American Road - the Story of an Epic Transcontinental Journey at the Dawn of the Motor Age
Pete Davies, 2002, 274 pages

American Road The Story of an Epic Transcontinental Journey at the Dawn of the Motor Age
2This book is not about Donner Summit although we'd dearly hoped Dwight Eisenhower's trip across the country on the Lincoln Highway in 1919 had gone over Donner Summit. The Lincoln Highway had two routes over the Sierra. One went over Donner Summit and the other took the Placerville Route through So. Lake Tahoe.  The “Epic Transcontinental Journey” took the Placerville route.

Still, the trip was interesting as an episode in the early “Motor Age” and it did use the Lincoln Highway, so here it is.

We’re going to run out of books even tangentially related to Donner Summit some time so that will mean book reviews in the Heirloom and on our website of more general interest, like this one.

An awful lot of research went into this book.  The author followed this now little-known cross-country trip all the way across the country through research in local papers and participants’ contemporary documents, and then by actually driving the route.  The reader gets to l earn every detail of the trip.  That’s a little problematical though. We follow the convoy across Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, and Nevada to the end in San Francisco, California.  It’s quite a tour and it’s amazing it was completed in 1919.  It’s also amazing it was completed given the hardships. We learn about what every little town did to welcome the convoy; where soldiers ate, showered, and danced; where trucks ran off the road; where bridges had to be rebuilt; etc.  By the time you are half way across America you are as tired as the soldiers must have been.

That’s not to say there are not some good stories, anecdotes, and information about the convoy, the Lincoln Highway, and the state of roads in the early days.  It’s just a bit long.  Not every detail of every town needed to be listed.

The story starts with a summary of Dwight Eisenhower’s experiences and prospects after World War I.  He’d heard about an Army convoy heading across the continent to San Francisco that needed observers from different branches of the Army.  He volunteered as a member of the tank corps.  He’d be able to do something more than push papers in the post-war army.  Given that start the reader might expect that there would be a lot more about Eisenhower and
the trip but that’s not so.

Before getting into the day-to-day experiences there is some background: autos, roads, manufacturers, transcontinental crossings, and the “Road Across America,” the Lincoln Highway. 

The convoy was the largest convoy of military vehicles ever assembled up to that time.  All assembled at the start the convoy was two miles long. There were 81 vehicles, 258 enlisted men, 37 officers,  and 46 trucks from ¾ ton to 5 tons.  The convoy included a blacksmith shop and mobile machine shops. There were 11 automobiles, 9 motorcycles, 5 ambulances, two ambulance trailers, four kitchen trailers, 2 four-wheel trail mobiles, 2 two-wheel Liberties, a pontoon trailer, a three million candlepower searchlight on its own chassis, a caterpillar tractor, and a “wrecker winch” or “artillery wheeled tractor.”

There were five objectives.  After the enormous effort of the war the “America needed a celebration” and the “army meant to show off an impressive array of equipment that had helped win” the war.  Second, the trip would be a good trial for equipment.  The army could study the terrain and driving conditions on the transcontinental trek.  The publicity would serve to aid recruitment.  Finally, it would be the Government’s contribution to the good roads movement, drawing attention to the state of roads.  Little did they know the actual state of the roads.  To help with publicity the convoy was followed by a film crew.

There is information about daily life in the convoy: reveille, sleeping arrangements, scouts, welcome parades, weather, accidents (230), break downs, lightning, and “civic courtesies.”

It is that last that takes up most of the book.  The reader learns about what happened in every town along the way.  Apparently the convoy was popular.  Whole towns and thousands of people came out to greet the soldiers and provide them with food and recreation.

One soldier at the trip’s end said of the experience had been “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.”  That of course belied the utter misery of the crossing: the constant break-downs, trucks going off the road, the thick dust, the heat, having to constantly dig out vehicles, etc.

Even the simple driving was hard. “The combination of solid tires and poor roads would have produced a constant, bon-jolting rattle and shudder.  It would have been so bad that if the driver attempted any speed higher than ten miles an hour, it would have taken the sum of his effort just to hang on to the wheel and not be flung from his seat.”  The convoy did not make ten miles an hour.  The author continually reported daily progress: 20 miles in six hours, 58 miles in 11 hours, 63 miles in 17 hours, 41 miles in 7 hours, 20 hours to go 66 miles to Carson City, 12 hours to go 50 miles to Placerville, 7.5 hours to go 35 miles which included nine stops to fix bridges and culverts.  Those kinds of statistics give you an idea of how miserable the trip must have been in general.  The author slides in little anecdotes or descriptions to further make the point.  In the town of Clinton, Iowa the surfaced roads were done in creosote wooden blocks.  They stank and buckled in summer.

The statistics give one a good idea about the state of roads in America in 1910 and why there was the better roads movement and they give us a good idea for why Dwight Eisenhower was such a proponent of the Interstate Highway System, begun during his terms in office as president.

There are also descriptions of conditions.  Bridges had to be completely rebuilt before the convoy could cross.  Colonel McClure, the convoy’s leader said, about the center of Wyoming, “mountain desert of most desolate and monotonous character… dry air wind and dust hardship continuous.”  One soldier said about Western Utah he was “disgusted at the desert and trip.”  In Nevada “two gas tankers buried themselves five feet deep in the mire; they broke through the hard crust of the trails’ surface and sank without warning. The shifting sand on the roadside made detouring around these bad spots impossible….”  That was not unusual and contributed to the slow progress.

There are a lot of little stories throughout: how Goodyear tire got its start, examples of racism in America, mountain oysters, Big Nose Charlie’s brain (and the shoes made from his skin that were worn by the governor of Wyoming at his inauguration), Omaha politics and a lynching, the Negro Motorist’s Green Book  (needed so blacks knew where they would be welcome), stocking-less women during a heat wave in Omaha, the shimmy (a “wiggly terpsichorean [dance] movement” ) that scandalized proper society when Bay Area young women welcomed the soldiers, a scientist who went up in a balloon and would communicate with Martians, and a pants burglar in Nebraska.

The main lesson of the book is the inadequacy of roads, bridges, and infrastructure in America and the public seeing the need to make fixes to improve commerce as shown by one Nebraska headline, “War Declared Between Civilization and Mud.”

There is also some fun reporting some of Dwight Eisenhower’s hijinks on the road.   That’s about all that’s said about Eisenhower’s experiences.   He and a friend played a number of practical jokes: pretending there were Indians around, having an apparently crazed officer chase another one “wounded” with ketchup, pretending  to Easterners they’d made an amazing shot to kill a rabbit (that had been dead twelve hours), etc.

The trip was a success. The convoy did get to California losing only a few trucks.  A lot of publicity was made and roads did get better.