Tuesday, July 07, 2009

The First Transcontinental Motor Train - 1919

Ninety years ago, today, at 11:15 AM the first transcontinental motor train gathered for a dedication of the Zero Milestone in Washington DC and left town heading for the Pacific Ocean. The motor train was made up of eighty-one Army vehicles. The vehicles were operated by thirty-seven officers and 258 enlisted men with Lt. Colonel Charles W. McClure as the convoy commander. Sixty-two days and 3,251 miles later, on September 6th the convoy would arrive in San Francisco.

In 1919, there were only a few people who had ever crossed the United States by Motor Car. The Army decided they would use this transcontinental trip to test the difficulties of sending the Army to the Pacific Coast in the event of war and road test the performance of various makes and sizes of trucks, types of tires, and repair equipment in the inventory of the Army at the time. There was also some good publicity to be gained for the army in doing this.

The convoy would pass thru about 350 communities and be witnessed by over three million people. It would travel over what was called the Lincoln Highway. They would drive about six to twelve hours a day, making about 5 miles an hour. They would then make camp, work on the vehicles and than the local populace would invite them to parties. The convoy in turn had a searchlight that they would fire up and give the equivalent of a 1919 laser show to the local towns. All the towns along the route celebrated that the convoy was driving thru their town. In Delphos, Ohio the men were given dinner in the local dance halls of the town and driven out to swim in Auglaize River. In Illinois, Joliet served cold drinks. In Aurora they handed out sandwiches, cakes, and ice cream. As they pulled into Oakland California two hundred girls sang to welcome the convoy (reminds me of Norfolk when the fleet drops anchor).

As one soldier described the trip; “Pretty strenuous. Up every night until eleven or twelve o’clock at banquets and dances and out in the morning at five and five-thirty to be on our way… It’s a great life if you don’t weaken.”

But there were great difficulties on the trip. What roads that existed were made for the weight of a horse and wagon, not 81 motor vehicles. The engineer company attached to the convoy had to rebuild bridges so they would hold the weight of trucks (88 were destroyed by the heavy trucks). The convoy encountered quicksand, ravines and creeks. The men had to attach ropes to the trucks and pull them across parts of the desert. Each night the vehicles were inspected, re-oiled, greased, carburetors cleaned, etc. The tires on the vehicles were solid, not air filled, the steering wheels were large and took great strength to turn them, and shocks were none existence.

Among the officers on the trip was Captain Dwight D. Eisenhower. Thirty-seven years after making this journey, President Eisenhower would sign into law establishing the interstate highway system.

A good book on this subject is “American Road” by Pete Davies.

the final dinner program in San Francisco. Also includes list of men in convoy.


Uncle Paul said...

Thanks Howard.. that was one of the most interesting history stories you've ever published. I especially liked the hook on the end about Ike...

Anonymous said...

It was one of your best