Through Darkest America

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As every historian knows, great events are often determined by trivial ones. Benjamin Franklin, in Poor Richard’s Almanack , noted that for want of a single horseshoe nail an entire war could be lost. Franklin was being theoretical, of course, but real examples abound. Had any one of a thousand things happened (or not happened), for instance, the Titanic would have missed the iceberg.

Much of the man-made physical world, too, owes its existence to trivialities. In the 1840s New York banned the noisy, dirty, spark-throwing locomotives of the day from the built-up areas of the city. They were ordered to stay north of Forty-second Street, then no more than a country lane. As a result, New York is the only city in the world with two completely separate main business districts, one downtown, centered on Wall Street, and another, miles to the north, centered near the train station that was, necessarily, built at Forty-second Street.

Railroads were the great infrastructure project—to use the hot new Washington buzzword—of the nineteenth century. Infrastructure, because by definition it facilitates economic transactions, always has a profound effect on how, where, and why a country as a whole develops.

Being the world’s richest nation, the United States has more infrastructure than any other country. Almost all of it, however, came into existence with little or no overarching vision. Rather it developed from myriad local pressures and entrepreneurial activity, a fact for which the country seems little, if any, the worse (Washington, D.C., please note).

There is one glaring exception, however, to this general rule: the greatest American infrastructure project of them all, the Interstate Highway System. It was conceived, planned, and financed as a single entity, and it remains the largest public-works project in the history of the world.

But even this immense, and notably successful, undertaking owes its existence in large measure to a strikingly trivial event. In 1919 a U.S. Army captain was bored with peacetime duty, so that summer he volunteered for a trip that promised adventure by taking him, in his words, “through Darkest America.”

In the first decades of this century, American roads did not come close to achieving what might even charitably be called a system. Although many relatively long-distance roads had been built or planned early in the nineteenth century, the railroads had superseded them as carriers of passengers and freight, and by the end of that century, while the country had about two million miles of roads outside urban areas, they were all local roads.

They often terminated abruptly at a state or even county line. As late as 1912, when Henry B. Joy, president of Packard Motor Car Company, was in Omaha and asked the local Packard dealer how to go westward from that city, the man offered to show him and took him out of town until they encountered a wire fence. “Take down this fence,” the dealer told him, “and drive on and when you come to the next fence, take that down and go on again.”

“A little further,” Joy added, “and there were no fences, no fields, nothing but two ruts across the prairie.”

And of those 2,000,000 miles of local roads, only about 100 were paved. The other 1,999,900 miles were often quagmires of mud in the spring and fall and choked with dust all summer.

But that year, at least, the first national highway since the famous Cumberland Pike, suggested by George Washington and built in the first decades of the nineteenth century, was proposed. The Lincoln Highway, as it was called, was a privately funded demonstration project, mapped to reach from New York to San Francisco. By 1919, however, it was still more a cartographic than physical reality.

After the First World War had shown how vulnerable horses were to modern firepower, the U.S. Army decided to test the military capabilities of the internal-combustion engine for moving men and matériel. It also wanted to bring attention to the wretched condition of U.S. highways for both military and civilian purposes and to “demonstrate the necessity for the judicious expenditure of federal government appropriations in providing for the necessary highways.” So it mounted what it dubbed the First Transcontinental Motor Convoy of 1919, to cross the country on the Lincoln Highway.

This convoy was no small undertaking, for it was to operate under “wartime conditions” and assumed that “railroad facilities, bridges, tunnels, etc., had been damaged or destroyed by agents of an Asiatic enemy.”

There were sixty trucks—which the Army in its inimitable style insisted on calling Class B vehicles—together with half a dozen staff cars and the same number of motorcycles with sidecars. Two of the trucks were converted into ambulances, and two others were fitted out to act as machine shops while many towed trailers. But most were standard Army vehicles for carrying gasoline, troops, weapons, aerial searchlights, and the other paraphernalia of modern warfare.

Altogether there were around 285 officers and enlisted men—drivers, mechanics, medics, engineers, cooks, and telegraphers as well as regular soldiers—under the command of Lt. Col. Charles W. McClure.