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July 12, 2006 9:47 PM   Subscribe

The 1919 Transcontinental Motor Convoy — Take a 28 year old future U.S. President on a two month long, 3,251 mile, transcontinental road trip (where relatively few have gone before). Wait while he shoulders a little responsibility, add some autobahn^ envy, and 37 years later he signs into law over 40,000 miles of the National Defense Highway System (later renamed: it recently passed 50 years of growth.) About his favorite domestic program, Ike said, "More than any single action by the government since the end of the war, this one would change the face of America. ...Its impact on the American economy - the jobs it would produce in manufacturing and construction, the rural areas it would open up - was beyond calculation." More documents, logs, and first-hand reports from the 1919 convoy here.
posted by cenoxo (27 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Fascinating stuff, great post. It brings to mind that other great US Army-initiated network, the Internet (some "maps"). And this passage from your second Autobahn links is quite revealing so far as national character and stereotypes are concerned:
In short, where Germany had intended to build the highways first and the vehicles second, America had the vehicles and no clear plan for building the highway network.
The more things change, etc.
posted by persona non grata at 10:31 PM on July 12, 2006

Reading of President Eisenhower makes me wonder where all the good Republicans went.

It's like they died and their skins were inhabited by thieves, racists, and idiots; filled with the spirit of subterranean cruelty and shined up like Jesus.
posted by VMC at 11:06 PM on July 12, 2006 [1 favorite]

Ike: a Republican a Democrat could respect.

Although, he was running stuff during the McCarthy era. Never studied the history of that period, so I've no idea what he did or failed to do about it.

The interstate is a fabulous river to ride, and I've ridden most of it. Bunches of autobahn, too.
posted by Goofyy at 11:45 PM on July 12, 2006

2 Months?

I did that route (PA to San Fran) in 4 days.
posted by mrzarquon at 12:07 AM on July 13, 2006

It brings to mind that other great US Army-initiated network, the Internet


Both represent an ideal near and dear to the American psyche, freedom. We hear a lot of blather from the pols about "freedom" to such an extent that the term gets cheapened, yet both the highway and the internet by lowering barriers enhanced real freedoms of movement and communication.

That 62 day trip can now be comfortably done in five, or about two if you only stop for gas. The thought that you could on a moment's notice hop in your car and within a few days be in any spot in the continental US was quite foreign not that long ago. Today we take it for granted. At one time or another most of us get an urge to get On the Road.
posted by caddis at 12:19 AM on July 13, 2006

It blows my mind that as recently as 1919, it was still a major, major bitch to cross this country.

Sure, cars were only about 15 years old by then, but like mrzarquon said, that route takes only 4 days now.

Thanks, Ike.
posted by quite unimportant at 12:43 AM on July 13, 2006

Some really fascinating reading in there. Secretary of Commerce Sinclair Weeks called it "the greatest public works program in the history of the world." Some estimated the project increased the economy by over 25% over a generation.

Compare that to grand work of contemporary Republicans: the invasion of Iraq. We'll probably spend more on Iraq when all is said and done than we did on the highways. And what will we have to show for it? 100,000 dead Iraqi civilians, several thousand dead US troops, Iraq will be a puppet of Iran, our military will be severely weakened if not broken, gas prices will be higher than ever, our prestige in the world will be significantly diminished, and our economy will suffer from the tremendous debt.

Funny that the current manifestation of Republicans aren't interested in public works that actually benefit society so much as acting tough and dumping all the money into the military. Say, didn't Ike warn about the military industrial complex?
posted by Davenhill at 1:16 AM on July 13, 2006 [1 favorite]

The internet analogy is actually surprisingly apt. John Tierney wrote a column recently arguing that traffic jams and highway deterioration are in part due to the fact that they're free to use (funded by taxes), a tragedy of the commons situation. Basically, federal transportation funding tends to go towards earmarks, instead of where its actually needed. His solution was to shift highway funding from taxes to tolls, and increase the tolls during peak traffic times. Simple econ. Though he didn't note the connection, its virtually the same argument that network neutrality opponents use. I find it more compelling in this case, because I don't think equal access to the internet is more valuable to democracy than equal access to the highways, but it makes me uncomfortable.
posted by gsteff at 2:13 AM on July 13, 2006

er, because I don't think equal access to the internet is more valuable to democracy than equal access to highways
posted by gsteff at 2:15 AM on July 13, 2006

While I love the Interstates, there is nothing like tooling down the byways and touring all the bypassed towns.

Interstates make this huge nation manageable, but the U.S. routes make it human.
posted by madajb at 2:55 AM on July 13, 2006

During the course of its first 40 years, the system was responsible for an increase of "approximately one-quarter of the nation's productivity."

That's the sort of change China is now getting around to. BBC:
Every year China is constructing around 4,000 km of expressways, towards its target of connecting every city with a population of 200,000 or more to an 85,000 km national motorway network.

Half the work is already done.
And then the homogenization of China will come.
Upon the completion of I-40 (Barstow, Calif., to Wilmington, N.C.), the late CBS News commentator Charles Kuralt observed: "It is now possible to travel from coast to coast without seeing anything. From the Interstate, America is all steel guardrails and plastic signs, and every place looks and feels and sounds and smells like every other place."
posted by pracowity at 3:40 AM on July 13, 2006

Excellent FPP. Other information from the top of my head. I think part of the trip was funded by or touted by the Lincoln Highway group. Their goal was a cross-country paved road paid for and constructed in part by volunteers and private funding. There are a lot of roads along this 1919 route that are called Lincoln Highway or Lincolnway that stem from this.

I think that in 2019, I'd love to be in a convoy of vintage vehicles that would re-enact that trip following the same route as much as possible. Some parts might still be very difficult, but I would think it would be an excellent way to see America.

The other capstone of the Eisenhower Administration is NASA, I've been working on a FPP on that. I'll have to get back on that and post it sometime soon.
posted by Numenorian at 6:36 AM on July 13, 2006

Another similar milestone was 1869-70 when three events happened at about the same time: the completion of the American cross continental railroad, the linking up of the Indian railroads making it possible to cross the sub-continent, and the opening of the Suez canal. These three events made it possible for the average tourist to travel around the world in relative safety and comfort. It was in 1870 that the first around the world tourist company came into existence, completing the first tour in 1871, and in 1871 Jules Verne published Around the World in Eighty Days. It was a significant milestone marking the end of the "Age of Exploration" when traveling around the world was like traveling to the moon, or traveling across the US by car: reserved for an elite and heroic few.
posted by stbalbach at 7:31 AM on July 13, 2006

Imagine how different the USA would be if, instead of the interstate highways, we had a similarly good train network.
posted by adamrice at 7:40 AM on July 13, 2006

Road maps — compare the United States to China (proposed: that little connection across the Taiwan Strait should be interesting), the Asian Highway network, India, and Rome^.

To link them all, consider one man's proposal for a Trans-Global Highway.
posted by cenoxo at 7:57 AM on July 13, 2006

Adamrice -

You'd be griping about how difficult it is to schedule your trips as YOU want to take them, and how many stops you have to make just going between Denver and El Paso, and how you'd waste a lot of time on layovers waiting to make connections and the hassle of carting your bags...

Think of Amtrak writ large, and shudder.

You'd probably be dreaming about some sort of smooth roadway between cities that would get you where you want with a minimum of hassle...

Me? I LIKE trains - have ridden Amtrak for long distances a couple of times and think it's great - but even in their heyday, they had problems. And with a traffic load like our current highways have, I just don't see how they could handle the freight and passengers, no matter how you expanded the system. One advange of the interstate system is the flexibility of routing and the plethora of entry/exit points - rails can't really match that.

Might very well be wrong here, but I think the interstates for passengers and some freight and the rails for other freight is an effective and workable compromise. Think of rails as a landline phone, while cars and interstates are cell phones - the two complement each other.
posted by JB71 at 8:36 AM on July 13, 2006

There's an Eisenhower Interstate System sign in downtown San Francisco.

The Interstate System's Zero Milestone is on the Ellipse in Washington, DC, at the starting point for the 1919 trip.
posted by kirkaracha at 9:04 AM on July 13, 2006

You'd be griping about how difficult it is to schedule your trips... Think of Amtrak writ large, and shudder.

I don't think so. You can't look at how the train system runs today and assume that a larger version would be the same thing but larger. Think of LANs writ large, and think Internet.

If Ike had taken a train ride instead and then had insisted on great rail service everywhere (to move his troops and missiles around, perhaps), the number of destinations and varieties of service would have increased. Put 20 or 30 times as many passengers into trains and the rail system would be quite profitable, competitive, and expansive. By now you'd be able to party in the club car or sleep in a comfortable bed on a fast train all the way from A to B for less time and money than it costs to go by car.

For the last mile, buses and taxis and trams could easily pick up the slack, or you could put your tiny city-only car (or bike or other small personal transport) on the train with you.

I don't like Ike.
posted by pracowity at 10:21 AM on July 13, 2006

Amtrak is in the shape it is because of the condition of it's infrastructure. Which stays the way it is because of its condition. It's a negative feedback loop.

Nobody would want a car if our highway system was maintained by billing the few who had cars in, say 1910, for the cost of the highway system divided by the number of cars there were in the country.

I spent some time in England a while back and found the railroads, particularly in the South, to be quite handy.

On the other hand, try moving 150 lbs of your personal stuff, not much really, from your house to some specific address in another city in which you are going to be spending some time, using any kind of public transport.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 11:04 AM on July 13, 2006

Pracowity said: ...or you could put your tiny city-only car (or bike or other small personal transport) on the train with you.

Amtrak's Auto Train^.
posted by cenoxo at 11:06 AM on July 13, 2006

NPR did a great series of stories about this a couple of weeks ago to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the system. The entire series can be found here.
posted by Tennison Tarb at 2:15 PM on July 13, 2006

So, Libertarians, do they use roads?
posted by Artw at 3:21 PM on July 13, 2006

ArtW: They do, but they insist on paying a toll every time they get on.

JB71: You seem to be responding to a suggestion I wasn't making. I was talking about a good rail network, not a bad rail network with no alternatives. If you've never lived with good rail transport, perhaps it's hard to imagine what it's like, but once you have, doing without feels uncivilized.

Imagine how different the patterns of suburban sprawl would be. Imagine how much oil we wouldn't be importing, and all the ramifications of that. Imagine the greater number of people who would feel they could do without a car and the (reduced) amount of the landscape dedicated to car transport
posted by adamrice at 3:42 PM on July 13, 2006

A good rail network is a great thing. It seems like you can get anywhere in Europe via train, and it's usually quick and not too expensive. If we had only devoted the resources to that here we could at least have a good rail network in the Northeast. The rest of the US is a little too spread out perhaps to support one. If fuel becomes dear enough we may yet get our rail network. The train is easily the preferred route from the NYC area to Washington, and even competitive up to Boston. Beyond that, meh, planes are faster and similarly priced.
posted by caddis at 4:04 PM on July 13, 2006

Numenorian said: 2019, I'd love to be in a convoy of vintage vehicles that would re-enact that trip following the same route as much as possible. Some parts might still be very difficult, but I would think it would be an excellent way to see America.

Actually, you we just missed the 2006 Convoy Reenactment which followed the approximate route from June 16-29, 2006 (image gallery here). One of the reenactment sponsors was Bridgestone-Firestone, who created commemorative truck graphics for the trip (also pictured: great-grandsons Andrew Firestone and Merrill Eisenhower Atwater.)

During a stop in Ohio in 1919, Harvey Firestone, Jr. (son of the company founder^) joined Dwight Eisenhower on the 1st Convoy. Not one to miss a good advertising opportunity, Firestone provided two additional trucks rolling on their pneumatic tires and carrying the company logo.
posted by cenoxo at 6:52 PM on July 13, 2006

The train is easily the preferred route from the NYC area to Washington

The East Coast is more like Europe - dense population centers relatively close together. Trains are slow compared to planes, but when cities are close together it doesn't matter - in fact trains have an advantage because they drop you off right downtown. But the USA is huge and travel by train between, say, NY and Chicago, it's better to just pay the airfare then take 16 hours on a train, and beyond that it's entirely not practical. Trade-off between time, distance and fare. So in a way the train situation in the US is a function of geography.
posted by stbalbach at 4:50 AM on July 15, 2006

Actually, Chicago-NYC is about 800 miles by road; a train trip would probably be the same. A plane trip takes, what, about 2 hours? Add to that the trip to the airport (from central Chicago to O'Hare is optimistically 30 minutes), a scant 60 minutes to park and get through check-in, and another 30 minutes at the other end to get where you're going (let's assume you're flying to La Guardia), and you're up to 4 hours.

A train travelling at an average speed of 150 mph (Acela's top speed, but not as fast as the Shinkansen or TGV) would travel 800 miles in 5 hours, 20 minutes. So the speed advantage to a plane would not be that great; when you account for the hassle of air travel these days, it comes up looking pretty good.

Certainly the East Coast is the best scenario for trains—but they'd work pretty well over more dispersed areas.
posted by adamrice at 7:16 AM on July 15, 2006

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