Monday, February 20, 2017

The Zero Milestone Marker and a journey across country: Eisenhower’s interstate inspiration

Today is President’s Day and it was thanks to Kansas native, President Dwight D. Eisenhower that we have a lot to be proud of when it comes to our state’s interstate systems. So much history is told along these multi-lane highways. In June 1956, President Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Act of 1956 and on November 14 of that same year, Kansas opened the first section of interstate in the U.S., just west of Topeka. 

34th U.S. President, Dwight D. Eisenhower 

All great ideas need inspiration and President Eisenhower’s came from a military convoy cross-country journey that he joined in 1919. The journey began after a dedication of a temporary small monument in Washington, D.C.: The Zero Milestone Marker.
According to an article by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), The Zero Milestone Marker was conceived by good roads advocate Dr. S.M. Johnson to designate a point at which the U.S. road system begins and he cited the ancient city of Rome as his inspiration. The article quotes Johnson as saying:

Rome marked the beginning of her system of highways which bound her widely scattered people together by a golden milestone in the Forum. The system of highways radiating from Washington to all the boundaries of the national domain and all parts of the Western hemisphere will do vastly more for national unity and for human unity than even the roads of the Roman Empire . . . .”

After a temporary marker was dedicated, the U.S. Army attempted to send a military convoy of 60 trucks and more than 200 men.
In 1919, a young officer, brevet Lt. Col. Dwight D. Eisenhower made the journey famous because of the conditions of the cross-country trip was the stuff of nightmares.
The FHWA said in their article that not only did the convoy face typical mechanical problems but there were also infrastructure issues to deal with as well.
“ …The convoy had to deal with vehicles stuck in mud or crashing through wooden bridges, roads as slippery as ice (25 trucks skidded into a roadside ditch west of North Platte, Nebraska), roads with the consistency of "gumbo" or built on shifting sand, and extremes of weather from desert heat to Rocky Mountain freezing,” the FHWA article said.

After two months and 3,200 miles, the convoy pulled into San Francisco. In a formal report of the trip, Eisenhower said that the trip had been difficult and tiring but also fun. He discussed the challenges he saw while on the journey.
“Extended trips by trucks through the middle western part of the United States are impracticable until roads are improved, and then only a light truck should be used on long hauls,” Eisenhower said.

The FHWA’s article mentions that the participants of that day were convinced that the United States’ roads needed improvements. While it would be another 37 years before Eisenhower could begin the interstate system, he cites this journey, and the Autobahn in Germany as his inspiration for having good roads.
The Zero Milestone Marker soon after it's dedication in 1923.
Photo source:

“A third of a century later, after seeing the autobahns of modern Germany and knowing the asset those highways were to the Germans, I decided, as President, to put an emphasis on this kind of road building,” Eisenhower said. “When we finally secured the necessary congressional approval, we started the 41,000 miles of super highways [now 42,800 miles] that are already proving their worth. This was one of the things that I felt deeply about, and I made a personal and absolute decision to see that the nation would benefit by it. The old convoy had started me thinking about good, two-lane highways, but Germany had made me see the wisdom of broader ribbons across the land.”

The Zero Milestone Marker stands on the South Lawn of the White House.

The Zero Milestone Marker, a small pylon that stands in the South Lawn of the White House, was officially dedicated in 1923. While this little monument’s purpose was never fully realized, as roads don’t all begin and end in Washington D.C., the reason behind its creation still rings true today: America’s road systems connect all of us and we all depend on quality infrastructure to thrive. 

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