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Father’s Day and the Father of the Interstate

Father’s Day and the Father of the Interstate

President Dwight Eisenhower is widely known as the “Father of the Interstate System,” due in part to his experiences with highways in World War II and his years’ of work with Congress to fund a national highway system. With Father’s Day around the corner, it is an important legacy to remember. 

In 1919, just after the end of World War I, young Lt. Col. Eisenhower led the U.S. Army’s Cross-Country Motor Transport Train – a mission to send a convoy of six dozen trucks and other military vehicles across the country. The convoy would take the most famous road of the day – the Lincoln Highway – which ran between New York City and San Francisco, Calif. The Army needed to know if motor vehicles, which had been used in combat on since 1916, could stand the trip. The convoy also included a speaker who would talk about the importance of good roads at each stop.

Infographic with picture of President Eisenhower

The convoy departed from the Ellipse in Washington, D.C., after a White House ceremony on July 9, 1919. A marker – known as the “Zero Milepost” – is there to this very day, next to the National Christmas Tree.

Their journey was difficult for various reasons. Roads weren’t paved, and – that time of year – were dusty in dry areas and muddy in others. At one spot in Nevada, some of the vehicles got stuck in sand.  Bridges weren’t durable enough to handle the weight of military vehicles, so many bridges had to be rebuilt before the trucks could cross them. The bad roads of the era broke axles and tires, and few towns of that era had auto mechanics. Most only had blacksmiths who were trained only to repair horse-drawn wagons.

Sixty-two days after leaving Washington, the convoy reached San Francisco on September 5, crossed San Francisco Bay on ferries and paraded through to Lincoln Park. The same trip on modern roads can be done in four or five days. 

Eisenhower remembered this experience his whole life. In 1967, he wrote a book called At Ease: Stories I Tell to Friends and one was about the 1919 convoy. He called the trip “difficult, tiring, and fun.”

During World War II, Eisenhower gained a different perspective of the value of interstates. As Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe, he used the highways to route traffic through France to supply Allied soldiers moving toward Germany. His German adversaries had the advantage of the “autobahn” network of four-lane superhighways – probably the best roads in the world at the time. Just as these superhighways helped Germany in the early years of the war, they helped Eisenhower and the Allies move into the country and win the war.

Because of his experiences, President Eisenhower fought hard to get Congress to pass the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 – and for that reason, he is known as “The Father of the Interstate System.” America has changed since then, but the interstate system was a gift to the nation that continues to serve as the backbone of the world’s most powerful economy and as a key element in uniting the various states.

This Sunday, please keep the Father of the Interstate System in mind.

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