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How a Hellish Road Trip Revolutionized American Highways

Quicksand, food rationing, and embarrassment may have prompted Ike to push for a better highway system

The motor convoy departed D.C. on July 7, 1919. (U.S. Library of Congress)
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In July 1919, young Lt. Col. Dwight D. Eisenhower did what many twentysomethings do in the summer: He hopped in a truck with his buddies and took a road trip. But not every road trip is as horrible as the one that followed — or as influential, as former SmartNews editor Sarah Laskow writes for Atlas Obscura.

That summer, Eisenhower took part in a military motor convoy of 80 vehicles — trucks, cars and motorcycles — that traveled from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco along the cross-country Lincoln Highway. According to the New York Times, the road trip had two formal goals: to demonstrate the need for better highways and to show how awesome the U.S. Army was at getting from one side of the continent to another.

The trip took 62 days. At first, things went pretty well, explains Laskow. Weak or small covered bridges sometimes forced the convoy to take roundabout routes and even ford rivers, but Eisenhower told his superiors that even through dirt roads in Indiana and Iowa, they kept a good pace and overcame obstacles the road placed in their way.

Things changed when the convoy hit Nebraska. Sandy, unmaintained roads cost them days at a time, especially when rain turned sand to mud. At one point, it took the soldiers seven hours to pull the convoy through 200 yards of quicksand, Laskow writes.

In Utah and Nevada, things got worse. The convoy ran low on water and had to ration food. By Laskow’s description, the endeavor sounds more like the Oregon Trail (minus the cholera) than a 20th-century road trip. Finally, the convoy reached San Francisco six days late.

Some good did come from the hellish experience, though. Tales from the caravan encouraged Congress to pass the Townsend Highway Bill, which established the Federal Highway Commission. Later on, Laskow argues, the trip also influenced Eisenhower’s push for a system of smooth, paved roads across America.

Next time you hit a snag on the open road, remember: It probably wasn't as bad as Eisenhower's ordeal — one that might just have made your road trip possible.

About Helen Thompson
Helen Thompson

Helen Thompson writes about science and culture for Smithsonian. She's previously written for NPR, National Geographic News, Nature and others.

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