Truck Tech

Motor Trucks in the Wild West

Blog commentary by Jack Roberts, Senior Editor

May 11, 2017

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Mack Trucks in action during the U.S. Army's 1919 cross-country motor convoy experiment. Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps
Mack Trucks in action during the U.S. Army's 1919 cross-country motor convoy experiment. Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps

Given its size and industrial output, at some point, the United States would have had no choice but to invest in and build a national highway system. But the actual story of how the Interstate Highway System came to be is amazing because it largely revolves around the unique experiences of an American hero named Dwight D. Eisenhower.

After graduating from West Point in 1916, “Ike” requested an overseas assignment during the First World War, but was posted instead to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and missed out on the chance for a career-enhancing combat command. But he was a capable, organized officer. And World War I was the first conflict to see the use of motorized transport, which played a decisive role in staving off a German victory at various points during the fighting.

After the Armistice, the War Department decided to study how trucks could be used to move a convoy of troops and equipment across the continental United States in the event of an invasion of the West Coast. Command of the convoy of trucks fell to young Major Eisenhower, with orders to set out from Washington, D.C. and proceed in as expeditiously a manner as possible to Oakland, California.

Lt. Col. Dwight Eisenhower during his command of the 1919 coast-to-coast motor convoy. Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps
Lt. Col. Dwight Eisenhower during his command of the 1919 coast-to-coast motor convoy. Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps

The convoy was impressive for the time. According to the Wikipedia entry on the event, it consisted of 81 total vehicles and trailers, including 34 heavy cargo trucks, four light delivery trucks, two mobile machine shops, a mobile blacksmith shop, one wrecker, and an "Artillery Wheeled Tractor" capable of towing nine trucks at once.

There were also two spare parts wagons, two water tanks, one gasoline tank, one searchlight with electrical power plant truck, four kitchen trailers, eight touring cars, a reconnaissance car, two staff observation cars, five sidecar motorcycles, and four solo motorcycles, as well as five ambulances with trailers, and a 4-ton pontoon trailer (which was abandoned in Omaha).

Manufacturers involved included Mack Trucks, fresh off its name-making triumphs on European battlefields, as well as GMC, Cadillac, Dodge, F.W.D., Garford, Harley-Davidson, Indian, Liberty, Packard, Riker, Standardized, Trailmobile, and White.

The journey wasn’t an easy one. It’s worth noting that in 1919, it had only been 20-odd years or so since the end of the last Indian Wars. So, the Western U.S. had far more in common with the Wild West of the 19th Century than the 20th Century’s ongoing Industrial Revolution.

What primitive highways existed at the time petered out far east of the Mississippi River. And things got progressively worse the farther west the convoy traveled. At times, the men were lucky to following a cattle path. More often than not, they were simply making their own road as they went.

An idea of just how brutal the whole affair was can be gleaned from these highlights: En route, Eisenhower’s men found virtually no paved roads west of Illinois and often had to tear down and rebuild wooden bridges, if they weren’t building them from scratch while enduring 230 separate “road incidents” requiring vehicle repairs.

All told, the convoy covered more than 3,000 miles at an average speed of 5 mph, with average travel times of slightly more than 10 hours per day. The trip took a total of 56 days, with the troop finally arriving in Oakland six days behind schedule. Casualties included 9 vehicles that could not complete the trip, as well as 21 men unable to finish the journey out of the original contingent of 297 officers and enlisted men.

Most of the soldiers were raw recruits with little or no motor skills at the beginning of the journey, although Eisenhower noted several were “really component drivers” by the end of the trip.

It was a grueling affair at a time when next to nothing was known about motorized transport and logistics, and this early triumph by Eisenhower not only put him on solid footing as a capable officer with his superiors, but also impressed upon him the importance of a reliable, well-maintained road network for a modern, industrialized nation.

But it was only the first part of the future president’s thinking on modern roadways. His role in an even greater war a few years later would shape his thinking on highways in equally profound ways. More on that in my next Truck Tech blog.  


  1. 1. Jason [ May 16, 2017 @ 07:50AM ]

    Awesome article! I love learning more about the history of our nation and our industry. Thank you!


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Author Bio

Jack Roberts

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Senior Editor

As a licensed commercial driver, HDT senior editor Jack Roberts often reports on ground-breaking technical developments and trends in an industry being transformed by technology. With more than two decades covering trucking, in Truck Tech he offers his insights on everything from the latest equipment, systems and components, to telematics and autonomous vehicle technologies.


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