FreightWaves Classics: US Army Pershing and Eisenhower Impacted Interstate Highway System

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FreightWaves Classics has covered the history of the Interstate Highway System in previous articles. In these articles, it was noted that the US military had organized the Motor Transport Corps convoy to cross the United States. The mission of the convoy was to test the usefulness of the existing roads in the event of a national emergency.

The convoy began its journey on July 7, 1919; 79 Army vehicles left Washington, DC for San Francisco along the Lincoln Highway. The Lincoln Highway was one of the country’s first transcontinental roads and was 3,389 miles long. The convoy included nearly 300 soldiers and observers from the US War Department (among them was Lt. Col. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who would play a key role in the development of US highways later in his life).

The 1919 convoy in Wyoming.  (Photo: wyohistory.org)
The 1919 convoy in Wyoming. (Photo: wyohistory.org)

At that time, sections of the Lincoln Highway were made up of dirt and gravel tracks – and in some places the “roadway” of the road was made of loose sand. Bad weather and steep slopes sometimes made the road impassable. Many bridges (especially in the western United States) were demolished and rebuilt to allow heavy vehicles in the convoy to continue. The trip to San Francisco Bay lasted 62 days; and the average convoy speed was only 6.07 mph.

As the number of cars and trucks grew rapidly, the trip highlighted the poor condition of the country’s roads. The long time it took for the convoy to make the trip, the extremely poor condition of the “highway” and the numerous mechanical breakdowns were all proof that major improvements had to be made.

The beginnings of a national road network

As a result of the convoy’s cross-country trip and its reports of poor US roads, the Bureau of Public Roads (a precursor to the Federal Highway Administration) tasked General John J. Pershing, the most senior member. senior officer of the United States military, to draw a map to give the government a better understanding of the routes in the United States that were most important in the event of war.

A 1957 map shows the plan for the Interstate Highway System as the original system was just beginning to be built.  Like the 1947 map above, it is very similar to the Pershing map from 1922. (Map: Federal Roads Administration)
General Pershing. (Photo: PBS.org)

Under Pershing’s leadership, the military complied with the Bureau’s request. On this date in 1922, General Pershing signed the “Pershing Map”, which describes a system of national roads developed by the military authorities to be of particular importance for national defense. Those who created the map used the 1919 convoy reports to help draw a detailed network of interconnected main roads that the military considered essential for national defense.

The 1922 Pershing map (Image: Federal Roads Administration)
The 1922 Pershing map (Image: Federal Roads Administration)

Therefore, the Pershing Map was the first official topographic road map of the United States. It included 78,000 miles of roads with an emphasis on covering coastal areas and border posts considered necessary for national defense.

The general position of the War Department was that a system designed to meet the industrial and commercial needs of the nation could also adequately meet the needs of the military.

Additional road studies demonstrated the need for a federally maintained road network that could support national defense and interstate commerce. Pershing’s map was an early model for nationally connected highways, surface roads, and feeder roads. Although it was superseded by later planning, many routes plotted on Pershing’s map today are interstate highways.

Pershing’s map led to major road construction projects throughout the 1920s, which until the stock market crash of late September 1929 was a decade of prosperity. Projects such as the New York Parkway System were built as part of a new national highway system. Automobile and truck traffic continued to increase; planners recognized the need for an interconnected national highway system to provide an alternative to the existing, largely non-highway system of American roads.

A 1947 map shows a plan for interstate highways.  Many routes are very similar to those on the Pershing map, created 25 years ago.  (Map: Federal Roads Administration)
A 1947 map shows a plan for interstate highways. Many routes are very similar to those on the Pershing map, created 25 years ago. (Map: Federal Roads Administration)

The Great Depression and World War II slow road construction

However, despite support from the military, the War Department, and some members of Congress, overall support for the costly public works project has remained low. Planning for such a system continued throughout the 1930s; however, the impact of the Great Depression and then of World War II meant that little of the planning was implemented.

In 1942 (almost 20 years after the creation of the Pershing map), President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the National Interregional Highway Committee to investigate the viability of an interstate highway system. The committee published its report in 1944. It refined the concepts found in Pershing’s map and emphasized long-distance transcontinental routes. But it wasn’t until the mid-1950s that a plan for what would one day be called the “Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate Highways and Defense” was drafted.

A 1957 map shows the plan for the Interstate Highway System as the original system was just beginning to be built.  Like the 1947 map above, it is very similar to the Pershing map from 1922. (Map: Federal Roads Administration)
A 1957 map shows the plan for the Interstate Highway System as the original system was just beginning to be built. Like the 1947 map above, it is very similar to the Pershing map from 1922. (Map: Federal Roads Administration)

Federal Highway Act and the birth of the Interstate Highway System

President Eisenhower signed the Federal Highway Act of 1956, which authorized 41,000 miles of interstate highways. The first mile was built the same year; it was estimated that the entire interstate road network (IHS) would be completed by 1976.

However, the IHS was not considered complete until 1991 (and improvements, new interstate highways, etc. continue to this day). In addition, the interstate highway system is under constant analysis in the best interests of defense, commerce and public use. Although the system is a vital public resource, it remains an objective of the Defense Ministry’s strategic road network. This network is a 140,000-mile network of government-designated highways and roads connecting military installations, economic centers, railways and ports.

President Eisenhower signs the Federal Highway Act of 1956, authorizing the construction of the Interstate Highway System.  (Photo: Federal Roads Administration)
President Eisenhower signs the Federal Highway Act of 1956, authorizing the construction of the Interstate Highway System.
(Photo: Federal Roads Administration)

What is often referred to as the largest public works project in American history is overseen by the Federal Highway Administration of the United States Department of Transportation, in partnership with local and state transportation agencies. While maintaining and expanding the IHS are civilian responsibilities, the military remains a crucial player in the mix. Its Transportation Engineering Agency (TEA), a division of the Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command, continuously assesses interstate highways to determine if they meet the needs of the Department of Defense. TEA also coordinates with public agencies to establish policy regarding the military use of public roads.


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