The grand adventure, a convoy to promote the need for federal involvement of road development and determine the viability of motorized trucks for long distance transport in military applications, left Washington D.C. on July 7th, 1919. It was now August 20th and 78 of the original 81 vehicles began rolling west from Salt Lake City along what was known as the Lincoln Highway.
The following evening ended with the convoy clearing the Goodyear Cutoff, an eight hour nightmare of heat, dust, sand and sagebrush. The trucks overheated, carburetors clogged with dirt, bearings failed and the men suffered. The morning of the 22nd dawned with the trucks heading onto the featureless salt flats and almost immediately the heavily laden trucks, some with a combined cargo and truck weight of ten tons, broke through the hard crust into silt that seemed bottomless. The caterpillar tractor was off loaded and harnessed to the first truck in line but it merely slid back and forth in the muck so there was but one option; each truck, one at a time, was pulled across the flats by teams of one hundred to one hundred fifty men.
By 3:30 in the morning the trucks were strung out across the desert for more than thirty miles. Men caught a quick sleep in the dirt beside the stalled vehicles and then continued with the task of trying to get them across the salt flats. No food had been served since the previous morning. Now they were running out of water.
The last vehicles made it across the Salt Lake Desert by 2:30 in the afternoon under a blazing desert sun. Incredibly the convoy was not the only traffic on the salt; twenty five tourist parties were struggling to get their vehicles across during the same period.
Amazingly only one truck was destroyed beyond repair in the ordeal but as they neared, and crossed into, Nevada the exhausted troops were awarded the luxury of believing the worst was behind them. The illusion was fostered in large part by a stop at Tippet’s Ranch and the opportunity to actually bathe.
The Schellbourne Pass in the Schell Creek Range of eastern Nevada was a series of sharp bends, roads so narrow the trucks, in some locations, brushed against the hillside on one side while the other sent rocks sliding into the gorge below and grades as steep as 24%. A Garford began to spray oil forcing it to be towed which in turn caused the Mack that was towing it to burn its clutch.
After all the men had been through the dusty town of Ely must have seemed like paradise. And the city had gone to great lengths to ensure it was – the ball park had been seeded to grass for a camp site, mine workers had laid in water lines and set up showers. But there was little time for rest for the trucks was in dire need of maintenance and repair.
Today U.S. 50 follows the route of the Lincoln Highway, and the convoy, between Ely and Fallon. With the exception of pavement and the removal of a few curves it is almost as it was when the convoy rolled west.
In Eureka the men received a true moral boost in being joined by a contingent of journalists who had driven out from California. The following day’s schedule, based upon decisions made more than a thousand miles to the east by men who had assumed the term highway meant what it said, called for a seventy mile run to Austin. The roads were so deplorable, the men were so exhausted and trucks so battered by 4:00 in the afternoon they had made just thirty five miles.
The rest of the run to Carson City would be a replay. A FWD sank to its hubs in sand. The front springs on a Mack snapped. Two Garford trucks blew head gaskets. And the heat was without respite.
Carson City had rolled out the red carpet and as it was Saturday evening the commander decreed the following day a rest stop. That night there were dances in the street and the lawn in front of the court house was lined with tables piled high with food.
On Monday the final adventure began, the climb into the Sierra’s via a series of steep narrow switchbacks and bridges designed for loads far less than the heavily burdened trucks. As the trucks began the ascent east bound traffic was halted. The heaviest trucks were sent up first with the others following at intervals of one hundred yards. Men walked alongside with wheel blocks to prevent trucks from rolling backwards.
The California line was reached on Monday, September 1st – fifty seven days after leaving the White House. The rest of the journey into San Francisco, after all they had been through, was rather anticlimactic, the result of a well maintained, modern road system.
The end of the journey, on September 1, marked the end of an era. The bridge between the era of the frontier and the horse, and the modern day had been crossed.
The story of the Ezra Meeker is a fitting epitaph for the convoy and the times it linked. Meeker, in 1852, had followed much of the same route through Nebraska and Wyoming on his way to Oregon. Then in 1906, after loosing his wife and the age of 76 he decided to return to the east.
He did so via a covered wagon similar to the one he had made the original journey in. Teddy Roosevelt heard of his adventure and invited Meeker to the White House. He arrived two years later.
In the twenty two years that remained of his life he would make the journey across these trails twice more. The first time was in an automobile. The final trip was in a biplane.
The epic journey, an intimate snapshot of America in transition is captured in the highly recommended work. If you want a first rate winter read this is it.