Through Darkest America

We owe the greatest infrastructure project in the history of the world to the fact that in 1919 a young U.S. Army captain was bored.

The expedition got under way in Washington, D.C., on July 7, with great ceremony (a milestone marking the event is, in fact, still there, just south of the White House grounds). The Secretary of War, the Army chief of staff, and assorted senators and representatives were there to see the convoy depart. Once the politicians had run out of oratorical steam, the convoy set off at eleven-fifteen in the morning. Seven and a quarter hours later, it camped for the night at the Frederick (Maryland) Fair Grounds, having made a less-than-brisk forty-six miles. One trailer had broken its coupling, a staff car had lost a fan belt, and one Class B had to be towed into camp with a broken magneto (alternator, in today’s parlance).

And so it went, day after day. The convoy could make a top speed of ten to fifteen miles an hour, but it averaged only sixty miles a day thanks to frequent stops for repairs and to inspect bridges. In the East the roads were fair and usually paved, but the bridges were often a problem. Some had to be circumvented because they were too narrow (or were covered and couldn’t take the big Army trucks). Others had to be reinforced. In all, sixty-five bridges were remodeled or rebuilt by Army engineers as the convoy made its way west.

Although the convoy was operating as though it was passing through enemy-held territory, the inhabitants of that territory were, if anything, determined to kill the troops with kindness. Virtually every town greeted them with cheers, flags, and, of course, speeches. Brass bands and concerts were frequent, and at least one town, Bedford, Pennsylvania, even had that ultimate in welcoming festivities, dancing in the streets.

When the convoy reached Columbiana, Ohio, the richest man in town—who happened to be the not entirely disinterested Harvey Firestone—treated the troops to a picnic on his lawn.

As the convoy moved steadily westward, the population thinned out, and the roads deteriorated into the wagon tracks that they once, not so long before, had all been. In North Platte, Nebraska, one day was lost when torrential rains turned what passed for a road into a sea of mud and twenty-five vehicles had to be hauled out of ditches.

A second day was lost when, in the midst of the Nevada desert, the convoy found itself facing a sand dune three hundred feet high and three miles long with no way around. Every vehicle had to be pulled through it by the caterpillar tractors they had had the foresight to include. In eleven hours they made only twelve miles.

At one point there was no road at all, and they “rolled, tumbled, rocked and tossed over an abandoned railroad [bed] . . . with holes of varying depths.” In the Sierra Nevada of eastern California they faced grades greater than 17 percent. (Today the Interstate Highway System has no grades more than 4 percent.)

Despite all the hazards, the convoy lost only two vehicles to accidents, and one that rolled down a mountain beyond reach, in the thirty-two-hundred-mile trek. It arrived in San Francisco only two days behind schedule, on September 6. There is no doubt that this accomplishment was due far more to the can-do spirit of the officers and men than to the vehicular infrastructure.

Because this was an Army operation, a full report was filed on the expedition. “The necessity for a comprehensive system of National highways,” it noted, “including transcontinental or through routes east and west, north and south, is real and urgent as a commercial asset to further colonize and develop the sparsely settled sections of the country, and finally as a defensive military necessity.”

Like countless other Army reports before and since, it went into a file drawer, for all practical purposes never to be seen again. The federal government began contributing funds to state road-building projects in 1923 for highways that met certain specifications and were given U.S. route numbers. This hardly constituted a comprehensive system, however, being under the political control of forty-eight separate states.

But the Army captain who had joined the convoy for no better reason than he thought it would be a pleasant way to spend the summer did not forget his experience.

Thirty-five years later he continued to think that a comprehensive system of national superhighways was in the interests of the country. And because by then he happened to be President of the United States, he was in a position to do something about it.

It was Dwight Eisenhower who determinedly pushed the Interstate Highway System through an initially reluctant Congress.