During World War II, Army General
Dwight D. Eisenhower was impressed by the network of high-speed roads known as the Reichsautobahnen. After he became president in 1953, Eisenhower was determined to build the highways that lawmakers had been talking about for years.
Later, as President of the United States, Eisenhower cited the 1919 convoy and his World War II experiences to persuade Congress to enact the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, creating what is now known as the interstate highway system.
Congress did provide revenues from the federal gasoline tax to provide 90 percent of the cost of the construction of the interstates with the states picking up the remaining 10 percent. The technical standards for the highways were highly regulated-lanes had to be 12 feet wide and shoulders 10 feet wide, the bridges had to have 14 feet of clearance, grades had to be less than 30 percent, and the highway had to be designed for travel at 70 miles an hour. The most notable attribute of the system is the limited access concept. The 42,000-mile system only has approximately 16,000 interchanges.
In the early summer of 1919, Dwight Eisenhower was in a funk. With his wife and infant son living 1,500 miles away in Denver, the 28-year-old lieutenant colonel stationed at Maryland's Camp Meade wasted away his considerable boredom by playing bridge with his fellow soldiers and drowning his sorrows about being kept stateside during World War I. Needing a way to break out of his doldrums, the future president found excitement in an endeavor still undertaken by millions today-the great American road trip.
Upon hearing that two volunteer tank officers from Camp Meade were needed to participate in a coast-to-coast military convoy to San Francisco, Eisenhower immediately volunteered his services. It may not have offered a young soldier the thrill of combat, but in 1919 a cross-country road trip was indeed, as Eisenhower described it, a "genuine adventure."
On the morning of July 7, 1919, the great "motor truck train" slowly rumbled due west out of Washington, D.C., following an elaborate dedication ceremony for the Zero Milestone, the point from which all highway miles to the nation's capital are to be measured, just south of the White House. The 81-vehicle convoy-which included ambulances, tanker trucks, field kitchens, passenger cars carrying reporters and automotive company representatives, searchlight trucks and even a five-ton trailer hauling a pontoon boat christened Mayflower II-traveled all of four hours before problems began. A kitchen trailer broke its coupling, a fan belt broke on an observation car and another truck suffered a broken magneto before the convoy made camp for the night in Frederick, Maryland, where Eisenhower joined the more than 250 enlisted men and two-dozen officers. The troops had covered only 46 miles in seven hours-a snail's pace of barely over six miles per hour.
Over the following days, unexpected detours arose when the roofs of covered bridges proved too low for the military's shop trucks. The convoy halted repeatedly for stripped gears, boiled-over radiators and vehicles stuck up to their hubs in mud. The custom-design Militor tractor truck, which cost the military $40,000, quickly proved its considerable worth in towing vehicle after vehicle out of roadside ditches and mud holes with its power winch. One night the Militor even arrived in camp with four trucks in tow.