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In 1919, Army drove convoy across the country from Washington to San Francisco




The 1919 Transcontinental Motor Convoy crosses East Wyoming. (Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library)

A large number of nearly 100 cars stretched along the white house ellipse on the morning of July 7, 1919, filled with heavy troop carriers, light trucks, sidecar motorcycles, reconnaissance cars, field kitchens, forging shops and a Renault lightweight tank.

The cars were a cross section of the huge engine basin acquired by the federal government during World War I. Although a porch had brought peace to Europe in the previous year, the military had given a new mission: driving a convoy across the country. Flush with Excess Army Vehicles, the War Department intended to send a first-class motorized expedition from the district to San Francisco.

"This is the beginning of a new era," war minister Newton D. Baker read into a reinforcing horn before a crowd estimated at 8,000. "This World War was a war for motor transport; it was a war of war."

As the Associated Press would write, the concept of "developing a thoroughfare from coast to coast to highways and demonstrating practical options for long-distance motor vehicle transport." [19659007] Baker predicted that the convoy that navigated the thousands of miles of unbound roadways would reach California in early September.

To mark the importance of the company, Baker revealed a monument at 10 o'clock next to the white house. "Zero Milestone" was just sharing historical marker and furtive public relations stunt, paid by the National Highway Marking Association. The automatic lobby hoped that a transcontinental convoy would fire the wheels for increases in motorway grants and make profits for the sign industry.

The draping of the occasion of rhetorical greatness explained the Washington Post that "the monument is designed to be the milestone from which, from the golden landmark of the Forum in Rome, all road distances will be counted."

The Army car journey went off on a rocky start with several vehicles broken down that afternoon on the hilly roads leading out of the district. The party camped the first night in Frederick, MD, where a letter Lieutenant Colonel joined the group as a final observer of the Tank Corps. Dwight D. Eisenhower, then 28, was "partly for a lark and partly to learn" he wrote later because "none of that kind was ever tried."


Letter Lt. Kol. Dwight D. Eisenhower, back with Major Sereno E. Brett during the 1919 Transcontinental Motor Convoy. (Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library)

In the coming weeks, engine problems plagued the convoy, which developed at an average of less than 6 mph. However, the expedition continued to attract national attention, and large crowds appeared regularly in city quarters when the convoy worked westward. In Pennsylvania, newspapers reported that the vehicles were greeted by "a large delegation of state and city officials who were to accompany the convoy in Gettysburg." The state police escorted the convoy across Ohio, and politicians in Iowa opened their dining rooms to the traveling soldiers. 19659013] Road conditions deteriorated as the Midwest gave way to plains, where the summer heat brought the soil dusty and sandstopped lungs and engines. On August 2, the Convoy's daily logbook recorded a thunderstorm that sent 25 trucks sliding out of the muddy road. Each had to be pulled out of the party's ever useful salvage tractor. The next week, another truck burst into flames because of a "carelessly thrown" cigarette stub.

Some of the chaos was deliberately constructed mischief. One evening in Wyoming, the Eisenhower convinced the soldiers that their camp was vulnerable to attacks by Native American warriors.

"Sentinels were sent out that night," according to a movie theater, "while Ike and his friend took hidden positions out of the box and exchanged warriors in the old tradition's best tradition." After a defeated soldier had discharged his weapon, sent a report of "enemy Indians" to the war department before Eisenhower intercepted messenger "faster than any vehicle in the convoy."

The motorists crossed through the Rockies through narrow mountain passes and steep switches. Several stops were made in greeting to the distant zero milestone, as in Ogden, Utah, where a highway marker was left to inform motorists at 2,208 km distance to Washington.


Cross over the mountains during the 1919 Transcontinental Motor Convoy. Letter Lt. Kol. Dwight D. Eisenhower was a 3,000 mile trek observer. (KC Downing Collection / Dwight D. Eisenhower President Library)

Sept. 6, 1919, the vehicles lumped into San Francisco, where the daily log was markedly "fair and warm" weather and fine "paved city streets." One of the doughboys had suffered injuries or fell ill during the journey. The heavy vehicles had damaged or destroyed 88 bridges and caused 230 traffic accidents. An army captain described the weeks on the road as "comparable to those generally experienced in the front zone of battle." (This came from a world war combat veteran, no less.) All the convoy participants who reached the end were donated to receive medals for their turn to service.

On the way to Market Street in San Francisco, a parade of mounted police officers leading the road, the procession was bombarded with flowers of low flying Army and Navy aircraft. Another milestone was dedicated to Presidio to mark the end of the journey.

In his final report to the head of the Motor Transport Corps, Eisenhower reflected that "extended lorries through the middle western part of the United States are impossible until the roads have improved." Years later, he would see the possibilities of a national highway construction program at first hand, while carrying mechanical armies on autobahns in Nazi Germany.

"The old convoy had begun to think of good, two-way channels," wrote Eisenhower, "but Germany had made me see the wisdom of wider bonds across the country."

As President, Eisenhower would sign the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act, which allowed the construction of 41,000 miles of wide roads. Although a numbering system based on Washington's zero milestone could not gain traction, a squat granite milestone on Ellipse remains a century later.


Zero Milestone on the north side of Ellipse in Washington. (Matt Sheehan / Washington Post)

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