The Interstate Highway System, Dwight Eisenhower and Lou Henry Hoover

Eisenhower Interstate Sign

Attentive drivers will notice that the highways connecting America are named the Dwight Eisenhower Interstate Highway System. This is a nod to Eisenhower’s commitment to securing passage of the 1956 Interstate Highway Act, a concrete legacy of his presidency.  When discussing improvements to infrastructure today, some policy wonks invoke Ike, calling for investment in ‘Eisenhower 2.0.’  This assumes the audience will recognize that ‘Eisenhower 1.0’ was the creation of the federally funded interstate system. 

Eisenhower’s interest in interstate highways dates to his involvement in the Army’s 1919 Motor Transport Corps convoy across America.  World War I made clear to the brass the need for rapid transportation and reliable infrastructure.  They decided to test America’s roads by driving an eighty truck caravan from Washington DC to San Francisco.  The bulk of the trek was to be on the Lincoln Highway, a coast-to-coast roadway that was not yet completed.  The 3000 mile trip was expected to take just over sixty days, averaging fifty miles per day.

Eisenhower joined the convoy one day after it departed from Washington and remained with the group until it reached San Francisco.  The convoy was manned by 300 troops, mostly raw recruits, and included engineers, a medical team, thirty experienced drivers and one competent mechanic.  The convoy included nine motorcycles running ahead of the trucks to scout the route, two recon cars carrying the publicity officer William Dorsey and Harry Osterman, civilian representative of the Lincoln Highway Association.  In addition to the light and heavy trucks, there were four kitchen trailers, two machine shop trailers and one tow truck—which proved the most useful vehicle in the caravan.

The convoy remained roughly on schedule until it reached Omaha, traversing the well-paved roads between Maryland and Illinois, and managing well on the graded dirt roads of Iowa.  From Nebraska onward the road got rougher.  Sand roads in Nebraska chewed up drive trains. Dirt roads in Wyoming were very poor, but they were better than the nearly impassable roads in Utah.  At least California marked a return to good paved roads.  At times the convoy found itself twenty miles from water, fifty miles from railways and a similar distance from gasoline.  It was no wonder that the more than 200 ‘incident’ [breakdowns, accidents and extractions] led to nine trucks being ‘retired’ before reaching California.  One unexpected result was that the engineers had to build, re-build or replace 80 bridges damaged by the caravan.

We know so much about this trek because Eisenhower wrote an after action report to the Chief of the Motor Transport Corps November 3, 1919.  His report, which may be seen as version ‘Eisenhower 0.0,’ covered material, personnel and roads.  Under the rubric of material Ike discussed the various types of trucks, tires, transmissions and engines.  His main recommendation regarding personnel was to have more experienced drivers and mechanics, as inexperienced drivers were hard on the equipment. As for roads, the basic infrastructure was serviceable in the eastern half of America, but left much room for improvement in the west.  He did comment that even the best paved roads in America were too narrow to accommodate most military trucks—driving with one set of wheels on the shoulder or in the ditch was no way to achieve speed.

Two years later, Lou Henry Hoover did the same cross-country trip as Eisenhower.  With her father, a nephew and a Filipino houseboy, Lou drove her Cadillac from Palo Alto to Washington DC.  The infrastructure was still underdeveloped, but Lou Hoover was intrepid.  The trip took 34 days, used 367 gallons of gas, 17 quarts of oil, suffered 5 blowouts and cost $96.71 for repairs.  Still Lou Hoover arrived ahead of schedule and in style—Ginger Rogers to Ike’s Fred Astaire, doing the same routine backwards and in heels.

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