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.

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.