American Road

By Ken Aiken - the Gear Guy on

American Road: The Story of An Epic Transcontinental Journey At The Dawn of the Motor Age
by Pete Davies.
Published by Henry Holt and Company, NY, 2002
261 pages, hardcover, ISBN 0-8050-6883-X

It was a discounted book discovered in a locally owned bookstore in Canada. I’d never heard of it, but the subject was right up my alley and the price was right. “American Road: The Story Of An Epic Transcontinental Journey At The Dawn Of The Motor Age” by Pete Davies turned out to be one of the most interesting travel books that I’ve read during the past year.
On July 7, 1919 a convoy of eighty-one military vehicles (including nine Indian and Harley-Davidson motorcycles) and three hundred men left the White House on an epic 3,250-mile journey across America to San Francisco. It was the end of World War I and the dawning of the automotive era, but no convoy of motor vehicles, military or commercial, had ever attempted crossing the continent. Strange as it now seems, in the aftermath of the Great War, the U.S. Army found itself with tens of thousands of trucks it didn’t know how to utilize and no one knew whether or not motor vehicles could actually be used to transport men and supplies across the country. Furthermore, the Good Roads Movement was applying pressure for Federal funding of highways, western states wanted roads to their new national parks, other factions wanted defense roads built along the Mexican border, and the army needed a public relations event to recruit new soldiers. The “First Transcontinental Motor Train” was the War Department’s response.
Ironically, the First Transcontinental Motor Train, (the largest military motor convoy the world had ever seen) hadn’t a clue as to how to cross the United States and had to rely on the Lincoln Highway Guidebook and the active promoter of the Lincoln Highway Association, Henry Ostermann, to guide them. Although “American Road” is a story complete in-and-of itself, this historical novel of sixty-two days of frustration and determination is also an important chapter in the history of the Lincoln Highway. In a country that had 6.5 million cars, trucks, and motorcycles, and where a million people were employed by the auto industry, this convoy, following the best mapped and most actively promoted transcontinental auto-route in the United States, passed through towns where residents had never seen a motor car!
One of the military observers assigned to the Motor Train was a captain in the Army Tank Corps by the name of Dwight Eisenhower. There are other notable characters in this story: promoter Henry Ostermann; convoy leader Lt. Colonel Charles W. McClure; Eisenhower’s buddy and co-prankster, Major Sereno Brett; Lt. Elwell Jackson, the diarist for the Ordinance Department; and even the Militor, a custom-built motorized winch/tractor/wrecker. The author could easily have written this adventure as seen through the eyes of any one of them, but except for particular events and quotes, maintains a narrative style throughout the book.
Mud, sand, inadequate or non-existent bridges, mountain roads no wider than the trucks themselves, and great salt flats that couldn’t hold the weight of motor vehicles were just some of the obstacles that were encountered. The political maneuvering that took place between towns, counties, and states were obstacles of even greater magnitude. In Utah the Lincoln route was hijacked by a rival state; in Nevada it virtually ceased to exist. Some nights the convoy was wined, dined, and lavishly entertained; some nights they were barely fed. Although a viable highway promised prosperity for the towns and cities through which it passed, the bond issues and subsequent taxes also created opposition. Nothing was straightforward about this trip.
The First Transcontinental Motor Train was the last of great exploratory expeditions in the Western United States and Pete Davies (or his editor) doesn’t do it justice. This sixty-two journey transformed America and clearly marks the beginning of the automotive era. The daily progress of the convoy was extensively documented by newspapers, film crews, photographers, military communications, personal letters, and diaries; far too much information to be included in a single book. I found myself tantalized and, after reading the last pages, am determined to discover more about the Good Roads Movement and the history of the Lincoln Highway. I’ve even (partially) forgiven President Dwight Eisenhower for signing into law the creation of a “National System of Interstate and Defense Highways” after learning about his adventure.
For those who are fascinated by the history of highways in America or the Lincoln Highway in particular will devour the 261 pages of this book. Those who plan a cross-country tour to discover as much of the classic US-30 / Lincoln Highway as possible, need to read this book.

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