1919 Transcontinental Convoy: Nevada’s Terrain, Dust, and Weather Prove Hard-Going

August 26, 1919

The U.S. Army’s Cross-Country Motor Transport Train, having crossed over into Nevada from Utah just a couple of days earlier, spent much of August 26 continuing to slog through what would be the toughest section of the entire transcontinental journey. “U.S. TRUCK TRAIN MIRED IN NEVADA DESERT,” proclaimed a headline in the Washington Times later that same week. The newspaper noted, “After leaving Orr’s Ranch, the last station in Utah, the road led over a long stretch of desolate, mountainous, Nevada desert. It was here that the worst difficulties of the trip were met.”

These challenges in Nevada were highlighted by an article appearing in Motor World magazine the following month. The article reported that participants in the convoy described how much of this part of the trip “was made through clouds of low-hanging, penetrating dust and extreme heat, over a deplorable desert trail, with alkali dust and the sand up to two feet [.6 meter] deep on the level but with numerous hidden holes in a country that has had no rain for more than four months.”

These dire assessments were reinforced by Lieutenant Colonel Dwight D. Eisenhower in a report on the transcontinental journey that he submitted in November to the chief of the Motor Transport Corps. Eisenhower wrote, “From Orr’s Ranch, Utah, to Carson City, Nevada, the road is one succession of dust, ruts, pits, and holes. This stretch was not improved in any way, and consisted only of a track across the desert.”

The harsh conditions made themselves abundantly known to the convoy’s participants on August 25 as they resumed their journey after an overnight stay in the city of Ely in eastern Nevada. The convoy encountered plenty of dust-filled ruts on that portion of the route, and the soldiers also had to put up with a dry wind blowing at about 20 miles (32.2 kilometers) per hour and pelting grit into their faces. Monday’s travels also involved cautiously maneuvering vehicles up steep and winding passes more than 7,000 feet (2,133 meters) above sea level.

The stopping point for this part of the trip was originally supposed to be the town of Eureka.  Convoy commander Lieutenant Colonel Charles W. McMcClure, realizing how exhausted his men were after everything they had to deal with on the road that day and also appreciating the fact that the expedition was a few days behind schedule anyway, changed the stopover plans. At 10:00 that night, he called the convoy to a halt seven miles (11.3 kilometers) short of Eureka and had everyone spend the night at a one-time mining camp known as Pinto House.

Even that respite came with its own set of challenges. It rained during the night, a weather development that evidently was overdue in the area but still unwelcome for the soldiers as they tried to sleep outside on the ground. They were also visited by cattle wandering onto the property.

At 7:15 a.m. on August 26, the convoy left Pinto House to resume its journey. The travels on that Tuesday were anything but an improvement from the day before, something that was made clear by First Lieutenant Elwell R. Jackson in his daily log. “Narrow mountain and desert trails at natural grades, with uneven and rutted surfaces,” noted Jackson. “About 5 miles [8.1 kilometers] across alkali flats with dust-filled ruts and chuckholes 1inches [3.8 centimeters] deep, necessitating slow and tedious going.” Jackson further stated, “Remarkable that all equipment remains serviceable with abuse given.”

Since the convoy ended up spending the night at someplace other than Eureka, McClure and his men set aside time to at least pay the town a visit. (The citizens of Eureka had made arrangements for a dance on August 25 to help celebrate the expected arrival of the convoy on that day, and they still held the dance without any of the soldiers in attendance.) In his remarks during the half-hour visit to Eureka, McClure thanked the town’s residents for their hospitality. In a grimmer tone, he then said that he and his men were “on the last end of a decidedly hard journey.”

As brief as it was, the stop in Eureka did provide momentum to what McClure had to say about the convoy nearing the final stage of its San Francisco-bound trip. This is because several Californians, specifically a camera crew and a group of journalists sent by the Oakland Tribune, were also on hand in Eureka to meet the convoy. The camera crew even used the opportunity to film the soldiers being given iced tea by the Red Cross.

On that same day — in yet another unmistakable sign that the final push in the transcontinental journey was in the not-too-distant future — those involved with advance planning efforts for the convoy’s arrival in California showed up in the city of Placerville in the Sierra Nevada foothills of the Golden State. “Scout Car Has Reached California,” announced a headline in the Salt Lake Telegram.

Additional information on the U.S. Army’s transcontinental motor convoy and its travels through Nevada is available in the 3 September 1919 edition of Motor World magazine at Motor Train Wins Across Salt Desert.

Historical highway maps for Nevada from 1919 onward is available at  https://www.nevadadot.com/travel-info/maps/historical-maps.

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