Mud and Muck
The earliest, easiest form of travel was by water with Lewis and Clark in 1804 struggling upstream against the current and dead trees at 4 mph then racing back downstream at twice that speed under oar. By 1920, the fastest ocean liner in the world, the German Mauretania, crossed the Atlantic at 27 mph.
The fastest travel by land was by train at 60-70 mph over the best roadbeds down to 20-25 mph on curves, steep grades, and over poor terrain. When my Dad was born, life moved at the pace of a horse, which varies from a walk (4 mph), trot (8 mph), canter or “lope” (16-27 mph), gallop or “run” (25-30 mph) for distances of 1.5 to 2.5 miles. The fastest horses could exceed 50 mph but for only one-quarter mile. In races between the two species over a 22-mile course, men always beat horses who periodically had to be rested and watered. For only 100 meters, the fastest man in the world today, Jamaican Usain Bolt, has reached 27.79 mph.
At the turn of the 20th century, America was a tangled mass of trees and vines with neither roads nor bridges to span the chasms, and what primitive trails existed became a quagmire of mud and gluey muck after rains.
Though he didn’t enter WWI in Europe, Lt. Colonel Dwight Eisenhower learned the value of good roads from the Germans. Fighting a two-front war in France, the Germans were able to shift troops and materials across France’s roads from the western front in France to the Eastern France in Russia. WWI was fought in the mud and good, hard surface roads made a huge favorable—and lasting--impression on him.
The Great Trek
By 1913 the nation was quickly entering the automobile age. The nation’s great cities had one horse for every 7 to 10 inhabitants, and in New York City those beasts left behind 2.5 million pounds of scat and 60,000 gallons of urine DAILY! (When residents said they were “pooped,” they knew whereof they spoke!) *
A group of car enthusiasts, industrialists in the automobile industry and civic boosters in cities along the way, organized a cross-country tour in 1913 the route for which followed the “Lincoln Highway and the Pony Express. They covered the 2,753-mile route in 15-1/2th days. In three years, better roads and vehicles had the same trip by a casual motorist to 6-1/2 days for a 24-hour average speed of 20 mph. There were then 3.4 million cars and doubling every two years.
Though states received federal aid for road construction in 1918-19, there was no national highway system connecting states. The real need was for hard surfaces and strong bridges capable of withstanding the hard pounding of the narrow, solid-core rubber truck tires bearing enormous loads per square inch. (Compare the psi-load of a 300-pound man standing on your chest in running shoes with a 150 lady in spike heels!)
Page 2 of 2 - As in France, those tires were destroying America’s best roads. Consequently, the Army decided to conduct an Army Truck Train from Washington to San Francisco to test our readiness to transport material during a war. Twenty-eight-year-old Colonel Eisenhower was by then bored with the peacetime army and invited himself along as a “tank corps observer.”
July 7, 1919, 260 soldiers and 35 officers manned 72 vehicles, 65 of them trucks, set out from the ellipse behind the White House for Gettysburg, picking up Eisenhower and his buddy along the way. That first day they averaged 6 mph over the 46-mile course—crushing 14 bridges along the way by Eisenhower’s count.
Reaching the Great Salt Lake they sunk beneath the crust into a think black muck so hard on the trucks they literally harnessed teams of soldiers who, like oxen, pulled it across. Sixty-two days and 3,242 miles from the start they reached San Francisco. Their experience convinced Congress and the nation of the need for better inter-state roads. Consequently, the Federal Highway Act of 1921 was passed with provision for up to 7 percent of its funds for intra-state roads to be for used to construct inter-state highways. Classification and construction standards were mainly federal functions. By 1921, a million men labored on the nation’s streets and roads.
• Swift, Earl, ‘Big Roads”, Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 2011.