1919 Transcontinental Convoy: Iowa and Nebraska Are Welcoming – And Challenging

July 29, 1919

One week after the U.S. Army’s Cross-Country Motor Transport Train traveled across the Mississippi River via the High Bridge to enter Iowa, this convoy crossed over the Missouri River to leave the Hawkeye State and journey through neighboring Nebraska for several days. The convoy departed the Iowa city of Council Bluffs at 7:30 that morning and, a couple of hours later, traversed the Douglas Street Bridge to Omaha. (The Douglas Street Bridge, which was built by the Omaha and Council Bluffs Street Railway Company in 1888, remained in use until being replaced in 1966.)

By 1919, the centrally-located Omaha was a major transportation hub in the United States and the city had even earned the nickname “Gateway to the West.” Omaha’s residents, mindful of the key role their city played in the nationwide transportation network, welcomed the convoy with considerable fanfare. “Omaha declared a holiday to welcome the motor transport corps transcontinental train today,” noted the Washington Post, reporting the July 29 arrival. “Headed by the mayor, a delegation of officials and citizens, representative of the civic organizations, met the train early this morning and greeted its entrance to Nebraska.”

The excitement over the convoy’s Tuesday morning entrance into the Cornhusker State extended beyond the city limits of Omaha. John Eschelman Miller, mayor of Lincoln (Nebraska’s capital city) published a statement a day earlier in the Lincoln Journal Star, enthusiastically highlighting the visit of the convoy to his home state and the “great ovation” awaiting the soldiers in Omaha.

Miller also underscored the larger significance of the coast-to-coast military expedition. “Covered with the dust of thirteen hundred miles [2,092.2 kilometers] of the Lincoln Highway, operating exactly according to schedule, the motor corps army is maintaining its record,” asserted Miller. “It was an established factor in winning the world war and is now proving the need of a great national highway for mobile army motor transport corps.”

The convoy’s July 29 exit from Iowa to Nebraska also provided yet another common thread tying together Council Bluffs and Omaha. The linkage between the cities on different sides of the Missouri River dated back to 1854 when speculators from Council Bluffs founded Omaha. By 1919, the cities competed with each other for what was a highly coveted role for various communities along the route of the convoy: to host the participants in the military expedition during an all-day Sunday rest period (as opposed to just an overnight stay). As it turns out, neither Council Bluffs nor Omaha won the hosting privilege for Sunday, July 27. This honor instead went to the town of Denison, Iowa, home to only about 4,000 people at the time.

Lieutenant Colonel Charles W. McClure, the convoy’s commander, had to be especially assertive with a delegation from Omaha about why a smaller, more low-key place like Denison was ultimately selected as the Sunday stop. He said, “This train is an official army affair, and is not out for entertainment and advertisement.”

The convoy stops in Denison, IA. Photo courtesy of the Iowa DOT.

The visit to Denison, which began with the convoy’s arrival on the afternoon of July 26 and concluded with the departure for Council Bluffs on the morning of July 28, was a mixed bag for McClure and those whom he led. On the positive side, they received a warm welcome from many of Denison’s residents. The crowds which gathered to see the convoy, as a matter of fact, set a record for the town. McClure was among the speakers to address those gathered for the occasion, and a band concert was performed on the evening of July 27 in honor of the convoy’s visit. The extended stay in Denison also allowed the soldiers to take care of urgent maintenance needs for their vehicles.

Other parts of the visit to Denison, however, were less than thrilling for the soldiers. In a baseball game, for example, the town’s home team trounced the convoy’s team by a score of 19 to 1. (That game was stopped during the sixth inning, purportedly due to the hot weather.) In addition, the food eaten by the convoy’s participants by this stage of the transcontinental trip left a lot to be desired. First Lieutenant Elwell R. Jackson noted in this daily log, “Mess of officers and enlisted men very unsatisfactory, and services of an experienced Mess Officer are badly needed, to keep up morale of the command.”

For more information on the visit of the U.S. Army’s transcontinental motor convoy to Denison, Iowa, please check out http://iowahighwayends.net/blog/2019/07/the-army-convoy-stops-in-denison/.

Additional information on the activities of the convoy is available at https://www.historynet.com/ikes-road-trip.htm.

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