This trip probably did more for US highways than any other road trip. Just after World War 1 The army set out to drive a convoy across the country. The results were not pretty. At a time when a through reefer of lettuce from California would show up at hunts point in NYC about a week later, the road trip was essentially an unmitigated disaster of breakdowns and bad roads.
This was one of the first major cross-country road trips, and it planted the idea in Eisenhower’s mind that the federal government could and should make improving U.S. highways a priority. Soon, driving from coast to coast would become mythologized as one of the key American experiences. But in 1919, it was a terrible, torturous endeavor.
In 62 days, more than 80 trucks, cars and motorcycles made their way along the planned route of the Lincoln Highway, one of the first cross-country highways ever built. They crossed plains, mountains and deserts on roads that, up until Nebraska, were surprisingly well made. But once the convoy hit the West, the trucks started getting stuck in ditches, sand and mud, for hours at a time. By Utah, the conditions of the roads were so bad, it almost stopped the convoy altogether.
The roads were really bad. The trip was miserable. It took months. It also made clear the need for cross country highways. That being said, the northeast and most of the Midwest had pretty good roads by 1919 and they were getting better all the time. The Lincoln highway, a private cross country highway had been started, but construction was slow.
Some states pursued highway construction for through roads, but out in the deserts of the West, there was little reason to carve out roads in the middle of nothing and provide the waystations and stops that the unreliable vehicles of the early 20th Century required.
The interesting thing is that road building techniques here in the US actually were well settled even before the car existed in great numbers. I have a book from the 1890’s on how to build roads. The book if full of techniques for engineering great roads dating back to the Romans. But in the early 20th Century, in much of the country the automobile and truck still had to compete with the farm horse and was quite in minority. For horses, a paved road is rough on the hooves and increased the amount of wear and tear on the animals. So by and large, paved roads were centered in the towns and cities where keeping the roads clean was a greater priority. Along with the heavily traveled stretches like the Post Rd(RTE 1) in the Northeast.
The trip of the Transcontinental Convoy raised awareness about improved roads and with growing pressure from motoring organizations like AAA the first highway act was passed to obtain Federal Matching funds for highways in Western States.
General Pershing submitted a map showing a proposed highway network and by and large this is what became the Federal Route system and later the Interstate Highway system. All Because of a bad road trip.