The Interstate Highway System

Although he was a West Point graduate, his military career had gone nowhere. He graduated in 1915 but wasn’t sent to fight in World War I. He seemed destined to become a desk soldier.

Four years after graduation (1919), the military decided to send a convoy of 81 vehicles from the east coast to the west. He decided to volunteer for the trip, partly out of adventure and partly to learn. And what an adventure it became.

Few of the 3,200 miles were paved. There were no gasoline stations or places to buy parts or repair vehicles. The convoy had to carry tires and gasoline. A tank was needed to tow vehicles out of ditches. The convoy also contained a blacksmith vehicle to make parts for those that broke.

In some cases, roads had to be built and bridges repaired. Getting to the top of the Sierra Nevada mountain range took 14 hours. But the convoy finally arrived at their destination. It had taken two months.

With the entry of America into World War II, the eventual arrival of allied forces in Germany was historic for a reason we rarely think about today. The German autobahn evoked a memory of the cross-country trip for one U.S. soldier.

Thirty-seven years later that soldier was President of the United States. Dwight Eisenhower signed the Interstate Highway Bill approving federal funding of 41,000 miles of roads across America. It was 1950. The original interstate highway system was completed in 1992.

Imagine what America would be like without a network of highways linking together the nation. The highway system not only aided travel but also had a tremendous economic benefit to parts of the country where access was difficult.

Would President Eisenhower have been such an advocate for a network of highways if he hadn’t volunteered for the cross-country adventure? It’s hard to say. Many beginnings seem to be a matter of fate. One experience sparks an idea leading to innovation. In this case, seeing the challenges of moving military vehicles across the country helped provide a vision that changed the nation.

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            “We didn’t build the interstate system to connect New York to Los Angeles because the West Coast was a priority. No, we webbed the highways so people can go to multiple places and invent ways of doing things not thought of by the persons building the roads.” – Neil deGrasse Tyson (planetary scientist)

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