Ribbons Across the Land: Building the U.S. Interstate Highway System Exhibition Cover
Back to Exhibition

Ribbons Across the Land: Building the U.S. Interstate Highway System

1919 U.S. Army Transcontinental Convoy

A Cross-country Test

On the morning of July 7, 1919, a convoy of 79 U.S. Army vehicles departed from the “Zero Milestone” on the Ellipse south of the White House in Washington, D.C. The convoy included 24 officers, 258 enlisted men, and 14 War Department observation officers, including 28-year-old Lieutenant Colonel Dwight Eisenhower. The objectives of the expedition were to test new Army vehicles and to determine the feasibility of moving a military unit across the country.

The Lincoln Highway: The Story of a Crusade That Made Transportation History. Dodd, Mead & Company, 1935.

A Difficult Journey

Though not the first transcontinental trip by automobile, it was the largest assembly of vehicles to make a cross-country journey. The convoy followed the Lincoln Highway from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania westward, traveling across Iowa and Nebraska through the plains. More than half of the route, especially from Illinois to California, was over unpaved roads, and accidents and vehicle breakdowns were commonplace. Many bridges were unsafe and had to be built ahead of time by an advanced party or repaired after the convoy had passed over them.

“The First Transcontinental Motor Convoy.” Journal of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, vol. 42, no. 3, 1920.

The Need for Better Roads

The convoy arrived in San Francisco, California, on September 6. They had traveled 3,251 miles, averaging six miles per hour and 58 miles per day. The difficulties they encountered would have a lasting impression on Eisenhower. “Extended trips by trucks through the middle western part of the United States are impracticable until roads are improved, and then only a light truck should be used on long hauls,” he wrote afterwards.

Photo of car stuck in quicksand falling off road

“The First Transcontinental Motor Convoy.” Journal of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, vol. 42, no. 3, 1920.