A fascinating account of the greatest road trip in American history.
On July 7, 1919, an extraordinary cavalcade of sixty-nine military motor vehicles set off from the White House on an epic journey. Their goal was California, and ahead of them lay 3,250 miles of dirt, mud, rock, and sand. Sixty-two days later they arrived in San Francisco, having averaged just five miles an hour. Known as the First Transcontinental Motor Train, this trip was an adventure, a circus, a public relations coup, and a war game all rolled into one. As road conditions worsened, it also became a daily battle of sweat and labor, of guts and determination.
American Road is the story of this incredible journey. Pete Davies takes us from east to west, bringing to life the men on the trip, their trials with uncooperative equipment and weather, and the punishing landscape they encountered. Ironically one of the participants was a young soldier named Dwight Eisenhower, who, four decades later, as President, launched the building of the interstate highway system. Davies also provides a colorful history of transcontinental car travel in this country, including the first cross-country trips and the building of the Lincoln Highway. This richly detailed book offers a slice of Americana, a piece of history unknown to many, and a celebration of our love affair with the road.
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About the Author
Pete Davies is the author of a number of critically acclaimed works of nonfiction, including Inside the Hurricane and The Devil's Flu. He lives in West Yorkshire, England.
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The Story of an Epic Transcontinental Journey at the Dawn of the Motor Age
By Pete Davies
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2002 Pete Davies
All rights reserved.
In 1919, THE United States was in a condition that might best be described as traumatized optimism. Fifty thousand Americans had died in World War I. Over ten times as many more had lost their lives to the calamitous pandemic of Spanish flu that had erupted the previous fall. As if that wasn't bad enough, the country was racked with racial tension, industrial disorder, spiraling inflation, and a widespread paranoia about Bolsheviks on the one hand and profiteers on the other. On a bad day, it could seem as if the entire social and economic fabric was on the brink of unraveling.
Yet amid this postwar turmoil, a tangible excitement was in the air. The United States had been the decisive player in the ending of the war and was now unquestionably the most powerful country on earth. Liberty was this new titan's theme, and the word was used to name anything at hand — from the bonds that had helped fund America's participation in the war to the aviation engines designed by the Packard Motor Car Company in Detroit that had helped fight it. While Europe lay in ruins, the prolific, protean energies of America were building entire new industries in a frenzy of invention and innovation.
No business better captured the booming spirit of the day than the automobile industry. In just two decades, America had moved from an eccentric handful of rickety horseless carriages to the private ownership of nearly 6.5 million vehicles. Detroit was pulling in thousands of people to build them, while Akron drew thousands more to make the tires on which they ran. With Goodyear, Goodrich, Firestone, and others working at full capacity, Akron was growing so fast that the city was said to have standing room only.
New firms sprang up all across the nation. Cars and trucks were made in thirty-two different states by 550 different companies; the industry employed more than a million people. This didn't include accessory manufacturers, garages, repair shops, or car dealers; nor did it include all the men now employed building the roads on which these cars might drive.
Congress had over forty bills before it related to road improvements. The best-known proposal came from Senator Charles E. Townsend of Michigan; the Townsend Bill called for a national system of highways and a federal highway commission to run it. Others wanted defense highways built along the bandit-ridden Mexican border, as well as along the Pacific coast, to confront "the Japanese menace." States in the Rocky Mountains, meanwhile, wanted roads to carry visitors to their new national parks.
The car had brought into being another thriving new industry: motor tourism. Every major newspaper now had an auto section, and it was standard practice in these pages to map out tours for readers. On Sunday, July 6, 1919, for example, the Washington Evening Star offered a route map to Atlantic City via Wilmington — but such an outing was not to be undertaken lightly. To be properly equipped, the paper advised, you would need:
a set of ignition brushes, boxed and labeled
a tow rope
a jack and handle, with two blocks of wood to rest the jack on
a box of plungers for the tube valves
a three-in-one valve tool
a tire-pressure gauge
a wrench for the interruptor points
a file for cleaning the points
a voltmeter for testing the battery
an oil squirt can, filled
a box of assorted nuts, cap screws, lock washers, and cotter pins
a spool of copper wire, and another of soft iron wire
an extra set of electric light bulbs
a set of fuses
a folding canvas pail
a full set of tire chains and a chain tool, with extra cross-links
a fire extinguisher
Last but not least, you'd need sweaters and rain gear. After all, the paper said, "It might be necessary to change a tire in rain and mud, if nothing else."
If a simple day trip from the capital to Atlantic City involved all that, imagine what it might be like to drive from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco.
* * *
The spring of 1919 was not a good time to be a professional officer in the United States Army, and Dwight D. Eisenhower knew it. Ike was bored, he was homesick, and he was bitterly disappointed that he'd not made it to France before the Great War had ended. Now, as the army demobilized three million men, he envisioned a career spent shuffling paperwork around, growing a belly on a lowly wage behind a desk. He was twenty-eight years old, and he could see few prospects for himself.
Despite his dark mood he had, in fact, been a considerable success. His promotions had been rapid, and less than four years out of West Point he was already a lieutenant colonel. He'd spent most of 1918 in command of ten thousand men at Camp Colt near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. It was a general's responsibility, and the good-looking blond six-footer from Kansas had worn it well.
Colt was a tank training center; when Ike got there in March 1918, it was chaos. For a start, it didn't have any tanks. After a couple of months a seven-ton French Renault turned up, but though a plant in Dayton, Ohio, was supposed to be building American tanks, no such product had appeared by the time the war ended. Eventually, he got three Renaults, along with two British officers who knew how they worked. He set up a telegraph school and a motor school, and in short order he turned an empty wheat field on the old battleground into a first-class training center. The army never did send him to Europe, because he was too good at preparing other men to go there — but that was little consolation when the war was over and he'd missed it. As one of his biographers noted, when Ike was given the Distinguished Service Medal for "unusual zeal, foresight, and administrative ability," it must have seemed "more a bitter reminder than a welcome award."
The months after November 1918 were a messy, wearisome shuttle from Gettysburg to Fort Dix in New Jersey, to Fort Benning in Georgia, and then in March 1919 to Camp Meade outside Washington, D.C., in Maryland. All this he did alone. Mamie, his wife of three years, and their baby son, Doud Dwight, were half a continent away at Mamie's family home in Denver. There were no married quarters available at Camp Meade; Ike thought of bringing them to live in Baltimore or Washington, but he didn't think he'd see much more of them if he did. Transportation, he noted wearily, "was meager and slow."
With or without them, he would soon lose his rank. His elevation to lieutenant colonel had been a temporary honor brought on by the war, and before long he'd be demoted to captain again. His pay would drop by nearly a third, to $200 a month. He would earn it signing papers to send his men back to civilian life, playing bridge and poker in a fast-shrinking service, and wondering if his own unit had any future at all. The Tank Corps was new, and as a potentially subversive affront to traditional infantry doctrine, it was not held in high regard.
An Indiana businessman who'd been a junior officer at Camp Colt offered Ike a job, and he thought seriously about taking it. Of his mood at this time, one West Point classmate later said, "He was greatly upset. ... I had the definite impression that he intended resigning his commission." In short, the man who would lead the Allies to victory in Europe in World War II, and go on from there to eight years in the White House, might instead have opted for life as an unknown civilian — but then Eisenhower heard of an extraordinary thing.
That spring, the War Department was proposing to send a convoy of trucks and other military vehicles from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco — a journey whose projected itinerary lay 3,239 miles across the heart of the continent — and it wanted observers from different branches of the army to go along. Specifically, besides men from ordnance, artillery, and the Quartermaster Corps, from the Air Service and from the Corps of Engineers, it wanted two tank officers to make the trip. With his friend Major Sereno Brett, Eisenhower volunteered right away. The convoy sounded at last like a chance for some genuine adventure.
* * *
By 1919, the people of Washington, D.C., were well used to cars. In eighteen months of wartime, the capital's population had increased from less than 400,000 to over 500,000. In the same period, the number of government and military vehicles in the city had multiplied tenfold. The congestion had become bad enough that the police felt the need to start a street-safety campaign; already, in the first half of the year, some fifty people in the District of Columbia had died in accidents involving cars.
People were getting used to seeing trucks as well. They were mostly flatbeds weighing a ton or a ton and a half; they had no cab, and there was little more for the driver's comfort than a bench behind the engine. All the same, during the last couple of years these crude, ponderous vehicles had started replacing horse-drawn wagons for local deliveries of ice, groceries, and building materials. Packard claimed that its trucks had been "adopted with unqualified success by thirty different lines of trade in Washington," one of those trades being sculptors — which was understandable in a city rich with monuments.
When Camp Meigs, on Florida Avenue and Fifth Street NE, was hastily knocked together for the army's new Motor Transport Corps, Washingtonians got used to seeing larger vehicles too. Painted uniform khaki, the army's trucks grumbled through the capital on juddering solid tires, slowly toting squads of doughboys and all the myriad supplies that went with them.
Yet for all this growing familiarity with the car and the truck, when the First Transcontinental Motor Train pulled out of the gates of Camp Meigs at eight-thirty on the morning of Monday, July 7, no witness to its departure had ever seen anything like it. No one anywhere in the world had ever seen anything like it, not even in the supply trains behind the Western Front — because this was the largest convoy of military motor vehicles ever assembled.
When they crossed town and arranged themselves in a massive semicircle around the Ellipse in Potomac Park, near the south lawn of the White House, the line stretched beyond the capacity of any camera lens to capture it. In driving formation on the road, even when they could hold the faster vehicles close in line with the slower ones, the convoy was over two miles long. That morning, the first of them were parking by the White House when the last of them were still leaving camp.
No one would have heard anything like it either. The cylinders in these engines had a huge displacement; they gave off a deep, pounding rumble. Among them were Mack trucks, still running on a chain drive, which would have added a ratcheting, clattering roar.
The convoy's principal elements were Companies E and F of the 433rd Motor Supply Train, Company E of the 5th Engineers, and Service Park Unit 595. A medical detachment traveled with them, as did a field artillery detachment, and there were seventeen commissioned officers (including Eisenhower and Sereno Brett) attached to the motor train as observers.
In all, there were eighty-one vehicles, carrying thirty-seven officers and 258 enlisted men. There were forty-six trucks, ranging in size from three-quarter-ton Dodge light-delivery vans to monster Macks with over five tons in capacity. There were Whites, Garfords, Packards, Rikers, and Four Wheel Drives. Most were cargo trucks: two of them carried spare parts, one contained a blacksmith's shop, and two others were complete mobile machine shops. For fuel, two tankers carried 750 gallons of gas apiece, while a third carried the same amount of water.
There were eleven passenger cars for the officers — Whites, Cadillacs, and Dodges — and there were nine Indian and Harley-Davidson motorbikes for the scouts. There were five General Motors ambulances, two ambulance trailers, and four kitchen trailers — two four-wheelers called Trailmobiles and two two-wheelers called Liberties.
There was a pontoon trailer called a Loder, which was, at least in theory, going to get them across the Missouri River at Omaha. There was a three-million-candlepower searchlight mounted on a Cadillac chassis, there was a Maxwell caterpillar tractor — and then there was the Militor.
This last was an extraordinary vehicle, a custom-built "wrecker winch," or "artillery wheeled tractor," that had set the army back the best part of $40,000. With a scooped, hooded cowling on the engine, the Militor looked like an iron box bolted on the back of a huge scarab beetle. It had a powerful winch on the rear end and a hefty sprag, a big iron bar that could be anchored into the ground when the Militor was hauling a lamed or stranded vehicle out of trouble. As things turned out, a great number of vehicles would indeed find themselves ditched or mired — and the Militor would prove to be the convoy's most priceless asset.
Before this spectacular assembly could get on the long road to the Pacific, however, they had to be formally sent off. They first had to dedicate the Zero Milestone.
Slowly the convoy thundered through the heart of Washington. Though it was only a couple of miles from Union Station to the Ellipse, the schedule gave them ninety minutes to cross town; the ceremonies would not begin until ten o'clock. Waiting for them before a speaker's podium beneath an arc of trees, an assembly of notables and high-ranking officers gathered around a stumpy object sheathed in a white sheet.
Chief among them was Secretary of War Newton Baker, a small, bespectacled man in a white linen suit. Assorted senators and congressmen were present, as was General Peyton March, the chief of staff, heading a medaled array of military men, and Brigadier General Charles B. Drake, the chief of the Motor Transport Corps. Just three days earlier, Drake had appointed Lieutenant Colonel Charles W. McClure to be the expedition's commander.
Fresh from twelve months' service in France as an infantry officer with the All-American Division — literally just a few days off the boat — McClure was a weathered six-footer with tombstone teeth and a lean, ascetic air about him. Born in Carlinville, Illinois, in 1883, he'd joined up in 1905, following the example of his father, who had served in the army, and in fourteen years he'd seen service in the Philippines, Mexico, and Europe. Now he had to get this convoy to the Pacific; he was a man with a schedule, and he meant to keep it.
McClure accepted ceremonial wreaths to be delivered across the continent to the mayor of San Francisco and the governor of California. The chaplain of the House of Representatives pronounced a benediction on his enterprise. Others present, meanwhile, hoped to find themselves blessed in more material fashion. Among the crowd were Akron tire magnates Harvey Firestone and Frank Seiberling, of Goodyear; the motor age would run on the rubber these men sold, and now the army was running on it too.
Standing by the podium in the dappled shade of the trees, his left hand lightly resting on it, Secretary Baker spoke of the part that trucks like these now arrayed around the park had played in the war. "The great feat of the motor transport in rushing troops into Chateau Thierry to relieve the French," he said, "will live long in history. This world war was a war of motor transports ... there seemed to be a never-ending stream of moving transports on the white roads of France." Baker also used a phrase often heard from the mouths of politicians, but in this case it was entirely apposite. He said, "This is the beginning of a new era."
Unveiled from its white wrapping, the Zero Milestone was presented to the secretary of war. It's still there today; it's the zero point, from which all highway distances in the United States from the nation's capital are measured. A plain stone pillar, chest high, with a bronze compass rose on the top of it, on its west side is inscribed, STARTING POINT OF FIRST TRANSCONTINENTAL MOTOR CONVOY OVER THE LINCOLN HIGHWAY VII.JUL.MCMXIX.
The Zero Milestone was dedicated with appropriate oration; at least two officers, however, managed to avoid the flights of rhetoric. Though Eisenhower's orders assigning him to the convoy were dated May 11, he would later cheerfully claim that he and Brett had too little notice to make it into the city from Camp Meade. Instead, they joined the convoy at its first night stop in Frederick, Maryland. One can easily imagine that famous, ironical grin as Ike genially observes in his memoirs, "My luck was running; we missed the ceremony."
Excerpted from American Road by Pete Davies. Copyright © 2002 Pete Davies. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ONE: Zero Milestone,
TWO: A Road Across America,
THREE: "We're Going to Get There; That's All",
FOUR: A Revolution in Movement,
FIVE: Soldier Weds in Hurry,
SIX: The Mud Column,
SEVEN: Across the 100th Meridian,
EIGHT: Human-Skin Shoes,
NINE: The Utah Controversy,
TEN: Ghost Road,
ELEVEN: The Promised Land,
EPILOGUE: The End of the Road,
Also by Pete Davies,
About the Author,