The 20th century expansion to the West
LVN Editor Emeritus
The United States entered into a new era of developing the West in the early 20th century.
The expansion of the railroad brought thousands of people to the West, and the invention of the automobile gave people an opportunity to be more mobile in their journeys.
Jim Bonar, Nevada state director of the Lincoln Highway Association, recently presented an overview of the Lincoln Highway and its importance as the nation’s first transcontinental road at the Churchill County Museum’s Fall Lecture Series. Not only did the Lincoln Highway open a new horizon for travelers, but it also provided the military an opportunity to test the nation’s readiness after World War I.
“We had a threat in the Pacific,” Bonar explained. “The Sino-Russia threat was a concern and if the railroad was destroyed, would the United States be able to get the military across the country?”
The aftermath of World War I hastened the military convoy’s implementation that began in Washington, D.C., on July 7 and wound its way across the county, traversing 13 states and ending at the Lincoln Park in San Francisco two months later.
Bonar listed four military objectives to convoy across the United States. He said the military wanted to put its equipment through the most grueling conditions, conduct studies of terrain and driving conditions, use as a recruitment drive for the Army and persuade the federal government to contribute to a good roads movement. According to Bonar, the 62-day movement successfully persuaded the passage of the Townsend Highway Bill in Congress, established the Federal Highway Commission and a call for a national system of highways. That also prompted President Dwight D. Eisenhower in his first year of the presidency to develop a proposal for an interstate highway system.
Lt. Col. Charles W. McClure commanded the U.S. Army Motor Transport Corps’ 24 expeditionary officers, 15 War Department staff observation officers to include future president (Lt. Col. ) Eisenhower and 258 enlisted men on their 3,000-mile journey. The convoy consisted of 81 vehicles and trailers of various sizes and weights. Capt. Bernard H. McMahon served as the train commander (the convoy was referred to as a motor truck trip with a truck train), and Henry C. Ostermann, a civilian with the Lincoln Highway Association who drove the pilot car, a 1919 Packard, one of the most luxurious automobiles of the time. Along the way, Bonar said 21 soldiers died because of various casualties along the route.
“This was the longest military convoy to cross the United States,” Bonar said.
At many stops, a huge throng gathered near the road to wave at the soldiers. Hundreds — if not thousands — of people lined a busy Salt Lake City street to watch the convoy pass through the Utah capital. While many of the cities had paved roads, only trails, wagon routes and other primitive roads existed from Illinois to California. Bonar said boats ferried the vehicles and men across the Missouri River.
Bonar said the highway in Nebraska followed the railroad tracks across the state, and once the convoy navigated the high pass between Laramie and Cheyenne, the vehicles didn’t experience too many problems in motoring across the Wyoming landscape. That changed once the convoy reached Evanston at the western edge of the Cowboy State.
“There were so many difficult mountains to get through,” Bonar said, citing the Wasatch Range between Evanston and Salt Lake City. “Coming into Weber Canyon was one of the worst roads. The road was narrow and windy and over 70 years old. “They (command staff) were very concerned if the road would hold up.”
Once the convoy entered and then moved out of Salt Lake City and headed southwest toward Nevada, the vehicles crossed the Fish Creek Desert, which is now home of the Dugway Proving Grounds and headed to Ely, the largest town in White Pine County. Bonar said the soldiers faced a declining supply of food and water. During mess call, he said a small cook stove provided meals for the 300 soldiers.
“Nevada gave them problems,” Bonar pointed out. “Ely to Eureka was OK, but Eureka to Austin … they couldn’t make it in one day. They got stuck on the mountain ranges. Nevada is the most mountainous state in the union. You go from valley to summit a dozen times.”
Near Sand Mountain 30 miles east of Fallon, trucks in the convoy became stuck in the sand that swept across the flats. They arrived in Fallon, a small town of about 1,700 souls, in late August for a rest stop.
In his book “After Ike: On the Trail of the Century-Old Journey That Changed America,” Michael S. Owen described the activity at the Overland Hotel and Coverston Garage, which were on the Lincoln Highway until the route was redirected to its present location through Fallon. Owen said no records exist, but he said some soldiers may have downed a drink or two at the Overland, and mechanics probably worked on the vehicles alongside soldiers tasked with similar duties. The vehicles had to endure the final 250 miles to San Francisco, which included a stretch over the Sierra.
Their stay wasn’t all work and no play. When the soldiers weren’t preparing for the convoy’s next segment, they were enjoying the country life.
“I do know that the young matrons sponsored a dance at Maples Pavilion on Center Street and as I recall reading …. ‘served snack’ to the boys,” said Bunny Corkill, retired research curator at the Churchill County Museum.
The Overland opened in 1907 one block east of Maine Street, and the garage, a huge white building that faced the bar and hotel, four years later. Tim Coverston said his family came to the Lahontan Valley more than 100 years ago because of the Newlands Reclamation Project. Sometime in 1919 or 1920, the Coverston Garage, one of four along the Nevada route, became an authorized shop for General Motors. The dealership closed in 1974 when the Coverston family sold to Bill Janess.
Eisenhower, who attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and received his branch training in infantry, served in a quartermaster function, however, during the 1919 convoy. As a quartermaster officer, he took notes on all aspects of the convoy and also ensured quarters, rations, clothing and other supplies were supplied or available. Although no written documentation can be found, Eisenhower or other soldiers would’ve patronized the I.H. Kent Co. Merchandise store, which was located at the corner of Main and Center streets, one block west of the Overland and Coverston Garage.
Karla Kent, who has owned the business since 1996, said her great-grandfather also operated a lumber business on North Maine Street. She said the merchandise store had three sections: grocery, variety and hardware. Supplies the grocery store would’ve sold to the U.S. government for the convoy would’ve included beef, locally produced milk and eggs.
“I do not vision individual farmers bringing their products into town and selling them directly.” Corkill added.
Bonar said after the convoy left Fallon on Aug. 30, the vehicles experienced soft sand, and it took 20 hours to travel 12 miles from Lahontan Reservoir to modern-day Silver Springs. Going over the Sierra Nevada also presented its challenges for the convoy. The vehicles spaced 100 yards apart snaked their way up Kings Canyon Road west of Carson City to Spooner Summit and then along the east side of Lake Tahoe on the Cave Rock road.
Once over the Sierra Nevada, Bonar said the convoy followed the American River to Sacramento and then to Oakland.
“They had to use the ferry to transport the vehicles to San Francisco,” Bonar said.
Eisenhower used the information he gleaned on the 1919 convoy that established an early precedent for the present-day Interstate highway system with a complex system of numbered highways and controlled access points that cover almost 50,000 miles in every state.
Stated Eisenhower in “Mandate for Change: 1953-1956”: “More than any single action by the government since the end of the war, this one would change the face of America with straightaways, cloverleaf turns, bridges, and elongated parkways. Its impact on the American economy — the jobs it would produce in manufacturing and construction, the rural areas it would open up — was beyond calculation.”