The Untold Story Behind The US Highway System

We've written several previous articles about our Highway system, but we had not known about this trip at the time. It appears to be the primer which later became to focus of Eisenhower's term as President. If you find the topic interesting, you can find the other articles listed in the archive. 

On the 7th of July, 1919 Lt. Col. Dwight D. Eisenhower Joined the First Trans-Continental Motor Truck Trip as an Observer
The whole convoy (Photo: Edward J. Mandel Collection/Eisenhower Archive)
The more than 80 vehicles carried 24 officers and 258 enlisted men, left D.C. at 1 p.m, on July 7, 1919. It took the convoy the rest of the day to reach Frederick, Maryland. The same trip today would take about an hour. 
(Photo: K.C. Downing Collection/Eisenhower Archive)
But why Eisenhower and a colleague did not meet up with the train until the first night's stop out of Washington, at Frederick, Md. is rather interesting. The pair joined the convoy at the last minute, basically because they thought it would be exciting.  

Setting the stage for this story, first, the route the convoy would take was mostly along the Lincoln Highway, the first major transcontinental motor route. Second, the idea of crossing the country mostly on a whim and why wasn't really very clear. America had just had just returned from the Great War in Europe, where War Department motor units had helped secure victory. It was believed this cross-country convoy would help secure proof of an unstoppable military.

Next in play was the Good Roads Movement, which had been advocating for upgrades to the dirt and gravel tracks that connected cities to one another. One of the purposes of the convoy was to support this movement. According to information published at the time, the convoy was the largest fleet ever assembled to attempt such a trip. Unfortunately, the network of roads these trucks might use for a cross-country trip on was, for the most part, imaginary.
(Photo: Eisenhower Collection)
Based on his own records of the trip, Eisenhower observed numerous shortcomings of the various vehicles included in the fleet. The reality of things were that almost none of the vehicles perceived to be solid performing heavy duty vehicles actually were. The chain driven, overweight behemoths were unable to travel at speed and were overwhelmed by steep grades. Neither single nor dual solid rubber driving tires, which worked well on city streets were capable of addressing soft surfaces.
(Photo: Eisenhower Collection)
Ironically, the lightweight versions, which were initially believed to the most inferior overcame almost everything that was thrown their way and repeatedly used to rescue their heavy-duty counterparts.  Adding to negative conditions, most of the vehicles had never been prepared for the trip. His accounts reflect numerous delays to perform routine service which had been avoided.
(Photo: Eisenhower Collection)
His records indicate the first half of the trip driven mostly on some kind of paved roads was relatively painless. The noted shortcomings included pavement that was too narrow and bridges that were designed for horse and buggies or smaller vehicles. But once the convoy had reached the mid-way point, both pavement and bridges became non-existent.
(K.C. Downing Collection)
The trip became a struggle of nightmarish proportions. Their previous pace of a blistering 6MPH became a crawl. The farther west, the worse it got. At points, the convoy was 20 miles from any source of water—and 90 miles from the nearest railroad. There were many times they ran low on food, fuel and water. And in each of these cases, supplies were brought by horse drawn wagons.
(Edward J. Mantel Collection)
“From Orr’s Ranch, Utah, to Carson City, Nevada, the road is one succession of dust, ruts, pits and holes,” wrote Eisenhower. 

Once the convoy reached California, they were greeted by excellent roads and sped along highways lined with groves of peach, almond, orange and olive trees. Surprisingly, the convoy arrived in San Francisco only 6 days behind schedule, if you consider 60 days to be an acceptable time frame.  In honor of their arrival a great celebratory dinner event had been planned. Here's a link to a copy of the program.  
The outcome was an official report which supported Eisenhower's own report and jointly conveyed the Convoy were thoroughly convinced that all transcontinental highways should be construed and maintained by the Federal Government. But, it would be decades before America’s road system could actually ferry cars quickly across the country, and the real road trip era would begin. 

A point we found interesting is there are no similar reports of a return trip from San Francisco to Washington, DC nor were there any details to indicate if the vehicles were disbursed to military bases on the West coast or taken back by train.


1-President Eisenhower conceived the Interstate System.

The Interstate System was first described in a Bureau of Public Roads report to Congress, Toll Roads and Free Roads, in 1939.  It was authorized for designation by the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944, with the initial designations in 1947 and completed in 1955 under the 40,000-mile limitation imposed by the 1944 Act.  President Eisenhower didn’t conceive the Interstate System, but his support led to enactment of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, which established the program for funding and building it.

2-President Eisenhower supported the Interstate System because he wanted a way of evacuating cities if the United States was attacked by an atomic bomb.
President Eisenhower’s support was based largely on civilian needs—support for economic development, improved highway safety, and congestion relief, as well as reduction of motor vehicle-related lawsuits.  He understood the military value of the Interstate System, as well as its use in evacuations, but they were only part of the reason for his support.

3-Defense was the primary reason for the Interstate System.

The primary justifications for the Interstate System were civilian in nature.  In the midst of the Cold War, the Department of Defense supported the Interstate System and Congress added the words “and Defense” to its official name in 1956 (“National System of Interstate and Defense Highways”).  However, the program was so popular for its civilian benefits that the legislation would have passed even if defense had not been a factor. 

4-The Interstate System was launched by the Interstate Defense Highway Act of 1956.

No such legislation passed in 1956 or any other year.  Nevertheless, this title appears widely throughout the media instead of the correct title:  the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956.

5-One in five miles of the Interstate System is straight so airplanes can land in emergencies.

This myth is widespread on the Internet and in reference sources, but has no basis in law, regulation, design manual—or fact.  Airplanes occasionally land on Interstates when no alternative is available in an emergency, not because the Interstates are designed for that purpose.

6-Interstates are intended to serve only traffic going from State to State.

The Interstate System serves interstate, regional, and intra-State traffic, and was always expected to do so.  In fact, many routes, including beltways and spurs, are located entirely in one State and serve primarily intra-State traffic.

7-Beltways are designed to carry Interstate traffic around cities.

Beltways do help traffic avoid cities, but also are intended to serve metropolitan traffic moving from main highway to main highway. 

8-Congress should have put the money into transit instead of the Interstate System.

This was not an option in 1955 and 1956 when the congressional debate took place.  At the time, transit was provided mainly by private companies.  No one in the industry, in State and local governments, or in Congress imagined that the Federal Government would support these companies financially.  In fact, the only thing the American Transit Association asked Congress to do was exempt buses from the gas tax.  Congress did so.

9-Interstate numbers must be consistent with the numbering plan.

The numbering plan is helpful in choosing numbers for added routes.  However, in an irregularly shaped country, consistency is not possible.  The numbers are consistent for the most part, but irregularities have occurred for a number of reasons, such as addition of a route where a consistent number is not available or withdrawal of a route without concurrent renumbering of routes linked to it.  These inconsistencies have no effect on motorists who “navigate” based on maps, new GPS technology, personal knowledge or directions, and other means, not the numbering plan. 

10-The only built object astronauts can see from space is the Interstate System.

From an altitude of about 155 miles (250 kilometers), under the best of conditions, the unaided eye of an astronaut can see many built objects on Earth if he or she knows where to look.  The Interstate System is not visible as a network, but astronauts using binoculars can see roads, cities, dams, airports, and other objects.

Please note, photos are from The Eisenhower Collection and others listed here, which are either in the Public Domain or used under the doctrine of "Fair Use"