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National Interstate and Defense Highway


In the summer of 1919 the US Army sent across the vast American continent a motorized convoy to test the Army’s ability to mobilize forces in case of an attack on American soil. The convoy consisted of 282 Army personnel and 81 motorized vehicles including cargo trucks, observation cars, motorcycles, kitchen trailers and a caterpillar tractor. Cutting across the center of the continent, the convoy was meant to be entirely self-sufficient, in order to simulate wartime conditions, though it was regularly treated to barbecues, lemonade breaks and other feasts by the many generous Americans the soldiers met along the way.

After the onerous 3,251 mile journey between Washington D.C. and San Francisco, the convey completed its quest. Today, a modern driver could make the trip in less than 43 hours in the comfort of an air-conditioned, ipod-enabled, satellite linked modern vehicle. But in 1919, it took the Army convoy 62 days traveling an average of 6 miles per hour on mostly dirt roads and prairie trails. Twenty-one men and nine vehicles were lost as the convoy navigated through mud pits, over narrow mountain passes, and across bridges that often collapsed during use.

Among the members of the 1919 convoy was Lt. Colonel Dwight D. Eisenhower. He saw first hand the limitations posed by an ill-maintained road system. Commenting at the end of the excursion, Eisenhower remarked that “extended trips by trucks through the middle western part of the United States are impracticable until roads are improved.” The complete realization of these road improvements would only begin some 37 years later. In 1956 President Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act, an act designed to easily enable military vehicles to reach any part of the country quickly, and provide a safer, more efficient transportation system for the growing population.

In its aims the Interstate System has been a smashing success and a tribute to American ingenuity. By making travel times between states and cities shorter and more efficient, it has more closely bound our country together, and saved untold millions on transportation costs. It has enhanced our national security, and its safety features have saved an estimated 190,000 lives and prevented 12 million injuries.

For the past forty-seven years the national interstate system has played an integral part of North Dakota’s transportation system. Five years following Eisenhower’s signature of the Highway Act, the first portion of the Interstate system was completed in North Dakota. On this date, October 20, 1961, 145 miles of Interstate 94 were opened to traffic from Dawson, North Dakota to the Red River. As I-94 expanded across the state, it provided a crucial link between western and eastern North Dakota, better uniting our sparsely populated state. And although the highway is perhaps less smooth in places than we would like, it represents a monumental improvement over the rough dirt trails negotiated by Colonel Eisenhower 88 years ago.

Written by Lane Sunwall


Cox, Wendell, and Jean Love, "40 Years of the Us Interstate Highway System: An Analysis, the Best Investment a Nation Ever Made" (accessed October 10, 2008).

Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library & Museum, "The 1919 Transcontinental Motor Convoy" (accessed October 10, 2008).

________, "Interstate Highway System" (accessed October 10, 2008).

Eisenhower, Lt. Col Dwight D., Report on Trans-Continental Trip,

Greany, Capt. William C., Principal Facts Concerning the First Transcontinental Army Motor Transport Expedition, Washington to San Francisco July 7 to September 6, 1919,

Piper, Marion J. Dakota Portraits: A Sentimental Journal of Pictorial History. Mohall, ND, 1964.