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Tolling Points

America's First, Worst Road Trip Celebrates 100 Years

By: 
Bill Cramer

It was the road trip that gave birth to all future road trips.

A test of an emerging roadway network that failed so magnificently that it forced a conversation about solutions that would work.

The formative experience that planted the seeds of dissatisfaction that led a future U.S. President to fund the Interstate Highway System.

An event commemorated by a monument so obscure that one recent Google Streetview image captured it covered by a water bottle and an umbrella.

With Americans heading out on a summer season of leisurely road trips -- last week, I personally drove more than 800 miles up the Pacific Coast Highway in California and enjoyed both the Oakland Bay Bridge and Golden Gate Bridge -- American University Radio (WAMU 88.5) got in touch with Federal Highways spokesperson Doug Hecox to celebrate the 62-day odyssey that made it all possible.

The Zero Monument

The waist high Zero Monument, located on the Ellipse in Washington, D.C. near the National Christmas Tree, turned 100 years old on July 7. WAMU Radio notes, it’s a prime location for tourists taking selfies in front of the White House. When it was placed in 1919, it marked the “starting point of the first transcontinental motor convoy over the Lincoln Highway, July 7, 1919”, serving as the official “point for measurement of distances from Washington on highways of the United States”.

For Doug Hecox, Federal Highways Administration spokesperson and self-proclaimed history nerd, the monument is so much more. “This is one of the most significant monuments in D.C., and yet no one’s really seen it,” he told WAMU.

“This historical event that this particular monument commemorates gave us modern America,” he added. “It was the thing that sort of set the 20th Century in motion.”

It may also have been the very worst road trip in American history. Hecox said the 62-day, 3,251-mile trek over mostly dirt roads “was awful in every way, shape or form”.

The U.S. military originally planned the trip to test vehicles that had been built for the First World War, but never got overseas by the time the Armistice was signed. They also had an eye to a possible future in which the country needed to fight on home territory. “The Army needed to know how hard would it be to move troops and equipment from the east coast to the west coast should we ever be invaded,” Hecox explained. “No one really knew.”

The experience must have been sobering.

“The trucks had rickety wood frames, no shock absorbers and solid rubber tires, which meant a bumpy ride. And there were no windshields, so everyone was caked in dirt,” WAMU recounts. “Breakdowns were frequent. When it rained, roads turned to mud and it took days to get unstuck. In just one day, 25 trucks slid into a ditch outside North Platte, Nebraska.”

But the dusty, sodden troops reportedly received a warm welcome from the more than three million townspeople they met along the route. “It was probably like an armada of UFOs going by,” Hecox said. “Simply something many had never seen.”

Eisenhower: An Adventure that Turned Serious

WAMU says one of the troops in the convoy was a young lieutenant colonel who had signed up for the road trip “on a lark for a bit of adventure”, fretting that he was in for a rank reduction as the Army shrank in peacetime.

His name, Dwight D. Eisenhower.

By the time he reached the west coast, he’d become passionate about the need to invest in the country’s highway infrastructure.

 “The Lincoln Highway over this portion of the country is so poor as to warrant a thorough investigation,” Eisenhower wrote. “Extended trips by trucks through the middle western part of the United States are impracticable until the roads are improved.”

Highway historian Peter Davies said the 1919 road trip was just one influence on the future president. “It would be very simplistic to say that because he went across the continent in 1919, in 1956, he starts saying let’s have interstates,” he told CSPAN in 2002. “Nonetheless, because he’d done that trip in 1919, he never forgot it.”

In his memoir, Eisenhower wrote: “The old convoy had started me thinking about good, two-lane highways, but Germany’s (Autobahn) had made me see the wisdom of broader ribbons across the land.” Those contrasting experiences became the inspiration for the highway system that hundreds of millions of Americans depend on every day.

“We are pushing ahead with a great road program that will take this nation out of its antiquated shackles of secondary roads all over this country and give us the types of highways that we need for this mass of motor vehicles,” Eisenhower said, in a fiery speech in Detroit in 1954.

Get passionate about great roadways! Attend IBTTA’s 87th Annual Meeting and Exhibition, September 15-17, 2019 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

Newsletter publish date: 
Tuesday, July 16, 2019 - 11:30

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