How WWI Veterans Took America’s First Roadtrip

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Zero Milestone White House

Just outside the White House stands a squat monument that most people use as a tripod for taking selfies with the President’s residence in the background. It’s called the Zero Milestone and it commemorates the official point to which all roads in America would measure their distance from Washington, DC. It was the starting point of a WWI Veteran-led, transcontinental road trip that kicked off in July of 1919.

On top of the monument is a bronze, 16-point compass rose, with a small pyramid at the center, which serves as a National Geodic Survey benchmark.

Zero Milestone

The monument was designed by architect Horace W. Peaslee, and it’s made of precambrian Milford granite from a quarry in Milford, Massachusetts. On each side, the monument bears the following inscriptions:

North: ZERO MILESTONE

East: STARTING POINT OF SECOND TRANSCONTINENTAL MOTOR CONVOY OVER THE BANKHEAD HIGHWAY, JUNE 14, 1920

South: POINT FOR THE MEASUREMENT OF DISTANCES FROM WASHINGTON ON HIGHWAYS OF THE UNITED STATES

…and most importantly for the purpose of this story, West: STARTING POINT OF FIRST TRANSCONTINENTAL MOTOR CONVOY OVER THE LINCOLN HIGHWAY, JULY 7, 1919.

On that date, a temporary monument held the current Zero Milestone’s place as part of the launching ceremony for the United State’s Army first attempt to send a convoy of military vehicles from Washington, DC to San Francisco, California.

1919 map transcontinental road train

Between the 1870s and early 20th Century, America’s roads were in horrible condition. They were essentially cart paths made of dirt and loose stone. In the summer, they were dusty and muddy, in the winter they were nearly impassable, and in the spring, they’d turn to progress-halting mud.

If you’re a fan of the HBO show Boardwalk Empire, you know that the roads to Atlantic City were a critical part of that town’s success. It wasn’t coincidence that New Jersey became the first state to pass a law providing for a state to participate in road-building projects, and it was the Good Roads Movement that spurred the state to action.

Doctor S.M. Johnson was a Good Roads Movement advocate. Johnson was a Presbyterian minister, a cotton farmer and a land developer who was convinced that the  automobile would change America in the 20th century as dramatically as the railroad had in the 19th.

Shortly after Armistice Day, November 11, 1918,  Johnson attended a reception for national Good Roads leaders in Washington. There, he made the proposal that the Federal Government — which, during the Great War had accumulated the largest fleet of trucks in the world — turn over that fleet of vehicles to the states for the expressed purpose of building a proper, paved system of highways.

Johnson wrote, and Congress approved a series of bills that directed the Secretary of War to transfer all the surplus trucks, construction equipment and supplies it could to the Secretary of Agriculture for nationwide road improvement projects.

The Department of War distributed $215 million worth of equipment, and to signify the importance of the project, Johnson organized a road trip. He suggested that the War Department launch a convoy to see if it was feasible for the Army to move itself across the country. The Lincoln Highway Association, was suggesting exactly the same idea, and it organized a convoy with the Motor Transport Corps.

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Dr. Johnson hitched a ride as the convoy’s “official spokesman,” a representative of AAA, and a guest of the Lincoln Highway Association, and on July 7, 1919, the date inscribed on the Zero Milestone, the U.S. Army launched its first transcontinental convoy of military vehicles from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco. “This,” Secretary of War Newton Baker at the ceremony, “is the beginning of a new era.”

Willys-Overland donated several cars for the PR value alone. Johnson traveled in a covered sedan. Two two open-top Willys-Overland 4s carried Army Publicity Officer Lt. William B. Doron and the official Convoy photographer, Sergeant George Lacey.

A fourth car was an 88-4 Willys-Knight that was used as the pilot car by Lincoln Highway Association vice president H.C. Osterman.

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(PHOTO: Osterman, Doron, Convoy Commander Captain Bernard S. McMahan, and Expeditionary Commander Lt. Col. Charles W. McClure)

At every stop, Johnson addressed crowds of hicks and hayseeds, farmers and firemen, bums and businessmen, all to encourage Americans to understand the importance of a proper system of paved roadways:

We are crossing the continent to impress upon all leaders of public action in the world that the next step in the progress of civilization is to provide road beds upon which rapid transit motor vehicles may be operated with economy and efficiency. This is true, not only of backward peoples, but also of the most advanced nations, including our own.

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Not everyone liked the speechmaking. One participant in the convoy was Lt. Colonel Dwight David Eisenhower, who would ironically be the poster child for America’s Interstate Highway System. According to an article on the Federal Highway Administration website, Ike considered the speeches “one of the biggest hardships the men had to endure.”

Presumably having heard Dr. Johnson’s address once too often already, the searchlight crew broke his rhythm when they started playing their beam across the evening sky. Unperturbable, Dr. Johnson plowed on. “We are speaking to the entire family of the nation,” he declared.

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The convoy reached San Francisco on September 6, 1919, averaging a cross-country speed of just five miles an hour over the two months they were gone. In the final ceremony, Dr. Johnson received one of the gold medals presented by the Lincoln Highway Association to all participants. The jubilant nature of the ceremony in San Francisco may well have been due to the fact that the men were about to hear their final Dr. Johnson speech. According to Pete Davies in the book American Road: The Story of an Epic Transcontinental Journey at the Dawn of the Motor Age:

Even Dr. Johnson got a cheer — in his case an ironical one for his public admission that, to avoid the worst of the Nevada desert, he’d taken the train from Eureka to Carson City. 

Today the monument sits unheralded, used as a tripod for selfie-taking tourists in front of White House. But it stands in permanent testament to America’s highway system, and to the fact that no matter how boring his speeches were, Dr. S. M. Johnson was right on the money.

IMAGE SOURCE: Wikipedia, Lincoln Highway News, US Department of Transportation – Federal Highway Administration

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Craig Fitzgerald

Craig Fitzgerald

Writer, editor, lousy guitar player, dad. Content Marketing and Publication Manager at BestRide.com.

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