1919 Trans-Continental Motor Convoy – 100 Years Later

1919 Trans-Continental Motor Convoy – 100 Years Later

One hundred years ago, in what began as the idea of one man, America was shown how motor trucks could transport troops, supplies, arms, and ammunition across the nation. This was known in 1919 as the First Trans-Continental Motor Transport Convoy.

The Idea and Development 

Henry Ostermann, who we talked about in a previous writing, had been piloting convoys for the Army up and down the east coast in the winter of 1917, during World War I. He was also serving as Field Secretary for the Lincoln Highway Association and merged his two occupations into one idea for the convoy.

In “A Picture of Progress on the Lincoln Way”, published by The Lincoln Highway Association (LHA) in 1920, the LHA  officers and the General Staff in Washington held a conference in June 1919 to discuss convoy details. The success of the run was due to the LHA supplying accurate data to the Army as a “result of its years of study of trans-continental  highway conditions, and of the co-operation given to the Motor Transport Corps, not only by the Headquarters of the Lincoln Highway Association, but by the consular representatives all along the line between the two coasts. The spirit with which the undertaking was met by the general public and the highway officials at every point along the route, was also invaluable to the project.”

The 1919 Army Convoy taking a break in Tama, Iowa. LHA Archive, Transportation History Collection, Special Collections, University of Michigan

The Route and Key Personnel 

On July 7, 1919, send-off ceremonies were attended by high ranking United States officials, including Secretary of War Baker; General Marsh, Chief of Staff; and many leading U.S. Senators and Representative. At the conclusion of the celebration, the convoy left from “Zero Milestone” near the south lawn of the White House in Washington, D.C..  A marker stands there yet today to commemorate this historic adventure undertaken by the Army. The convoy left from Washington and caught the Lincoln Highway at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. (The Lincoln Highway actually begins in Times Square in New York.)

From the LHA, “The convoy, consisting of 72 vehicles, 65 of which were motor trucks of all types used by the Government during the war, with a personnel of 260 men and 35 officers as statisticians and observers for the various branches of service, under the command of Lt. Col. Charles B. McClure and Capt. Bernard McMahan, and led by Field Secretary and Vice-President H.C. Ostermann of the LHA, in the Association’s Packard, traversed the continent, covering a distance of 3310 miles from Washington to San Francisco, in sixty-two days, arriving only four days behind the schedule laid out in Washington before the start.”

A young Lt.Col. Dwight Eisenhower was one of the men on this trip. He caught up with the convoy at the first overnight location in Frederick. Maryland. He wrote about his experience and his report is on file at his Presidential Library and Museum in Abilene, Kansas.  https://www.eisenhower.archives.gov.  

Washing dust from a 1919 Army Convoy vehicle in Cedar Rapids. LHA Archives, Transportation History Collection, Special Collections Library, University of Michigan

What the Convoy Taught Us

Eisenhower found most of the drivers in need of additional training and, as with the rest of the convoy leaders, felt the nation’s roads to be lacking. In the Eastern United States, they were often paved but sometimes too narrow for the large equipment. West of Chicago, roads became graveled. Iowa was lucky because it had not rained which would have turned the unpaved road to “gumbo.” The “Seedling Mile,” a one mile of paved road in Linn County near Cedar Rapids, Marion, and Mount Vernon, was completed just prior to the Convoy. The group did not write about it much. As it was, the ground in Iowa was very dry and the convoy, according to the State Center Enterprise, stretched out for as much as 10 miles. Vehicles were kicking up quite a bit of dust and hindering the men and trucks following them. Nearly one hundred bridges were broken and repaired across the nation, though we have no record of any in Iowa. (Iowa was a leader in bridge building.)

This experience showed that America needed to improve roads and the federal government needed to step in with funding instead of leaving it to the locals and counties to build their own roads. How county secondary road departments, county engineers, Federal Highway Commission, and the Department of Transportation developed is a story all its own- which we will address in a later writing.

1919 Motor Convoy crossing the Lincoln Highway Bridge in Tama, Iowa. LHA Archives, Transportation History Collection, Special Collections Library, University of Michigan

What could have happened in Iowa if it had rained! LHA Archives, Transportation History Collection, Special Collections Library, University of Michigan









Celebrating the Convoy 100 Years Later

This one idea from one man helped change the course of transportation. This year, in 2019, we will celebrate the convoy as the Military Vehicle Preservation Association (MVPA) travels the same route, from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco, and will overnight in Iowa- DeWitt (Aug 22), Marshalltown (Aug 23), and Denison (Aug 24). The MVPA call their convoy the “longest Veteran’s parade in the nation.”

The Lincoln Highway Association will also celebrate with their own D.C.-to-San Francisco convoy and overnight in Marshalltown (Sept 6) and Council Bluffs (Sept 7). Be sure to line the route and wave either flags or hands (or both) to the convoys as they come through your neck of the woods.