The Lincoln Highway and the 1919 military convoy

Following the large scale mobilization of World War I, the U.S. War Department believed highways would play an important national defense role in the future.1 To test this idea, the War Department assembled the first Army transcontinental motor convoy in 1919, with Major Dwight D. Eisenhower as one of its officers. The convoy included 81 vehicles, 24 officers, and 258 enlisted men. Their trip encompassed 3,251 mile in more than a dozen states, and took 62 days to complete. The War Department teamed with the Lincoln Highway Association, who eagerly promoted the convoy as a way to publicize the Lincoln Highway and raise more funds for improvements.

The War Department designed the convoy as an exercise to test the ability of the military to move great distances over roads under wartime conditions.2 Specifically, the scenario dictated that an “Asiatic enemy had destroyed railroad lines, bridges, and tunnels.”3 Because soldiers would be travelling through a wartime environment, the convoy needed to be entirely self-sufficient as much as possible.4 This proved to be difficult for several reasons, especially due to the publicity the convoy received. Each town the convoy neared held a celebration for the soldiers and there were many distractions.

The convoy found many rough roads. As a unit filled largely with raw recruits, discipline was poor and experience was very low.5 Not only did the soldiers lack military experience, most also lacked driving skills. Though each claimed to have significant experience behind the wheel, Eisenhower wrote: “Most colored the air with expression in starting and stopping that indicated a longer association with teams of horses than with the internal combustion engines.”6 These inexperienced drivers worked with equipment that had never undertaken a journey of such length, and this brought about a multitude of maintenance issues to overcome as well.7

Most importantly, the inexperienced convoy’s unprecedented mission ran into roads that could barely support their trip, if they could support it at all. The convoy ran into troubles across the nation until finally reaching paved roads in California. On one day in Pennsylvania, the convoy destroyed 14 bridges.8 Heading westward, the convoy experienced unpaved roads that were dusty when dry and muddy in the rain, and then additional problems of getting stuck in sand in Nevada.9 As a result, Eisenhower stated in his final report, “Extended trips by trucks through the middle western part of the United States are impracticable until roads are improved …” 10

The convoy enjoyed unprecedented hospitality when it reached Iowa, with one eastern soldier remarking, “The farther west we come the better we are treated.”11 The people of Cedar Rapids threw a birthday party for the convoy’s commanding officer. Tama prepared a meal to welcome the soldiers, and Marshalltown concluded that day with dinner at Riverview Park accompanied by a musical program in the evening. The convoy in Ames experienced miscommunication with the town’s rally, and a stop in Boone reunited Eisenhower with his aunt and uncle. The convoy made further stops in Jefferson, Carroll, and Denison before crossing the Missouri River into Nebraska. 12

The convoy’s first experience with transcontinental travel on the Lincoln Highway proved that the roads at the time were not yet adequate for large-scale travel. Primarily, the roads needed to be paved.13 This led to the subsequent push to pave the entire Lincoln Highway from coast to coast.

As president, Eisenhower went on to play a large role in the funding of Interstate Highway System. The 46,000-mile interstate system, which had been on Bureau of Public Roads drawing boards since the late 1930s, and approved, in theory, by Congress in the 1940s, had lacked the money to make it a reality. Eisenhower helped push that funding through Congress. Now, a road trip that once took Eisenhower and his companions two months can be completed in two or three days.


Notes

1. Richard J. Maturi, "Lincoln Highway," American History 29, no. 3 (August 1994): 48

2. Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum, and Boyhood Home, “The 1919 Transcontinental Motor Convoy,” http://www.eisenhower.archives.gov/research/online_documents/1919_convoy.html.

3. Illinois Department of Transportation, “Eisenhower and the 1919 Army Convoy,” http://www.dot.state.il.us/il50/1919convoy.html.

4. Illinois Department of Transportation, ibid.

5. Federal Highway Administration, “Infrastructure,” http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/infrastructure/convoy.cfm.

6. Illinois Department of Transportation, ibid.

7. Federal Highway Administration, “Why President Dwight D. Eisenhower Understood We Needed The Interstate System,” http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/interstate/brainiacs/eisenhowerinterstate.htm.

8. Earl Swift, Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2001), 67.

9. Federal Highway Administration, ibid.

10. Illinois Department of Transportation, ibid.

11. Peter Harstad and Diana Fox, “Dusty Doughboys on the Lincoln Highway: The 1919 Army Convoy in Iowa,” Palimpsest 56, no. 3 (May/June 1975): 76.

12. Harstad and Fox, 76-78.

13. Maturi, 48.


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