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U.S. Department of Transportation U.S. Department of Transportation Icon United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation

A Moment in Time: The Week America Loved Trucks

by Richard Weingroff / FHWA News 2022

line-drawing advertisement "Ship by Truck" showing local farmers bringing their produce to be loaded on a small truck on a small town street

We've all seen the 18 wheelers carrying the economy around the country. While we recognize their value, they are not necessarily the most beloved vehicles on the roads. But if you were around before the Interstate System reached far into the countryside, you will recall that truckers once were known as "Knights of the Road" who would help other motorists in need. Further, in the era before fast food franchise restaurants provided exactly the same meals from coast to coast, motorists who wanted to find a good place to eat were advised to look for trucks parked outside – the truckers knew where to find a good, cheap meal. For on-the-road restaurants before the Interstate System, truckers were the Michelin Guide, with their trucks replacing the guide's stars.

Times have changed, as they often do. But there was a moment in time, namely the week of May 17, 1920, when all America celebrated shipping by truck.

America Goes to War

The war in Europe began in August 1914. The issues that resulted in war seemed far removed from most American's concerns, but nevertheless affected many aspects of life, especially international travel. German U-boats began sinking ships in Atlantic waters, a threat that was most dramatically illustrated on May 7, 1915. On that date, a German U-boat sank the RMS Lusitania just 11 miles off the coast of Ireland. As the luxury ship sank, 1,198 people died, including 128 Americans.

President Woodrow Wilson and the Department of State worked through diplomatic channels with the German government to keep the United States out of the war by reducing the threat to American shipping and lives, but whether an agreement could be reached remained uncertain in 1916 when he ran for a second term.

President Woodrow Wilson had an impressive progressive record of domestic achievements, including creation of the Federal Reserve, enactment of Constitutional amendment calling for direct election by people of United States Senators, establishing the Federal Trade Commission, creating the National Park Service, and initiating the Federal-aid highway program. One of his most important campaign themes was that he had kept the country out of the war and would maintain the peace.

President Wilson won re-election by a narrow margin; he went to sleep on election night thinking he had lost. He took the oath of office on March 4, 1917, but by then, circumstances had changed regarding the war in Europe.

Germany announced that beginning February 1, 1917, it would use its submarines to sink every vessel, regardless of flag or character, approaching the country's enemies from the Atlantic Ocean or the Mediterranean Sea. Meanwhile, Germany had secretly reached out to Mexico to seek aid in the war. Upon victory, Mexico's reward would be the return of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas to its sovereignty. Those threats and other factors changed President Wilson's views.

On April 2, 1917, President Wilson and First Lady Edith Wilson drove through the rain along Pennsylvania Avenue to Capitol Hill to ask Congress for a Declaration of War. "It is a fearful thing to lead this great peaceful people into war, into the most terrible and disastrous of all wars, civilization itself seeming to be in the balance. But the right is more precious than peace . . . ." The Declaration would require "the organization and mobilization of all the material resources of the country to supply the materials of war and serve the incidental needs of the Nation in the most abundant and yet the most economical and efficient way possible."

Congress approved the Declaration on April 7. America's entry into the European or Great War, now known as World War I, would affect every aspect of life in the United States. The country would have to transform itself to win the war, but no one understood just how many aspects of American life would have to change. Surface transportation would be profoundly changed.

Trucks to the Rescue

Image of an old truck with the Ship by Truck label on the side.
Learning to Love Trucks
This truck carried the Firestone message around the country.

The railroads, totaling about 254,000 miles, were the dominant mode of interstate transportation in the country before the war. Dating to the late 19th century, the railroad companies had been strong advocates of the Good Roads Movement because better roads would improve freight access to their stations. But as FHWA's Bicentennial history, America's Highways 1776-1976, explained, the railroad companies were "as unprepared for war as the rest of the country – perhaps more so." Because of effective government regulation to preserve competition, "they had been prohibited from pooling freight or from merging parallel competing lines, even where such mergers would have resulted in more efficient systems." A sluggish economy, 1913-1914, had undermined the companies' finances; by the start of the war, "there was a nationwide shortage of about 148,000 cars."

As the war increased the importance of transporting food, freight, munitions, and soldiers, the railroads proved unable to keep up with demand. On December 26, 1917, under Presidential Proclamation 1419, the Federal Government seized all the main steam railroads and set up what became known as the United States Railroad Administration to operate them. Even with government control, the railroads were simply unable to keep up with demand. (The new administration ended on March 1, 1920, and is unrelated to the Federal Railroad Administration created by the Department of Transportation Act of 1966.)

The fledgling Federal-aid highway program, dating to July 1916 and not yet fully implemented, was a casualty of the war. Across the country, personnel for road building were hard to come by, and a shortage of railroad cars, already overburdened by wartime demands, made shipment of materials to road construction projects difficult. Government regulations reduced State and local bond issuances for road building that did not further the war effort.

The Growth of Over-the-Road Trucking

World War I was the first major war where motor vehicles played an important role, replacing the horses and mules of past wars, in the war zone and in the United States. Trucks were a key to victory, and they gained a foothold on interstate transportation of freight they would expand after the war.

President Woodrow Wilson inspecting the initial B Liberty Trucks on the White House grounds.
President Woodrow Wilson inspecting the initial B Liberty Trucks on the White House grounds.
On October 1917, the Quartermaster's Department of the Army accepted delivery of the first two class B Liberty Trucks, one built in Rochester, NY, and the other in Lima, OH. The trucks, designed for a 3-ton load but with capacity for 5 tons, arrived in Washington after a 6-day ride of more than 450 miles. At the White House, President Woodrow Wilson (in hat) inspected the vehicles as H. L. Horning, chairman of the Automotive Products Section of the War Industries Board, explained their features. According to a contemporary report, the President "was particularly interested in the short schedule allowed for the design and production of the first truck and in the remarkable record, which even exceeded the scheduled time. The President also was interested to learn that the trucks can operate efficiently on inferior grades of fuel if the necessity arises. He expressed great satisfaction at the promptness with which many manufacturers of the parts responded."

By 1917, the country had 391,000 registered trucks, most engaged in drayage and deliveries in cities. As the railroads proved unable to keep up with freight needs, trucks gradually began to expand service, initially regionally, then on an interstate basis. Interstate roads that could barely accommodate automobile traffic were not designed for heavy trucks or their solid rubber tires. "By August 1917, [rail] car shortages had diverted so much traffic to trucks that the highways began to show signs of distress."

As the European allies had learned before America's entry into the war, large numbers of trucks were needed to support military operations. The War Production Board gradually standardized truck designs to meet wartime needs, with the trucks shipped initially to eastern ports on railroad cars. Beginning in December 1917, to free desperately need rail cars, the Quartermaster General ordered that the trucks should be driven to the coast under their own power. "The first Army truck convoy left Toledo early in December 1917, at the beginning of one of the most severe winters in recent U.S. history. Three weeks later, on January 3, 1918, 29 of the 30 vehicles that began the trip rolled into Baltimore." The successful trip was made possible by the heroic work of crews in Pennsylvania that kept the road open despite a blizzard that ordinarily would have stopped all traffic. In this way, the Army sent 30,000 trucks, each loaded with tons of spare parts and munitions, to the coast during the war.

By war's end, the number of trucks had increased by 199,000 vehicles. Motor carriers established service among the country's main cities. The growth of truck traffic, though tough on the country's inadequate roads, "permanently changed the shipping habits of American industry. In a matter of a few months, the railroads lost millions of tons of freight business by default – business they were destined never to recover." The railroad industry's interest in boosting good roads was at an end.

The war ended with an armistice that went into effect in 1918 on the morning of the "eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month." Celebrations erupted around the country. As a headline in The Baltimore Sun put it on November 12: "THE WHOLE COUNTRY GOES WILD WITH JOY AT ADVENT OF PEACE." November 11 would be celebrated annually as Armistice Day (renewed as Veterans Day after World War II, first celebrated in 1947).

Shipping By Truck

Image of an old truck with the Ship by Truck label on the side.
Harvey S. Firestone
Harvey S. Firestone, founder of the Firestone Tire & Rubber Company, generated a "Ship-by-Truck" movement around the country after World War I. He was a pioneer in the production of pneumatic tires for cars and trucks, easing the loadings on the country's roads. In 1920, he initiated a promotional "stunt" to hold National Ship by Truck – Good Roads Week on May 17 through 22. He wrote that, "Ship-by-Truck means service – a service founded on facts, resting upon a sound economic basis, and dedicated to the stabilization and advancement of a system of motor transportation which bids fair to accomplish more in the development of our country's natural resources than anything since the coming of the iron horse."

As trucking expanded, Harvey S. Firestone of the Firestone Tire & Rubber Company, generated a "Ship-by-Truck" movement around the country. Truck dealers established Ship-By-Truck associations to encourage trucking for short hauls within a radius of about 50 miles. The associations held truck days or weeks to hold truck parades in the larger cities before sending caravans of trucks around the area to demonstrate their value. For example, in April 1919, the St. Louis association sent more than 100 trucks, on a 5-day trip through Missouri accompanied by speakers on good roads. The trucks were loaded with freight they usually hauled and freight the truckers thought should be hauled on trucks but was not. Firestone also promoted Ship-By-Truck Bureaus in big cities to bring shippers and operators together in a clearinghouse for distributing loads.

In 1920, Firestone had an idea for a "stunt" to hold National Ship by Truck – Good Roads Week on May 17 through 22. It was, he said, "time for getting together in recognition of a great new industry that has grown up before our eyes – Motor Transport." He said, "The new day is here – not only of a broader commercial greatness but a day of better national understanding which comes through swift, efficient transportation."

Image of an old newspaper advertisment for National Ship by Truck week.
Promoting the Promotion
Firestone and his team heavily promoted National Ship by Truck Week around the country, including the use of ads such as this one in newspapers.

The idea was adopted nationwide, with the Ship-By-Truck bureaus taking the lead. Governors designated May 17 to 22 as Ship-By-Truck week in their State, while the mayors of cities and towns took similar local action. Literature to arouse interest was distributed around the country. Official proclamations were to be included in public meetings in cities across the country. Movies were to be shown, such as "Ship-By-Truck," which was "especially designed to bring to the attention of the general public the economic advantages of the Ship by Truck plan, and the contingency of the success of the movement upon concerted action which will bring about the passing of a national highways bill, which would result in a 'checkerboard of roadways,' north and south and east and west."

Planners emphasized that they were not inspiring competition with the railroads. The week was intended to promote the value of short haul trucking in support of the railroads.

Touring the Country

Tours of motor trucks began in about 100 of the larger cities to provide first-hand evidence of the power and ability of the truck. Many cities held parades on a vast scale. In New York City, for example, about 1,000 trucks took part, including 100 Army trucks and 25 from the Navy. One account of the parade reported, "The army vehicles carried huge searchlights and other trucks were also electrically equipped, making the demonstration spectacular in the highest degree." An estimated million people watched the parade.

In Detroit, a truck parade, including 16 makes of trucks, accompanied by the Great Lakes Naval Training Station Band, left at 8 a.m. for a 4-day tour of southern and central Michigan. Officials of the National Automobile Chamber of Commerce, the Lincoln Highway Association, and the Detroit Automobile Club accompanied the tour to deliver addresses in towns along the route. The first night stop was for a mass meeting in Flint, followed by similar meetings at night in Ann Arbor and Adrian, before a banquet in Detroit.

A caravan of 15 vehicles, including motor trucks, three with trailers, and a tractor, left Philadelphia for a farm land tour, led by a pilot car, an automobile filled with tour directors, and two press cars. In the city, the tour was accompanied by a police motorcycle escort as it traveled down Broad Street to Market, around City Hall, continuing to Market to Twenty-First, Walnut, Thirty-Third, to Woodland Avenue, and finally to Darby, where the countryside came into view.

Even before the official start of the week, a caravan of 20 trucks left Dallas on May 8 and completed a 6-day tour of north Texas to demonstrate the value of trucks and good roads to farmers. A contemporary account explained that the trucks left on the morning of May 3 and covered 402 miles before returning to Dallas. "Drenching rains on three successive nights put the roads in the worst condition in which they had been for years, but this, if anything, only added to the success of the tour," which proved as successful as organizers had hoped. "The farmers who saw the caravan know that trucks can go anywhere, that they can carry the loads and that they can be used in farming with profit."

In Louisville, a caravan of 50 motor trucks, accompanied by a band, left for a tour through six counties. The truck train carried its own lighting system to show off the trucks as they parked in public squares at night. In Elizabethtown, events included a free band concert and a dance. At each stop, the film "Ship-By-Truck" was shown. The tour ended with a final "jamboree" in Taylorsville.

In Baltimore, motor trucks left City Hall Plaza for a tour of the Eastern Shore (the part of Maryland east of Chesapeake Bay). A local hall was engaged for each evening for a concert and where "the moving-picture machine the party carried was put up and 'Crooked Roads,' ship-by-truck and naval pictures were shown." Military officials accompanied the convoy seeking recruits. The convoy made about 30 stops along the way. The trucks returned through Easton and Centreville, but no demonstrations were made because "the mileage to Baltimore was too great to permit the time." The plan was for all the trucks to "return by way of the ferry, but, due to the limited capacity of the boats, it was not deemed advisable."

A tour left St. Louis on May 17 for trips through Missouri and Illinois, but did not return until May 26. The tour was "a splendid object lesson" of the need for good roads, as a contemporary account explained. "The name of the expedition truly was mud. Bad roads through Missouri and Illinois was the cause of the delay. The trucks frequently were mired in the mud, but they kept pluckily on, completing its 400 mile tour."

In Louisiana, the truck tour from New Orleans "created considerable impression" when it reached Baton Rouge after battling mud for 30 hours for what should have been a 10 to 12 hour journey. Truck dealers, who were "thoroughly aroused," used the trip to appeal to the State legislature "to take immediate steps to improve the entire system of mud trails which pass for roads in this state, especially in the southern part."

Smaller cities played a role in Firestone's "stunt." For example, in South Bend, Indiana (population: 71,000), the highlight of the 100-vehicle parade was the Morris Packing Company's 15-ton tractor, with semi-trailer – the first public appearance of what was described as the "monster truck." The tractor included a complete refrigerating system to keep meat for an unlimited time. On tour, it would carry 30,000 pounds of meat valued at $25,000. However, the giant truck was late to the parade because it could not pass under the viaduct at Valparaiso and had to detour. A crew from Pathe and Universal film companies filmed the parade to be used in newsreels.

The Firestone Scholarship

Profile photo of Katherine F. Butterfield.
And the Winner Is
Katherine F. Butterfield of Weiser, ID, received a full 4-year college scholarship for her 1920 essay in the Ship by Truck/Good Roads competition.

As part of the week, Harvey Firestone sponsored an essay contest open to all high school students, with State, county, and city prizes and a national prize of a 4-year scholarship to any college or university in the United States. Winners of the local contests would compete for the State award. Each State would submit its winner for the national prize.

The essays on Ship by Truck and Good Roads were limited to 500 typewritten words. The essays were judged on style as well as knowledge of the advantages of using motor trucks for transportation and the value of good roads with a national highway system for their use. Essays were due by May 22, 2020. The Federal Bureau of Education, headed by Commissioner Philander P. Claxton, selected the judges, including a representative of the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) (listed in accounts variously as Chief Thomas H. MacDonald or Herbert S. Fairbank, Senior Highway Engineer and editor of the agency magazine, Public Roads); Pyke Johnson of the National Automobile Chamber of Commerce; and William S. Keller, president of the American Association of State Highway Officials and State Highway Engineer of the Alabama Highway Department.

Harvey S. Firestone presenting the award to Miss Butterfield
The certificate
Harvey S. Firestone presents the award to Miss Butterfield, winner of the high school essay contest on Ship by Truck/Good Roads. Commissioner of Education Philander P. Claxton is to her right. Just to his right is believed to be Miss Butterfield's chaperone, Miss C. E. Mason of Miss Mason's School for Girls in Tarrytown, NY. Behind Firestone is Chief Thomas H. MacDonald of the Bureau of Public Roads (arms folded), one of the judges.

In all, students wrote about 225,000 essays, but in October, officials announced the national winner was Idaho's Miss Katharine F. Butterfield, a 16-year old from Weiser (population: 3,154). Her essay explained that the railroad "had its limitations" in comparison with its "more mobile kinsman" that can travel "without steel rails – the tractable truck." Freight traffic, she explained, was clogging everywhere. "The present condition is choking industry – a menace financial and otherwise to the whole country." She explained that, "The railroads have no competitors for the long haul, which justifies the short haul at each end" by the truck. Instead of competing for short haul business, the railroads should "invoke the aid of this 'rural express' for the 100-mile runs? Railroads cut through community areas a single diameter. Truck highways spread out innumerable radii."

Trucks take produce to the railroads, which "return it to us as manufactured goods and the cycle is complete."

Bursting granaries "spell prosperity for the railroads – a long haul to the sea." But to "insure 100 per cent harvest, [and] fullest benefit from short planting seasons, let the truck carry the seed wheat, farm machinery, fuel, replacements and repairs for the short haul." She wrote that, "Long and short haul agencies supplement each other. The long arc and the short arc dovetail, and the transportation circle is complete. They coalesce, not conflict."

Miss Butterfield warned that a good road program "cannot be clapped down upon a community like a nicely fluted pie crust, presenting an attractive surface. Every dollar's worth of bonds must show a dollar's worth of permanent improvement. Posterity will help pay for the roads; we must insure value received. Millions have been spent by corporations to improve railroads, millions will be spent by cooperation to build good roads."

She concluded, "The agencies of transportation may be likened to the circulation of the blood. No matter what bright arterial blood the heart, the trunk line, pumps unless the capillaries, the truck lines, carry it to the finger tips. To the motor truck, the highest exponent of good roads! To good roads, the basis for truck efficiency!"

Miss Katherine F. Butterfield receiving her scholarship certificate from President Warren G. Harding. Left to right is Commissioner of Education Philander P. Claxton, Miss Butterfield, President Harding, and Harvey S. Firestone.
At the White House
On April 4, 1921, the winner of the Ship by Truck/Good Roads essay competition, Miss Katherine F. Butterfield of Weiser, ID, was at the White House to receive her scholarship certificate from President Warren G. Harding.  Left to right: Commissioner of Education Philander P. Claxton, Miss Butterfield, President Harding, and Harvey S. Firestone.  Miss Butterfield used the 4-year full scholarship to attend Northwestern University.  She graduated in 1924 with a B.S. in sociology.

On April 4, 1921, Miss Butterfield was in Washington to accept the award. The winner, now 17, was attending Miss Mason's School for Girls, known as The Castle, in Tarrytown, New York. She was accompanied by her chaperone, the headmistress Miss C. E. Mason. In the afternoon, Miss Butterfield met on the White House lawn with Firestone, Claxton, and President Warren G. Harding, who handed her the certificate entitling her to a 4-year college education valued at $4,000 to $5,000. The greeting was photographed and filmed by newspapers and moving picture news weeklies to be shown to parents and pupils throughout the country. Two girls from each of the local high schools formed an Escort of Honor for Miss Butterfield, and joined her in the evening for a dinner and theater party.

Miss Butterfield used the scholarship to attend Northwestern University. She graduated in 1924 with a Bachelor of Science in Sociology, and went on to graduate studies at the University of Oregon.

(In November 1928, after she married Arthur J. Larson in Portland, Oregon, her hometown newspaper, The Weiser Signal, noted the happy occasion on its first page, adding that she was known in the city as "the winner of the first national Firestone essay contest and was given a four-year course in an eastern college as a result of it.")


By war's end, the Nation's roads were in terrible shape. The growth of truck traffic was identified as one of the culprits – and the concern about trucks continued. As a magazine explained in 1920, "Even the most enthusiastic of good roads partisans did not foresee the tremendous development of motor truck transportation which has come in the last two or three years, but which still is in its infancy. BPR called the use of heavier motor trucks "the most important development in highway traffic," adding that "the roads which are adequate for traffic of automobiles and light trucks are entirely unable to support the weight of the heavier trucks," while building roads for the heavy vehicles would increase the cost of road construction.

The Federal-aid highway program initiated in 1916 had been interrupted by the war, but its original conception was flawed. One problem was that funds were limited to "rural post roads, defined as "any public road" outside cities "over which the United States mails now are or may hereafter be transported." Because railroads carried most rural mail over long distances, this definition excluded many main roads. Highway and commercial interests debated whether Congress should create a Federal Highway Commission to build an interstate network of roads, or improve the Federal-aid highway program.

Had Congress decided the issue in 1919, it might well have created such a commission, but instead it made some adjustments that year in the existing program to increase its value. For example, the definition of "rural post roads" was expanded to "any public road a major portion of which is now used, or can be used, or forms a connecting link not to exceed ten miles in length of any road or roads now or hereafter used for the transportation of the United States mails," again excluding roads in cities. Senator Charles S. Thomas of Colorado complained that this definition "commits the United States to the improvement of every cattle trail, every cow path, and every right of way in the United States." But that was the point, although the focus was not on cow paths, but on interstate routes. President Wilson signed the changes, part of the Post Office Appropriation Act, on February 28, 1919.

At the same time, Chief MacDonald, who took office in April 1919, helped State highway officials, many of whom favored the commission, understand the value of a Federal-aid program. The Federal Highway Act of 1921, signed by President Warren G. Harding on November 9, reshaped the program based on designation of primary and secondary systems, limited to as much as 7 percent of the roads in each State, with up to 60 percent of the Federal-aid highway funds available for use on roads that were "interstate in character." This change unleased what people at the time called the Golden Age of Roadbuilding as the country built its first "interstate system" of two-lane paved roads. The trucks would have the roads they needed.

National Ship by Truck – Good Roads Week did not lead directly to the breakthrough of the Federal Highway Act of 1921, but at a moment in time on May 17-22, 1920, the country celebrated not only the value of trucks, but the necessity of good roads.