One hundred years ago this summer, a military convoy left Washington D.C. for a historic cross-country trek that would bring it through Sacramento. It was a laborious expedition that would prompt a young lieutenant colonel, Dwight D. Eisenhower, to later launch the biggest public works project in U.S. history – the federal interstate highway system.
The goal of the 1919 Motor Transport Corps trip was to determine what it would take to move large military contingents to the West Coast in case of a Pacific war. The convoy alternatively was said to have been a promotional event for the military after World War I and an attempt to give America a better sense of cohesiveness.
A commemorative article in the National Review magazine called it “one of the most audacious expeditions in U.S. history.” The convoy was met with crowds and speeches in towns along the way.
“Given how isolated the West Coast still felt from the rest of the country, and how difficult it was to reach it from the east other than by the railroad or a long sea voyage, the idea for the convoy was in some ways a natural evolution in the movement to link the country closer together,” the National Review wrote.
The two-month-long trek showed future President Eisenhower the country needed a fast, wide, paved highway system. The roads would not only to move military fleets, but also to expand interstate commerce and allow private mobility in a fast-growing post-World War II society where car and truck travel became increasingly common.
The 1919 convoy, according to accounts, consisted of 81 vehicles carrying 300 men from the White House to San Francisco, where the vehicles were carried the final miles via ferries.
More than half the distance was unpaved, including passage over the Sierra Nevada. Chronicles say the convoy had to deal with numerous vehicle breakdowns. The convoy damaged and had to rebuild dozens of bridges along the way.
To get to Sacramento from Tahoe, the convoy took the route now traveled by Highway 50, stopping in Kyburz.
The convoy arrived in Sacramento on Sept. 3, 1919, where it was treated to a gala dinner. The mission concluded in San Francisco a few days later. Eisenhower recalled the trip as fun but difficult. Later, he was introduced to the German autobahn.
“The old convoy had started me thinking about good, two-lane highways, but Germany had made me see the wisdom of broader ribbons across the land,” Eisenhower wrote in a memoir. “This was one of the things that I felt deeply about, and I made a personal and absolute decision to see that the nation would benefit by it.”
Eisenhower’s administration launched the interstate system with the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. The system took three decades-plus to construct.