold War, and Eisenhower debated for the highways for the purpose of national defense. In the event of an invasion, the US Army would need good highways to be able to transport troops across the country efficiently.

First project of the Federal Aid Highway Act, 1956

Missouri road was the first project of the 1956 Federal Aid Highway Act.

The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 (known as the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956), authorized $25 billion dollars to be spent over 12 years of construction (with the states paying 10 percent of the cost through taxes on fuel, cars and tires). However, it ended up costing $114 billion and took 35 years. The last portion of the original plans — a section of the I-70 through Glenwood Canyon in Colorado — was completed on October 14, 1992.

The nation was connected.

Up next: Coast to Coast. The History of Transcontinental Travel, Part 4: The New Record Setters

Previous: Coast to Coast. The History of Transcontinental Travel, Part 2: Wheels and Wings

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2 responses to “Coast to Coast: The History of Transcontinental Travel, Part 3: Better Roads, Please”

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  2. […] Coast to Coast series–The History of Transcontinental Travel, Part 3: Better Roads, Please […]

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