BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Pete Davies, author of "American Road," what's your book about?
PETE DAVIES, AUTHOR, "AMERICAN ROAD": The book is about the first transcontinental motor train, which went from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco in 1919. Really, though, it's three stories for the price of one. The general background is the dawn of the motor age and the explosive expansion of the automobile industry in the first two decades of the 20th century. More specifically, you have the story of the Lincoln Highway, which is the first transcontinental road in the USA.
And then the convoy, which this book tells the story of, crystallized why the need for that road had arisen. And they were trying to get from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco. They had no certain idea that they actually could go there, but they were trying to get there and prove why the federal government needed to get into the road-building business and crystallizing, in the process, that really pivotal moment in United States history when the American people were motorized, if you like to put it that way.
LAMB: You say you first learned about this when you were reading "The Prize" by Daniel Yergin, a book about oil. When did you do this?
DAVIES: That would have been in late 2000. And I was interested in the history of the oil industry, and Yergin's book is a magisterial account of that business. And by chance -- I mean, a lot of the best stories, you stumble on them by chance. And the first three paragraphs of chapter 11 -- so just literally a matter of a few hundred words, he talked about a young man named Dwight D. Eisenhower crossing the country with this convoy. And it just caught the imagination.
I wondered if anybody had looked into it, and to be frank, was astonished when I found out that no one had told this story because the 49ers, the Pioneer Trail, the transcontinental railroad -- everybody has a consciousness of those two things. It seems to me that I would have thought everybody would have known about the first transcontinental road, as well, because that's the next chapter in the story. But I e-mailed a whole lot of my friends in the States and said, "Have you heard of this?" And universally, they all said no. And I could not believe that.
So Yergin talked about it being a pivotal moment, and I went down to the British Library and started researching it. And it just struck me as absolutely fascinating, a fascinating -- the fact that you have that convoy to give you a narrative -- and it is an epic story. It's an amazing story. It's incredible that they got across and only lost six vehicles along the way -- it's actually incredible that they got across without anybody dying.
The fact that that happened and the huge import of the event was interesting to me, but doubly interesting because it had just fallen off the map of history, and it seemed bizarre that people should not know about this.
LAMB: So we can get right into the thick of things, we've got some video shot by the Army.
DAVIES: Yes. The Signal Corps shot this. And it was shown on theaters all along the route. And I would love to have been in those theaters to see the reaction of people to what they were seeing. Three-and-a-quarter million people were along the route of this convoy as it went across the country.
LAMB: In 1919 -- who -- are they all military?
DAVIES: Not all, almost exclusively. The personnel of the convoy was, I believe, about 37 officers and, I think, 258 enlisted men. But alongside of them were journalists and representatives of the motor industry because the motor industry were foursquare behind this. It was really their idea. It was Detroit's idea, and Detroit went to the Motor Transport Corps, which was a new arm of the military that had been formed up during World War I, and said, "Look," you know, "we have all these trucks. We have this need for roads. Let's do this together."
LAMB: Started July 7, 1919, from the White House?
DAVIES: Yes, from the White House.
LAMB: When did it end? How long did it take?
DAVIES: It took them 62 days, and I think the last day was September 6 at the Presidio in San Francisco.
LAMB: Did they stop every night?
DAVIES: Yes, they stopped every night. They had a route. They had a schedule. They weren't always able to stick to it because, as you can see there, road conditions weren't always too good. They were, I think, six days late, as against the ideal schedule that was laid out from where they set off. Road conditions, once they got past the Mississippi, really, they were lucky in Iowa because it didn't rain. If it had rained in Iowa, they would have been in cloying gumbo up to the hubs all the way across. Instead, they were in clouds of choking dust.
We're talking give or take 3,250 miles, of which less than a third is paved. By the time you get into western Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, all there was there was two wheel tracks through the sagebrush.
LAMB: Showing a photo earlier, and the man on the right is Dwight Eisenhower. How old was he in this picture?
DAVIES: He was 28, and he was a lieutenant colonel, which was a temporary honor. It was a temporary promotion put in wartime, and he was about to be demoted back to his standing rank of captain.
LAMB: Right above that is a photo that has a famous name in it, Harvey Firestone.
DAVIES: Yes, Harvey Firestone. He was -- he sent a truck alongside the convoy.
LAMB: Dwight Eisenhower there on the right, the six-footer.
DAVIES: The six-footer, yes, the good-looking blond. That was at Harvey Firestone's manor. Harbell (ph) Manor, it was called. It was outside a little town called Columbiana (ph) in northeast Ohio. And the tire magnates were important. It wasn't just Detroit, it was also Akron was very big on this -- Frank Seiberling (ph), who was the president of Goodyear Tire and Rubber was a big shaker and mover in this exercise, as well.
The motor age was dawning, and they wanted to make sure that the Army was running on the rubber that they sold.
LAMB: Who paid for this trip?
DAVIES: Oh, the United States Army paid for it. But I think they had some deals. I think they had Standard Oil supplying them with gas here and there. But no, it was an Army exercise. It was the War Department's exercise.
LAMB: But no book has ever been written about this.
DAVIES: No. Which, as I say, I find amazing. But also very fortunate for me. There is a very nice book called "The Lincoln Highway: Main Street Across America" that was published in 1988 by an author called Drake Hercanson (ph). That is a very nice account of the road and of the guys who created the idea of it and promoted it. It's got nice illustrations. It's admirably clear. It's got a deft wit about it. It's a nice book, but that is 14 years ago.
And as I say, why has no one addressed this? Possibly because roads are mutable things. When you're looking at the first transcontinental railroad, you've only got the track, and the train's got to go on it. But the whole point of the car is that it's a personal liberation. And once people are starting to drive in cars, well, they can go off here, they can go off there. And maybe because of that, maybe because the Lincoln Highway only survived under that name until the mid-'20s, and then the federal government stepped in and started giving roads numbers instead of names, it just has slipped the memory, slipped the national memory.
LAMB: The connection between Dwight Eisenhower and the interstate highway system in the United States.
DAVIES: That's a really important issue. It would be very simplistic to say that because he went across the continent in 1919, in 1956 he starts saying "Let's have interstates" and signs the authorization. He himself said that the 1919 convoy gave him the idea that America needed good two-lane highways, which was adequate for the traffic at the time.
In Germany during World War II, he saw the Autobahns that Hitler had built, and that was more of a spur to the creation of the interstate system. Nonetheless, because he'd done that trip in 1919, he never forgot it. And one of the officers that was with him on the trip, when he retired from the motor industry in Detroit, his colleagues wrote to President Eisenhower and said, "Would you care to acknowledge this man's career, now that he's retiring?" And he wrote him a really nice letter, really nice letter, saying, you know, "You may recall some years ago, we went on a little journey."
LAMB: Go back to the beginning of this. You're reading "The Prize," again, about what month of 2000 -- what, 2001 or 2000?
DAVIES: Oh, that would be in October, maybe, October, 2000.
LAMB: OK, what'd you do then?
DAVIES: Well, as I say, I went to the British Library and looked into it and became fascinated with how much it told about that time, about the change, the transformation of society, the way Americans took to the automobile. And at that point, you have the evolution of modern society.
LAMB: But you were living where then?
DAVIES: Oh, I'm living -- I live in West Yorkshire in northern England.
LAMB: And how far is that from London?
DAVIES: It's 200 miles north of London.
LAMB: So you go to the British Library in London?
LAMB: And then when do you get to the United States?
DAVIES: Well, I've been to the United States more times than I can count, so...
LAMB: No, I mean, when did you come on that trip?
DAVIES: Well, I did -- I did the background research, and then I -- first of all, I went to the Eisenhower Center in Abilene, Kansas, because there's a wealth of material there connected to the trip, Ike's own reports on it, because he went along as an observer for the Tank Corps, but also reports by many of the other officers involved.
And crucially, for the practical nuts and bolts of the story, the most junior officer on the trip was a guy called Elwell Jackson (ph), who was a first lieutenant from Philadelphia. And he was a reserve officer. And he was a member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. And he went along and wrote telegrams that went back to Washington every day, reporting on their progress -- where they stopped, how they fared, how the vehicles were. And he was a meticulous, extraordinarily diligent reckoner of snapped fan belts and clogged carburetors. And with that in hand, you have a daily record of everything that they went through.
The convoy commander, Colonel Charles McLear (ph), also sent back telegrams, which I found in the National Archives in Washington. So you have two daily records there.
LAMB: But you drove this trip...
DAVIES: Oh, yes. Yes. I had to do the background first, so I did the Abilene -- the Eisenhower Center in Abilene, and then there are some marvelous collections in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I was able to get a lot of historical background research done. And then on, I think it was the 7th of April, 2001, I bought a pea-green 1985 Chevy Caprice for $2,000.
DAVIES: Jimmy's (ph) Autos on New York Avenue Northwest.
LAMB: Right here.
DAVIES: Yes. He said I could buy a more expensive car, but if all I wanted to do was get to San Francisco, then that car would get me there, and it did. It did 6,000 miles, and all it asked for was one quart of oil all the way.
LAMB: And when you do something like that, is that at your expense?
DAVIES: Well, you have a contract, and you're out there spending their money, yes.
LAMB: But I mean, is that all part of...
DAVIES: Yes, it's part...
LAMB: ... what you get?
DAVIES: It's part of the deal. I'm spending my money to get the story and -- I mean, without wanting to sound frivolous about it, have fun because anybody that's touched with wanderlust has a list of journeys they want to make in their life, and without ranking them in any order of preference, the top five for me would be to go to the lost city of Machu Picchu in the Peruvian Andes, to go down the Nile and see the wonders of ancient Egypt, to go on Safari in east Africa and see the wildlife, because I'm English, to go on a cricket tour of the Indian subcontinent, and that fabulous, historic journey from the East Coast to Western United States.
Well, I'd done all the other four, but I hadn't done Atlantic to Pacific, and here was an opportunity for me to do something I'd always wanted to do with, you know, the obviously rather legitimate objective of producing a decent book about it in the end. And it's not interesting to me to write a story that has the word "I" in it all the time. You know, here was this fabulous existing story that had not been told, and that was what I wanted to do, to recreate their journey. And because I'd found all that background material in Kansas and Michigan, I was able to travel as nearly as is possible on the same route that they took in 1919, stop every place that they stopped, go into the local libraries.
And I would really like to stress I did not meet one single unhelpful librarian in the United States of America, and what a treat that was. Made it easy. Made it a lot easier.
LAMB: Did you stop for the same length of time in each of these towns?
DAVIES: No. It gets harder as you get further west. In the East, the town was there then, the town's there now. You get out into Wyoming, you know, Utah, Nevada, there are places that they stopped that just aren't on the map anymore. And even when they were on the map, there wasn't a library there or a newspaper. So out West, you have to rely more on state archives. But they do have all the material if you know where to look. And if you don't know where to look, the librarians are very helpful and find it for you.
LAMB: Go back to, though, your four trips that you -- your wanderlust that you've seen -- you know, you're at the end of your five trips, by the way!
DAVIES: Well, there's others, but that's the -- I guess that's the top five.
LAMB: Did you write any books off of any of the others?
DAVIES: In different ways, yes. I did Machu Picchu when I was 25. And that was a time when I was working on my first novel, and I was -- I didn't have a contract for it. I'd sold the novel on the first draft, and the publisher in London at that time had said, "Well, you can have 500 pounds, and you can have 1,500 pounds when you come back with a completed second draft." And at that time, my return ticket from London to Lima was 499, so I spent the 500 on a return ticket to Lima. And they got very anxious and said, "Well," you know, "you're supposed to be finishing the second draft of your novel. What are you doing going to Peru?" And I said, "I'm taking a typewriter with me. And while I'm there, I'll check out Machu Picchu," and assorted other things. So I did.
The east African experience -- the Nile was my honeymoon, so I didn't write a book about that. The east African experience did end up in fiction -- well, I've been there a couple of times, so I guess I've ticked that one off more than once.
LAMB: Where do you get the interest in doing all this?
DAVIES: Well, I've wanted to be a writer since I was 7. My father was in the Royal Navy, and as a child in the '60s, we grew up with, obviously, bookshelves full of books of military, and specifically naval history. And when I was 7, I had a bad dream about the sinking of HMS Hood by the Bismarck during World War II in the north Atlantic. And the next day in a math class, I wrote it down because I wasn't very good at math and I was bored and I was sitting at the back, and I'd had this intense, vivid dream. And of course, I was discovered, and teacher took the stuff away from me and told me to concentrate and called me up at the end of the class. And I was expecting to get ticked off. And she did, you know, "Should be concentrating. But mind you, this is very good." And it got published in the school magazine, which was nice.
And you can say that was the start of my career. I just always knew that I wanted to write.
LAMB: How many books have you written?
DAVIES: This is number 11 that's published, but I have actually written a couple more than that. I wrote my first novel when I was 19, between the first and second years of my time at Oxford. And it's unutterably dreadful. I wrote my second novel when I was 22. It's not so bad, but it's still pretty dreadful. And then I got a job writing copy for an advertising agency, and which I did for two-and-a-half years. And then I wrote my third novel, which is the first proper one, and this is the one that got published, the one that got finished in Peru. And the difference is night and day, and the training that I had writing ads for two-and-a-half years was just extraordinarily useful. It made me a much, much better writer. It made me much more economical. And I shall always be glad of that.
LAMB: April 7, 2001, you buy the pea-green Chevrolet Caprice. Do you have anybody with you on this trip?
DAVIES: No. And if I had have had anybody with me, they would very rapidly have left because they'd have been very bored because I'm having a great time. I'm driving down the road from one little town to the next, following the path of the 1919 convoy, but every place I stop, I'm looking for material on that. It would not have been fun to be in the passenger seat because what would you have seen? You'd have seen the inside of a lot of libraries.
LAMB: In the back and in the front, you have the actual map. Actually, we're at the wrong end on this map at the moment. I'm going to go over to the beginning. This is Washington, D.C., where it starts. What is -- and you go right through the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, California. What -- what road is there now?
DAVIES: It's bits and pieces. A lot of it is U.S. 30. There's a very nice passage in, I think, mid to western Nebraska, where you can see three generations of industrial progress right alongside each other. You have the railroad, with those wonderful, huge Central Pacific, Union Pacific freight trains 100 cars long tying along beside you. And you have the interstate. And between them, you have the original U.S. 30. And that's -- you know, it's the kind of thing that we just take for granted -- you know, trains, railroads, cars. Part of life. But to begin with, none of that was out there. And out there, you can see the three things right next to each other.
yes, U.S. 30 a lot of the way. In west central Utah, there's a 180-mile stretch of the original 1913 route of the Lincoln Highway that's still not paved today. And I don't think it'll ever be paved, and that's a particularly interesting section of the story, the controversy in Utah about whether to go across 40-plus miles of salt flats on the northern route to Wendover (ph), which the interstate does now do, and the proponents of that route won that argument. They wanted the Lincoln Highway, guys who promoted it -- the people in Detroit, wanted to take a more southerly route that followed the Pony Express and the overland trail. There were arguments for both routes.
In a way, today, I'd be thankful that Wendover won because it means you can do that 180 miles of dirt trail through the desert, and it is fabulously beautiful.
LAMB: You say in there there was a day that you drove eight hours. It was the most beautiful day you've ever driven.
DAVIES: In my experience, the only landscape that's of a parallel grandeur and isolation and just magnificence would be in Namibia in southwest Africa -- heart-stoppingly gorgeous. And because the mountain chains run north-south, what you're doing is you're cresting one rugged, difficult pass after another, dropping down into one huge, arid valley after another. And you're on your own. You know, this is drive where you take extra gas, water, food, because if you do break down, you may be there for a while. But that didn't worry me in the least because it was so wonderful to be out there, so beautiful.
But then, even when you're on the pavement going through central Nevada, I mean, that's spectacularly beautiful, as well. I -- again, it's one of the great things. I live on a small, cramped island. It's...
LAMB: Great Britain.
DAVIES: Great Britain, yes. And to be in western Nebraska, that imperceptible climb up from Omaha, across 500 miles of Nebraska, and to realize as you're getting into the high plains there that you are higher above sea level than any point in the entire British isles, and you're just in this sagebrush and prairie plain, high plain -- wonderful. Gorgeous.
LAMB: Who is this man right here?
DAVIES: Henry Joy (ph). He's one of my heroes in this story. He was the son of a railroad magnate in Detroit. He's pre-gasoline society. He had a pile of money. He need never have lifted a finger in his life to do anything more than buy another …. of stocks and shares.
LAMB: What's he sitting in here?
DAVIES: That's an 1899 original Packard Model A. And what Joy did was -- well, the story's apocryphal, but he was with his brother-in-law, Truman Handy Newbury (ph), in New York. They were walking down the street, and there's a guy there, a salesman, with two of these new-fangled automobiles on the street. This is 1899. And the guys says, you know, "Do you want to look at the cars?" And they're busy. They say no. Fire engine shoots past, and the salesman, obviously a sharp-witted fellow, says, you know, "Jump in. I'll take you to the fire." So they do, and they like the vehicle, so they buy both of them. And these were original 1899 Packards.
Joy bought another model when he heard the next one was coming, and it was such a story at the time that if a prominent citizen -- because only the wealthy could afford automobiles. You know, they cost, you know, unimaginable money, $2,500 for a luxury car. It was a story if a prominent citizen ordered a car, so it appeared in the local newspapers. You know, "Automobile which Harry Joy has ordered," I think about November, 1901. And six months later, because that's how long it took for your car to actually arrive, again, it's a story in the papers. "Joy's new car has arrived. It's a Blue Devil," I think was the headline.
And Joy liked the car so much that he drove it back to the plant in Warren, Ohio, where it had been built, and he bought the company. And he relocated the company to Detroit, and he put in, I think, $25,000 of his own money at the beginning and realized that this would not be remotely enough. So he went around his very gilded circle of friends at the height of Detroit society and put $500,000 together and put together a plant that covered a couple of acres, employed 70 people. And one of the interesting things about it, he could not raise a cent of credit from the Detroit banks. Detroit financiers thought that making motor cars was a folly.
LAMB: You say that in 1919, 123,990 motor vehicles were on the roads in the United States.
DAVIES: On which date? Sorry.
LAMB: In 1919.
DAVIES: No, 1919, there were six-and-a-half million.
LAMB: I must have the wrong whatever it is.
DAVIES: A hundred and thirteen thousand -- that would have been...
LAMB: A hundred and twenty-three thousand.
DAVIES: A hundred and twenty-three thousand -- that would -- that would have been about 1908 to 1910.
LAMB: The 1900 figure you have is 4,192.
DAVIES: Yes. A couple of thousand curved (ph) old -- Olds (ph) curved (ph) dashes (ph). The first American vehicle that was sold commercially was made in 1893 in Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts, by the brothers Frank and Charles Durea (ph). And by 1900, Ford had made a car or two. Ford Motor Company was incorporated in 1903, after a couple of false starts. And these guys were tinkerers. You know, no one took them very seriously. They made these noisy, smelling things that frightened the horses, didn't go very fast, weren't too reliable, nasty propensity to blow up on you. And they were toys, really. They were eccentric, rickety.
And it just goes …in -- in a handful of years, from guys making these strange machines in kind of corner shacks on back alleys to within a decade, industrial palaces like no one had ever seen. One of the things about them was they had acres of glass so that the workers actually had light to work in. And they had canteens. And Henry Ford in 1914 announced that he was going to pay his staff $5 a day for an eight-hour day, which was twice the average wage at that time. And not for the first time or the last, everybody said that Henry Ford was quite mad. But in fact, of course, he remained the leading automaker for another 13 years.
LAMB: Go back to Henry Joy. He did what in regard to this 1919 trip?
DAVIES: Well, he bought the Packard company from the original man, Packard, in Ohio, built up this huge firm, the largest luxury car maker in the world. And he test drove his vehicles himself. He said, you know, "I will not be happy selling a vehicle that I'm not happy driving." And he was long accustomed to taking his vehicles out on extremely arduous test trips into the Rockies. The first Packard Twin 6 in 1915, he drove it from Detroit to San Francisco in three weeks through cloying gumbo because it was a horrendously wet spring.
And in 1913, a man called Carl Fisher (ph) had come to him. Fisher was an Indianapolis car dealer who once flew over the city of Indianapolis suspended from a balloon as a promotional stunt. And he'd come up with this idea of a road across America. Everybody thought he was crazy. You couldn't do it. But he said "A road across America. Let's build it before we're too old to enjoy it." And he wanted to go to Detroit and round up the car makers behind this idea. And he went to Henry Joy and said, "Joy, the way we are going about it at the moment, we will have an American highway system about the year 2000." And between them, they started this thing called the Lincoln Highway Association. Fisher named the road. Joy was the guy who did the most work to promote it.
LAMB: What year?
DAVIES: The association was founded in 1913. And they'd made a lot of progress in terms of -- I mean, they were fantastic boosters, these guys, and they'd made a lot of progress in planting the idea of the Lincoln Highway into the minds of the American people. It was -- it was, without any doubt, the most famous road in the world. But there remained that problem with it that it wasn't paved.
LAMB: You say that Carl Fisher also started the Indianapolis 500?
DAVIES: He did. He -- with some, I think, three colleagues, he built the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and he paved it in brick, which was a fairly innovative thing to do. He was -- I mean, both of these guys, and a lot of the others that were involved with them, were amazing men, just incredibly energetic, amazingly, you know, visionary, abundant -- abundant, you know, joie de vivre in the case of Henry Joy.
There's a lovely story about Henry Joy driving back from New York to Detroit in early 1914. And a wheel hits a hole in the road, which happened all the time in those days and he puts his head through the windscreen and he needs minor surgery. So, he has the operation and then he telegrams his wife: "Am bullheaded hurrah. Do not have to work. Joy (ph)."
Realistically, the likelihood of Henry Joy not working is about the same as the sun not coming up in the morning, because he had so much on the go all the time that guy.
LAMB: We used to have a Congressman in this town by the name of John Siberling. We pronounce it Siberling in the United States, from Ohio. I suspect he is a relative somewhere along the way of this man whose name is Siberling.
DAVIES: May well be. May well be. We call Frank Siberling. Siberling is what I always called him but...
LAMB: What is he? Who is he?
DAVIES: He's the president of Goodyear Tire and Rubber, and another of these great guys who were behind the Lincoln Highway and who were behind the convoy in 1919. He was a dabbler in all kinds of things. He didn't get going big time until quite late. I think he was in his late 30s. He'd lost a bunch of money in a stock market panic and he somehow managed to put together some little deals with some friends to buy up a bankrupt boarding company.
They made some sort of board, and he bought it in about 1898 and he was thinking he'd just go back and carry on making this strawboard stuff, I guess with the construction industry and one of his friends said to him "go into rubber, Frank. It is alive." And rubber itself as a viable thing, the process of vulcanization had been discovered by Goodyear, the inventor, the rather calamitous, disorganized inventor some years earlier, but there wasn't any money in it, of course, until the car came along.
And sure enough, Frank Siberling starts up this rubber farm and I think their first order was $21.70 for little rubber caps to go on medicinal bottles, and he skated on thin ice for a little while and then he got an order to put tires on Model Ts and took off and became the largest tire maker in the United States.
LAMB: How many of the 81 vehicles on this 1919 trip had Goodyear tires on them?
DAVIES: I couldn't tell you that. Goodyear had just started promoting the idea of pneumatic tires, which none of the army trucks at that time had. They had solid tires, which would have been made by Goodyear, by Firestone, by U.S. Rubber. But these solid tires must have been awful to drive on on a good road never mind a bad road.
I mean if you get going any faster than ten miles an hour, it would be all you could do to hang onto the wheel and not get flung from the cab because the vibration would be so awful.
LAMB: Speaking of army vehicles, you say this vehicle right here played a major role in this trip.
DAVIES: Yes, the Militor, $40,000 of 1919 money. That's some substantial investment the U.S. Army made there. The Militor was considered the most priceless asset. It basically towed just about every other vehicle on the trip out of one ditch, one bug, one swamp, one mire, one quicksand morass after another, and if they'd not have had it, they'd not have got across. It was a - I think they called it - it was a custom designed artillery wheeled tractor is what they called it.
It had a big iron Sprague on the back that they could anchor down into the dirt and oftentimes they would be towing vehicles out of the ditch or out of a mess and the whole thing would just rear up, rear up pulling these other vehicles out.
LAMB: A section of 81 vehicle didn't make it, 61 days, 1919, I-80 and U.S. 30 and all, is this Lincoln Highway still in that area? Do they still have a place you can see the signs Lincoln Highway?
DAVIES: Different states have done more or less good jobs in remembering it. Pennsylvania, I think, the U.S. 30 corridor, most of U.S. 30 is pretty much marked clear across the state as historic highway and that continues, as I say, more or less well in different states.
I remember in Iowa, Illinois, you drive along and you see U.S. 30, whichever road it might be that at the time corresponds, still has Lincoln Highway on it. There are many places where the road is still called Lincoln Highway, which is nice to see and that extends even out to a little country road in the desert in Utah that's called the Lincoln Highway.
LAMB: How many miles would they go each day in this convoy?
DAVIES: I think the longest trip would have been somewhere around 90 miles in a day. More often it would be 50 odd.
LAMB: You say that Mamie Eisenhower hooked up with her husband - she was in Denver?
DAVIES: Yes, Mamie's family had moved to Denver from Boone, Iowa, when her father sold out their business in Iowa and became a millionaire, and she had spent a lot of time there because there were no married quarters at the different camps that Ike was at over in the east.
So, I don't think he'd seen her for about eight months and Mamie's father had a map and he kept pins on it showing the progress of the convoy and he'd been trying all that spring of 1919 to stir up enthusiasm in the family for a car trip because it was, you know, it was a big adventure taking a car trip anywhere and now that the convoy and Ike along with it were approaching, he succeeded in getting Mamie to jump in the car with him. And they drove, I think it would have been about 200 miles from Denver to North Platte, Nebraska.
It took them 13 hours, rarely got above second gear, and so she got all excited and ….describes her wearing this new black lacy thing and she was bobbing in and out of the hotel doorway looking down the street and the convoys had this terrible day and they're lumbering into the town in bits and pieces and people are stuck in mud and all over. And suddenly, here comes this officer's car and there's Ike hollering like a kid and there he is.
LAMB: How often on the trip did - this is a Packard. I think this is from a 1915 trip. How often did it look like this?
DAVIES: In western Nebraska all too often, all too often. They were fortunate. It could have been like that all the way across Iowa, but luckily in Iowa it didn't rain. In western Nebraska there was one stretch where it took them seven hours and 20 minutes to go 200 yards. They were about in the business of saying we need to build paved roads. They did prove the need for it.
LAMB: Colonel McClure is mentioned throughout the entire book. Who was he?
DAVIES: McClure was a professional army officer who - his father was in the army. He was from Collinville, Illinois, and he signed on in 1905, if I remember correctly, and he had been in the army 14 years. He had seen service in the Philippines. He had seen service in Mexico. He was back from Europe, literally fresh off the boat, three or four days before the convoy started and the convoy was in a state of some ill discipline in Washington and the Remote Transport Corps knew it.
And it had been prepared by an officer named Captain Bernard McMann (ph) from Salinas in California and the men loved him but maybe that was the problem that he wasn't strict enough, and the Remote Transport Corps put in McClure over McMann's head to try and instill some discipline because otherwise they weren't going to make it. They weren't going to get there. And they were, Ike reported, effectively a disorganized …when they set off. Ike said that a lot of men in dealing with their vehicles exhibited language more in keeping with a team of horses than the internal combustion engine.
LAMB: Where was the biggest crowd on the trip?
DAVIES: The biggest?
DAVIES: Difficult one.
LAMB: Or a big crowd?
DAVIES: There were many big crowds, Pittsburgh, Salt Lake City, probably San Francisco. I mean probably the welcome in San Francisco and Oakland would have been the hugest. The welcome into Oakland was sensational. There were fireworks. They had special fireworks made when they went up and blew up all the flags of the allied nations came down fluttering out of the fireworks and the street was lined with vehicles for miles into Oakland.
LAMB: How big a deal was this back then when you went through - did you go through the newspapers?
DAVIES: Oh, yes. I read the newspapers all the way across America because these guys were front page news all the way across the country.
DAVIES: Oh, yes. Oh, yes.
DAVIES: Yes, many controversies because the towns that were on the route fought tooth and nail to stay on the route and the towns that were not on the route fought tooth and nail to get other towns kicked off and the route re-designated to them.
LAMB: Why and how important was it?
DAVIES: Because if you had pavement, you were the future. If you stayed with the mud road you were not going to get the traffic and you were going to die a commercial death in the mud.
LAMB: Who got pavement because of this trip, a town in the United States that we know today that wouldn't have been anything if it hadn't have gone through there?
DAVIES: If you look at Cedar Rapids, Iowa, there's a little town called Marion about five miles, five, ten miles to the northeast, which was originally the county seat of, I think it's Linn County there in Iowa. Cedar Rapids, Marion, the Lincoln Highway went on a little jog through Marion and then down into Cedar Rapids because Marion was the county seat.
Cedar Rapids being bigger than Marion laid a fete accompli of improved road due east so that the traffic would come due east avoiding Marion and into Cedar Rapids. Within a couple of years, Marion was no longer the county seat. Cedar Rapids was. Cedar Rapids had the pavement. Cedar Rapids had the power.
LAMB: Cost of this to the federal taxpayer, just this 61-day trip?
DAVIES: That I couldn't tell you. What I can tell you is that the first exercise in federal funding for road building was an act that passed in 1916 and it allowed something like $15 million a year and it was a poor piece of lawmaking because it had no national plan built into it.
There was nothing systematic about it, so it was an opportunity for pork barrel boondoggle politics. People were building little bits of road here and there all over the place. But as a result of this trip in 1921, a highway action was passed that committed the federal government to spending $75 million a year.
And over a period of five years, $75 million for each of five years and it was the first time that the government had said we need a federally-recognized national highway system, and this was really directly attributable to the kind of massive promotional boost that the convoy had given to it.
So, I can't tell you what the convoy cost but the War Department evidently felt it was a sufficiently worthwhile exercise because they sent another one the next year. And I don't actually know what happened to that one because the War Department report for 1920 was printed about three weeks after it had set off. And rather than going on the Lincoln Highway route as they did in 1919, they tried to go on another highway that was a later invention. It was called the Bankhead Highway.
They went down through the south and the guy writing the report said well, we've sent them off and it's taken them 16 days just to get to Atlanta and we figure they might get to L.A. in two or three months. They didn't know the roads were so bad.
LAMB: You say that soldiers along the way got married?
DAVIES: Yes, two. That's a great story. I think it's called Private Fred Gullick (ph) in Chicago Heights, Illinois, and the local papers all thought that he'd met the girl at the dance.
They had a rest day on a Sunday, so on a Saturday evening there was a dance and the local papers all thought that Gullick had met this girl and the next day he woos her until his purse runs out with passion, goes back to camp, gets up the next morning, rushes off, finds her. She agrees.
The guy jumps on a motor bike and rushes off to find someone who will marry them and someone who will issue a certificate and a sharp ….reporter from one of the Chicago papers didn't believe this love at first sight story.
And, he overheard Colonel McClure saying to Private Gullick this is a bit hasty. You know you've only known her a matter of hours and Private Gullick says no, no, no. I've known her since Tuesday. We met in Bucyrus, Ohio. So that's OK. He's known her for five days and he said the ride she would follow him on the train all the way to L.A. where he lived and that would be their honeymoon.
LAMB: We have some more video that was taken by the armory back in 1919 on this trip. From what you saw on your own trip, what kind of - I mean along the away how many towns are just decrepit or how many places did you go into and they were old hotels that were boarded up?
DAVIES: One of the sad things that you see now is that the hotels that used to be real institutions in downtown small town America are either not there or they're basically flophouses and wrecks. And, you know, everybody is in a motel out on the edge of town and that was a natural development of what these guys started but they didn't know it at the time.
So, for instance, there's a little town called Kimball out in western Nebraska where there's this lovely, lovely building called the Wheat Growers Hotel and it's by the rail track and if the money could be found to restore it, it would be a beautiful building.
And, the officers had a dinner that was laid on for them by the local people in that hotel and you can stand outside in that white heat of the Nebraska sun and you can imagine they're more sad about having a nice dinner and speaking about how this convoy was going to change everything and how the road was going to be paved.
Because you know at that time, there was probably only a handful of motor vehicles in the whole county out there and they didn't foresee that paving the road was going to make towns spread out like this. There was another town in Nebraska, Lexington, where they put up a three-story bank and they'd left one side of the building brick because they figured the other buildings would go up alongside it, but of course as soon as pavement came, the town spread out and the new businesses with the garages and the motels fanning out alongside the highway as it went by the town.
LAMB: You point out that this was right at the end of the World War I and Dwight Eisenhower, although he didn't go overseas, fought in that war.
DAVIES: He didn't go overseas. He trained other men to do so.
LAMB: But the second thing you point out is the flu of 1918.
DAVIES: Yes, I actually wrote a book about that a couple of years ago, a book called "The Devil's Flu." That was a truly calamitous event. Something like 40 million died worldwide in the course of a year, and at least half a million Americans died. So, there were really two catastrophic events that came hard on each other.
You had America joining the war, which resulted in the death of some $50,000 American soldiers and ten times as many Americans dying at the same time of this dreadful, dreadful epidemic. So, I think one of the nice things about the convoy, it just was a feel good factor. People had been through a lot. There was a lot of strife, a lot of grieving. It was a very difficult time. I think race relations were horribly strained. There were appalling race riots in Chicago and Washington, even while the convoy was on the road.
LAMB: Any Black soldiers?
DAVIES: Not on the convoy.
LAMB: Any racial events along the way?
DAVIES: There's a lot of interesting stories about Omaha where the mayor was very nearly lynched in the process of a mob taking a Black guy out of the prison the way he'd been accused of raping a white woman. He was a pretty unlikely suspect because he had pretty bad arthritis.
But they took him out and strung him up and they thought they might have a go at the male while they were at it. That happened just after the convoy had been through and that radicalized the Black community in Omaha considerably and one of the leaders of the community after that was a guy called Earl Little whose son changed his name to X.
LAMB: When we see these vehicles moving down the road back in 1919 on the screen, what speed are they going at?
DAVIES: Five miles an hour if they're lucky. As I say, a lot of the trucks have solid tires so if you go faster than ten, you're going to be thrown out of the vehicle by the shuttering and the juttering.
LAMB: What's that one?
DAVIES: The caddies and the...
LAMB: The tractor? Is that called a tractor?
DAVIES: Yes, I think that would have been the whole tractor, the Caterpillar tractor. Yes, that is. They took a Caterpillar tractor with them that was the other vehicle with the Militor that helped tow them all through. You know the staff cars could get up to 60 miles an hour, the best of them, and the Indians and the Harleys, the motor bikes that the scouts used.
Obviously they could tear off about the landscape provided that the engines didn't clog with dust and silt, but the trucks five miles an hour. If you get onto a good paved road with them ten. You know they were chafing at the bit when they got to California. They viewed California as the Promised Land because they had pavement. You know they had been 2,000 miles without seeing pavement and suddenly they come out of Placerville toward Sacramento and the road is lined with fruit, orchards.
You know the populous showered troops with fruit, reported Lieutenant Jackson and you could just see you can see fromm his telegram, bliss. We've arrived on pavement after 2,000 miles of really hard work, and it was the Promised Land. It was the land of the future, had the most advanced highway system and these guys were driving on that and the drivers were just chafing because McClure said to them you will still stick to the speed limit and they really didn't want to.
California, it had to be California was the scene of the first arrest of a motorist by an airplane, first arrest in speeding motorist by an airplane. I love that image.
Yes, this guy is going down at the road at 60 odd miles an hour and the motor bike cop is chasing him and his motor bike starts playing up so he passes an aviation fill, scoots in there, gets a pilot. Come on let's go, jump in the plane. The guy lands on the road in front of him. The speeding motorist naturally thinks oh, he must be in trouble so he gets out and he gets arrested.
LAMB: What did you do with your Chevrolet Caprice 1985 model when you got to San Francisco?
DAVIES: Oh, I miss my car. I sold it to a parking valet in my hotel in San Francisco for $800.
LAMB: Bought it for $2,000?
DAVIES: Yes, sold it for $800. It was sad to be rid of it. I hope that the guy that I sold it to gets as good a deal as I did.
LAMB: Along the way, what are the most memorable spots for you?
DAVIES: Too many to mention them all. The 190 miles of west central Utah desert we mentioned. That was gorgeous. I love that moment when you're in central Nebraska and you cross the 100th meridian and you feel not just actually but mythically and psychologically you feel that the west is beginning. Eastern Nebraska you have that sense of vastness that cornfields the size of Belgium and those amazing irrigation things just spraying rainbow all to the horizon.
And as you go along, it's about the town of Kozad (ph) I think, you can feel the landscape drying out and you can feel the air thinning and you're slowly rising and the grain elevators start being replaced by stockyards, each little town, and each little town gets further apart and the land starts to buckle and get dry.
And then you get up into Wyoming and it's just majestic, absolutely majestic. I loved all that. There were towns in Iowa that I really liked, Jefferson in western Iowa. As I say, I followed the route as closely as I can and that meant down to county roads. I mean U.S. 30 a little of the way yes, you can stick to that and it's more or less the Lincoln Highway, but there are people who know about this stuff along the route who have actually looked and said well, out here it was County Road E-38 or whatever it might be.
And just by Jefferson, Iowa, you can find a field and the owner of that field in late teens, early 20s was a farmer, a member of the Lincoln Highway Association who wrote a letter to Detroit with his dues and said "proud to be a member of this. You know this road is going to be one of the great achievements of our civilization. Here are my $5."
He was a soldier at Mission Point, lost a foot, lucky to be alive, looking forward to seeing this thing get built. And, he put up two busts of Lincoln on little posts by that corner of his field and over the years they got vandalized and people forgot why they were there but bless him there are some good local people there who have got new busts made and they're back and you can drive by and see them and that's really nice.
LAMB: Classic Car Museum, where's that?
DAVIES: Canton, Ohio, yes that's a good one. That's a good one. That was very funny. Big sign there saying please don't touch the cars. Bob shoots every tenth toucher and the ninth just left.
DAVIES: That's another really interesting story. I'll tell you one of the memorable things. It's a sad thing but Studebaker was this amazing industrial story in South Bend, Indiana and Packard lost its way after World War II and the last Packard came off the production line in 1956 and Studebaker took them over, moved production to Indiana. So that's '56.
So that's half a century ago. You can go to Detroit today. That plant is still there. It's this huge industrial ruin and you think about everything that Henry Joy did in his life and everything that he built and now it's just a million broken windows.
LAMB: Wasn't there a car called the Henry Joy or something like that?
DAVIES: I don't know. I couldn't tell you but I just - you were talking about, you know, resonant moments. There are a lot of happy moments, a lot of amazing achievements in this book but it was sad to look at that incredible building. It's still got Packard 1907 written on the lintel. But I'll tell you another thing, and this is a nice story. This is a cheering story.
In the same way that the Packard plant's just been left to go like that, Henry Joy died in '36, '37 and his wife put up a monument to him in the best possible place. She put it on the Continental Divide in the middle of nowhere in Wyoming. That's absolutely appropriate to this guy because he loved to get in his car and go out and camp and cook bacon on a fire in the morning.
And this monument went up I think in '38, '39 and it was a simple black obelisk surrounded by a little railing and it had a Lincoln Highway marker post on each of the four corners and it was a great place to set it because it was very appropriate to him and what he loved to do, but of course nobody knew that it was there.
And in, I guess it would have been June, July toward two-thirds of the way through the trip, I found it there. There's no guidebook that said it was there. It was very resonant again to stand in that majestic landscape by this monument to this guy who more than any other one individual person did so much for the getting going of the building of roadways in this country and there it was and nobody knew about it.
And again, happy ending, good local people in conjunction with the Department of Transportation they way, I mean, moved that monument and they've put it at a rest stop on the interstate at the top of Telephone Canyon and I think he gets his place in history back for that.
LAMB: How often did you find pictures like this one where soldiers are wiped out?
DAVIES: They must have been so tired. They must have been so tired. There's a great collection of them in Abilene and there are two other great collections in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
LAMB: In the Eisenhower Library?
DAVIES: Yes and there are good collections in Ann Arbor as well.
LAMB: Where's this photograph here from?
DAVIES: That is the Iowa Department of Transportation came up with that one. That's a gem of a bridge. It's Tamor, Iowa. There is another bridge somewhat akin to that somewhere in Nevada. I've never been able to track it down where it is, but that's now in the National Registry of Historic Places, the one that says Lincoln Highway on either side.
LAMB: Here's Colonel McClure. Where's this picture from?
DAVIES: Salt Lake City, yes the fair maidens of Salt Lake presented him with a floral truck, which he duly said that he was enormously honored and that he would take it with him to San Francisco. I rather doubt he kept that promise somehow.
LAMB: Any careers made in the military after this or even in politics?
DAVIES: In the military, oddly no. Most of them, I think very tellingly, seemed to have quit the army immediately after the convoy and gone off to Detroit to work for the car industry. McClure had been 14 years in the army, went straight off to Detroit, and went to work for Packard, and I think that probably tells us a lot about who had the real clout behind this expedition.
Ironically, Packard stopped making trucks in 1923 because it didn't shine with their image as luxury car makers. But prior t that, they had been, well by the end of World War I, the U.S. Army had 80,000 trucks and Packard claimed that one in five of them was a Packard.
LAMB: Now did you pick up any new ideas about another book about the United States while you made this trip?
DAVIES: Yes, oh several.
LAMB: Would you like to share of those with us?
DAVIES: It's such a joy to come to this country because you feel that there's just this inexhaustible fund of stories. You have this wonderful variety, this infinitely magnificent landscape. There we go. They even look like prairie schooners, don't they? They even look like prairie schooners.
As I said early on, it's just a miracle that nobody died. You see them on those mountain trails in the west? There are places there, you know, the precipitous drops sometimes of hundreds. In the Sierra-Nevada, 1,000 feet, and the wheels are this close from the edge. They did lose one truck over a mountainside in Pennsylvania, but I suppose the thing about it is given the truck is probably not going faster than two or three miles an hour and there is no …lucky to get on road like this.
LAMB: Good roads movement, is that what this whole thing was called?
DAVIES: That was one aspect of it. The good roads movement began with people riding bicycles. When Dunlop in Northern Ireland invited the pneumatic tire, everybody could go out and read a bicycle in comfort. The League of American Wheelmen, they were called. But a lot of wheel women as well.
LAMB: So, what's that book going to be that you found on this trip?
DAVIES: Can I keep that to myself?
LAMB: Can you give us a hint?
DAVIES: There is a bunch of stories and I haven't decided which one yet, so no.
LAMB: So of all the things you've done, all the places you've gone, the other wonders of the world that you've seen, where would you put this on the list?
DAVIES: Very high. It's in the top five.
DAVIES: It was a great piece of research to do. I felt like by the time I was getting to the end of the trail that I was actually living in my mind in 1919 because I was reading all the stories and watching them develop through the course of the convoy.
One of the things about reading the papers was I didn't just want to set. I didn't just want to tell the story of here's a convoy. They drive across America. I wanted to set in the context of the time and the issues that people were concerned about.
So as a piece of research that was a really joyous, joyous job to do and I loved doing it. I loved, you know, looking at the bicycle scores and looking at the stories that people were concerned about. There was a big scandal at the time really wicked Parisian fashions were creeping in and women were going about places without stockings on, and defenders of the public morals were rushing off to parks and bathing places, checking out the length of bathing costumes because of these tremendously corrupting European ideas.
All those were details. I loved doing all that. But, you know, as an experience, I'm not sure how many Europeans are really aware of how just fabulously hospitable this country can be, and if you spend a few months here, which I've done on several occasions writing different books, it just becomes, it just becomes a real pleasure to travel about. Small town America, the cities, whichever, but to travel through and meet people and find out the histories in these little towns, it's just a treat. So, it's high on the list.
I'll be back.
LAMB: We're out of time and here's the cover of the book. Our guest has been West Yorkshire, England native Pete Davies. The book is "American Road" from the 1919 convoy across the United States. Thank you very much for joining us.
DAVIES: Thank you, my pleasure.
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