Just outside the fence on the South Lawn of the White House is a squat granite monument, usually surrounded by tourists snapping shots through fence and awash in discarded soda cans and plastic water bottles. Though ignored by nearly everyone who passes it, the monument marks the Zero Milestone for one of the most audacious expeditions in American history. As Americans prepare to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, and we recently marked the sesquicentennial of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, this year offers up one more anniversary of extraordinary American ingenuity and grit, one that in many ways changed daily life even more profoundly than either of the other two events.
One hundred years ago, on July 7, 1919, a procession of over 80 U.S. Army vehicles embarked on the First Transcontinental Motor Convoy across the United States. Today, such an effort is not even something to consider extraordinary. Like thousands of others, my family drove across country last summer, and back again in the winter. We took a leisurely ten days to cross the continent, stopping at historical sites along the way, including Promontory Point, Utah, where the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads met in May 1869. Our trip on well-maintained highways and interstates, staying at clean motels, filling up at regularly placed gas stations, and eating safe food could not be more different from what faced the troops of the Motor Convoy, let alone any civilian travelers foolhardy enough to try and drive across the United States. Enduring constant breakdowns, broken bridges, nonexistent roads, knee-high mud, sand dunes, storms, and heat, the 300 men of the convoy successfully crossed the country in exactly two months, reaching San Francisco on September 6.
The convoy set out just two months after the 50th anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, and while it was not the first crossing of America by car (that had occurred back in 1903), nothing like it had been attempted before. As opposed to a sole adventurer crossing largely wild territory, the Army wanted to show that cross-country road travel was a real possibility. The genesis of the convoy was the new era in military transport engendered by technological advances in World War I, which had ended just the year before.
Yet its significance far transcended simple military interest, allying with the Good Roads movement that advocated a national highway system for civilian use. It also had a geopolitical importance related to the growth of America’s Pacific empire at the turn of the 20th century. As noted in the official report on the convoy compiled by Captain William C. Greany of the U.S. Army Motor Transport Corps, the convoy’s principal objectives were to “service-test the special-purpose vehicles developed for use in the First World War . . . and to determine by actual experience the possibility and the problems involved in moving an army across the continent, assuming that railroad facilities, bridges, tunnels, etc. had been damaged or destroyed by agents of an Asiatic enemy.”
It might be surprising to consider that the War Department was interested in figuring out ways to defend the West Coast of the United States during the 1920s, but the U.S. Navy had already been planning for war with Japan, and the powerful Japanese Imperial army and navy had proved their mettle by launching both naval and large-scale amphibious and land war campaigns against the Chinese, in 1894–95, and the Russians, in 1904–05. While the U.S. colonies in Asia, particularly the Philippines, were far more threatened by Japanese military expansion, the fear that Japan could one day attack the U.S. homeland drove the Army’s thinking about military modernization. Given how isolated the West Coast still felt from the rest of the country, and how difficult it was to reach it from the east other than by the railroad or a long sea voyage, the idea for the convoy was in some ways a natural evolution in the movement to link the country closer together.
On the morning of July 7, 1919, the convoy gathered at Camp Meigs, a former Union Army fortification in Prince George’s County, Md., that had helped defend Washington, D.C., in the Civil War, to drive to the White House for the official departure. The Transcontinental Motor Convoy consisted of 24 expeditionary officers, 15 War Department staff observation officers, and 258 enlisted men. They climbed into 81 “specialized” military vehicles, including 34 heavy cargo trucks, delivery trucks, a caterpillar tractor (which would become vitally important), a blacksmith shop, kitchen trailers, motorcycles, and touring cars for staff and observers. As Greany’s official report noted, “the expedition was assumed to be marching through enemy country and therefore had to self-sustaining throughout.” Hence the kitchen and blacksmith and machine shops attached to the convoy.
After a ceremony just outside the South Lawn of the White House, attended by Secretary of War Newton D. Baker, the chief of staff, and assorted congressional members, the convoy started on its way just after noon. The Zero Milestone, a temporary marker at the time, was intended to be the equivalent of ancient Rome’s “golden milestone” located in the Forum, marking the distances of all national highways from Washington, D.C. The convoy, led by Army Colonel Charles W. McClure, rumbled northwest, up what is now North Frederick Road toward Frederick, Md., 46 miles away. At Frederick, the group was joined by a final military observer, a young lieutenant colonel, Dwight D. Eisenhower, then of the Tank Corps. At Gettysburg, Penn., the convoy met up with the new Lincoln Highway, which had been begun in 1913, and whose route it would follow across the continent, whether actual roads existed or not — in most cases out west, they did not.
Almost immediately after leaving Washington, the convoy experienced mechanical trouble, as a fan belt broke on one of the observation cars. Such accidents would plague the convoy across the country, as truck couplings broke, axles cracked, engines overheated, fan belts snapped, and accelerators failed, among other problems. All told, nine of the 81 vehicles were damaged beyond repair along the way, while the convoy encountered 230 road accidents, defined as “instances of road failure and vehicles sinking in quicksand or mud, running off the road or over embankments, overturning, or other mishaps due entirely to the unfavorable and at times appalling traffic conditions.” Given the primitive conditions even on the well-maintained roads, it is not surprising that the expedition damaged or destroyed 88 wooden highway bridges and culverts, all of which were repaired or rebuilt by convoy personnel.
Despite such obstacles, the convoy doggedly made its way across America, though by Day 5 it had already slipped its schedule. It averaged 58 miles a day, at roughly 6 miles per hour, covering a total of 3,251 miles (my family logged exactly 3,500 miles, with all our stops, from Washington to San Francisco). As the convoy progressed toward the west, the roads worsened. In his own report to the chief of the Motor Transport Corps, Eisenhower noted the good condition of paved roads in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana, while in Illinois, the dirt roads began, and “practically no more pavement was encountered until reaching California.” To create ribbons of paved road across the country was the goal of the Good Roads Movement, started by bicycle enthusiasts in 1880, but adopted by automobile advocates in the nineteen-teens, which promoted the macadamizing of American transport trails as a means to promote commerce. Three years after President Woodrow Wilson signed the Federal Road Aid Act in 1916, the Transcontinental Motor Convoy vividly demonstrated just how far America had to go in developing even a basic national highway system.
Of the 3,000 miles the convoy traveled, over 50 percent — or 1,778 — were over dirt roads, wheel paths, mountain trails, desert sands, and alkali flats. We, too, got onto dirt roads, in Wyoming, and passed over alkali flats in Utah, and desert sands, in Nevada. But the convoy could not avoid such hazards, often stopping to push the vehicles by hand through knee-high mud or pulling them with the overworked tractor. When trapped in salt flats near Salt Lake or the Fallow Sink region in Nevada, all hands regardless of rank strove to save the expedition. The worst day of the expedition was undoubtedly August 21, outside of Orr’s Ranch, Utah, where salt and sand ensnared the entire convoy. The entire company put in “superhuman efforts” for over ten hours in blistering heat to rescue the vehicles; that day the convoy covered a total of 15 miles. Throughout the desert, the expedition suffered extremely high temperatures, including a maximum of 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Weeks later, the men, bivouacking out in the open, shivered in the 30-degree temperature of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
Arriving in Sacramento, on September 3, the company was feted at a gala dinner and acclaimed as new “Forty-Niners,” harking back to those who had “endured hardship, privation, discouragement, and even death, to reach this new land.” Their host, the head of the Willys Overland Company, later famous as the designer of the ubiquitous military Jeep, honored the convoy members for having “blazed new trails — the trails of Commerce, Highways, Mechanical Attainment, and the Protection of the Flag,” this last being a reminder of the geopolitical implications of the expedition. Sixty-two days after leaving the White House, the convoy reached Oakland, Calif., and was ferried across to its terminus in Lincoln Park, San Francisco, on September 6, six days behind schedule.
A year later, the second Transcontinental Motor Convoy departed from the Zero Milestone on a drive to Los Angeles, via San Diego and the southern United States. Smaller than its predecessor, with only 50 vehicles, the second convoy encountered similar, if not worse, road conditions and took 111 days to reach the West Coast, averaging only 30 miles a day. From a military perspective, both convoys proved that while it was possible to ferry Army troops and materiel across the nation, the West Coast of the United States was essentially on its own in the case of an enemy attack, except for what Navy and Army forces were based in California. Hence, the need for a reliable national highway system.
That advocacy was a key success of the First Transcontinental Motor Convoy. It was perhaps the first great modern public-relations operation of the U.S. Army, other than victory parades, and helped secure the passage of the 1921 Federal Aid Highway Act. The convoy passed through roughly 350 communities across eleven states. According to the official report, 3,250,000 Americans had the opportunity personally to see the convoy and “to understand the vast importance and urgent necessity of motor transport and good roads in the cause of national defense,” as the report noted. The War Department estimated that 33 million Americans, one-third of the population of 106 million, were exposed in some way to the convoy. Indeed, as Eisenhower and the daily log noted, the convoy was welcomed by local officials and enthusiastic crowds in many of the towns through which it passed, with music performances, dances, and large outdoor barbeques. In Grand Island, Ohio, for example, around 3,000 people came to the celebration, while in Rock River, Wyo., the Red Cross Canteen Service provided the entire convoy with lunch. Given such receptions, the convoy did not quite act as a “self-sustaining” unit in enemy territory, as the War Department had originally envisioned.
Those thousands who saw the convoy, and the untold millions who read about it in newspapers ranging from the Trenton Evening Times to the Duluth News Tribune and the Oregonian, helped create a deeper sense of nationhood across far-flung communities linked only by limited rail lines. Perhaps above all, the convoy fixed in Dwight Eisenhower’s mind the necessity of a grand cross-country interstate highway system, which he championed as president nearly a half-century later.
As a technical feat, the 1919 convoy ranks highly in the pantheon of American endeavors, if not as dramatic as truly monumental achievements like the Lewis and Clark Expedition or the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. Yet, by bringing the dream of cross-country automobile travel closer to a reality, the Motor Convoy helped change the course of American history just as much as more illustrious predecessors. As car travel changed the nature of American life in the 20th century, capped perhaps by Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System, the men of the 1919 convoy stood as prophets of a new age. Perhaps most incredibly, just 50 years after the convoy struggled through the mud of Nebraska and the sands of Nevada, Americans stood on the surface of the moon. A century of technological miracles, from the railroad to the highway to the Saturn V, defined the American tradition of breaking boundaries and mastering nature.
Note: Those interested in the First Transcontinental Motor Convoy can find an archive of online materials at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library website, including official reports, Ike’s report, the daily log, and wonderful photographs, all of which were used for this article. Ike also devoted a short chapter to his experience on the convoy, “Through Darkest America with Truck and Tank,” in his volume of memoirs, At Ease: Stories I Tell to Friends.