- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 8, 2002

Imagine, if you will, climbing into your car in Washington, D.C., today and starting off on a transcontinental drive to San Francisco. You can do it in four or five days, easy.
But not if the year is 1919 and your vehicle in an army truck. Then it's going to take you more than two months, most of it pure hell.
Those four and six lane freeways and national highways that now run between here and there and almost everywhere were nowhere back then. And the cars and trucks of that year? Well, be glad a few improvements have been made since then on both the roads and the vehicles.
Pete Davies, a Brit, of all people, has written the story of that 1919 transcontinental trip in a fascinating book with the unappealing title of "American Road." And it's more than just a recitation of the difficulties those making the trip encountered. The sidebars Mr. Davies recounts are what add zest and panache to the main tale.
This was an army expedition that involved 81 vehicles, 37 officers and 258 enlisted men, many of whom had never driven trucks before. Not surprisingly, while the enlisted men drove and rode in the trucks which didn't even have windshields, passenger cars were supplied for the officers.
One of the officers who went along as an observer was a temporary lieutenant colonel from the tank corps named Dwight David Eisenhower. However, it should be noted that Ike's role in the crossing was not one that was a springboard to his future success. Indeed, if Mr. Davies has it right, it was for Ike little more than a lark. His main contribution seems to have been to participate in practical jokes played mainly on an unpopular junior officer.
According to Mr. Davies the trek had four purposes. Three were to test the reliabilty of the army's motorized vehicles, to study the terrain and driving conditions and to help with an army recruitment drive. But the foremost purpose was to lend government support to the blooming national "Good Roads" movement. Gen Charles B. Drake who headed the army's Motor Transport Corps, put it this way: "To demonstrate the practicability of long distance motor commercial transportation and the consequent necessity for the expenditure of governmental appropriations to provide necessary highways."
Strange as it may seem to today's driving public, more than 20 years after the invention of the automobile the country still faced a chicken and egg situation in which the automobile came first and only then did the people and the government recognized that cars and they were already multiplying like rabbits would go nowhere in a hurry without good roads. Even so the feeling was not unanimous; there were those who didn't want them around. Mr. Davies tells us that there was in Pennsylvania in those days an "Anti-Automobile Association."
Overwhelmingly, however, in 1919 the call was for more and better roads and it was believed the trek would impress upon the public and the Congress the need for them.
There was that year, Mr. Davies tells us, not only nothing that could be called a transcontinental highway but also there wasn't even a road map for the convoy to follow. All it had was a guide book put out by the Lincoln Highway Association, an organization that was lobbying hard for a transcontinental highway and had laid out sort of a route between Washington and San Francisco with the name The Lincoln Highway in honor of the late Civil War president. Unfortunately, the name really never caught on and eventually interstate routes were given numbers instead of names.
Regardless, it would be a while before a coast-to-coast highway by whatever name or number was built. In 1919 road construction was purely a state or local enterprise. There was no such thing as a federal road building program, merely a bill the Townsend bill before Congress to create one and Dr. S. M. Johnson, of the National Highway Association, who accompanied the convoy, spoke at every stop of the need to pass the legislation.
If the purpose the trek was as Drake described it then it was at least half-way successful. It unquestionably showed the need for a federal highway building program but it lacked a great deal in demonstrating the practicability of long distance motor commercial transportation.
In fact, what it showed was that that long distance motor commercial transportation was totally impractical unless decent meaning paved roads were built.
And, although Mr. Davies doesn't allude to it, it undoubtedly showed the needed for better vehicles. The highways of 2002 would be wasted on the trucks of 1919, which had no windshields or cabs, some of which which were chain-driven (you know like a bicycle) and all of which had trouble getting up hills.
Ah, but the story of "American Road" is really a romance, sans for the most part, the girls.
It is a logical follow-on to tales of the covered wagon trains of earlier years, with obstacles almost as severe, except for the lack of marauding Indians.
Those who put the convoy together prepared for the worst, which turned out to be even worse than they thought it would be.
Two of the trucks carried spare parts. One was a traveling blacksmith shop and two others were mobile machine shops, all of which were in constant use. There were three tankers, two carrying gasoline, 750 gallons each, and one contained water. There were five ambulances, two ambulance trailers, four kitchen trailers, a caterpillar tractor, a 3 million candle-power search light and a thing called the Militor, which Mr. Davies described as looking like an iron box bolted to the back of a scarab beetle. He called it "an extraordinary vehicle" and "the convoy's most priceless asset." Its purpose was to haul broken down or stranded vehicles out of trouble and it worked admirably until toward the end it, too, broke down.
Other vehicles included cars for the officers and nine motorcycles for scouts. It was a slow, tedious, tiring and frustrating. Most days the convoy made fewer than 100 miles and days under 50 miles were not rare. Which is not surprising. Many bridges had to be strengthened before they could be crossed. Often the convoy detoured the bridges and forded the streams. It was common for trucks to sink up to their axles in mud. And there were times when the men had to attach ropes to trucks and pull them out of the mire by hand.
Once, to the embarassment of the officers, they had to buy gasoline from a gas station along the way.
Most nights, though, they stopped in towns and cities where they were fed and feted by the townsfolk and provided with much needed showers. Lemonade seems to have been the popular drink of the day. It was served at almost every stop.
"American Road" is more than just the description of the trials and tribulations of that early trek. It is also the story of the men who dreamed the dream of a transcontinental highway and were instrumental in the birth of both the automobile industry and the national highway system, the men who made the convoy happen, as well as bits and pieces of Americana in the scattered cities and towns along the way.
Mr. Davies does a fine job of rounding out his story with places and incidents that don't directly relate to the convoy but add depth to his story and give the readers a feeling for the people and places of what was then a sparsely populated land. To be sure, some of it seems like padding in this 230 page book, but all of it adds to the enjoyment. After all, even today a cross country trip is enhanced by brief side excursions such as the ones Mr. Davies takes us on.
It would be nice to say that, like most good stories, the struggles of the convoy didn't end until it arrived in San Francisco. But not so. Once it hit the California border where the natives had taken to serious road building, it was smooth rolling all the way to Oakland. In San Francisco, after they ferried the bay, they were greeted with a parade and the cheers of thousands. They were awarded special medals and they had a group picture taken, too, which Ike didn't stay for. He was already heading for Denver where Mamie was waiting.
What happened to the main players in this transcontinental drama after it was finished? Well, surprise. Mr. Davies tells us. It's a welcome and all too rare wrap-up. A fine finish to an extraordinary story.

Lyn Nofziger, a Washington writer, was a political adviser to President Ronald Reagan.

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