Many of you will be familiar with the 1919 military truck convoy that traversed the United States in an effort to test the efficacy of cargo trucks on the roads, or lack thereof, of the day. A Young Dwight Eisenhower was part of the convoy, and his experience of it is oft-cited as having a great deal to do with his support of the Interstate Highway Program as President later.
A new book, however, tells the story of a different journey, a transcontinental truck run in two parts that Canadian journalist Ron Corbett has reimagined. Adopting the voices of the journey’s participants, Corbett’s crafted a great read in his A Grand Adventure: America’s First Transcontinental Truck Run, out now to mark the 100-year anniversary of the 1911 run.
It was sponsored by the Swiss Sauer Motor Truck Company (which in short order would become part of the Mack Trucks company), out to prove the efficacy of motorized hauling. The truck, dubbed the Pioneer Freighter, was powered by a four-cylinder, 37-hp gasoline engine with an open bed covered by a Conestoga-type canvas setup. All in all, the rig carried a four-ton payload of lumber and supplies.
Hedging its bets on success and hoping to avoid bad publicity in the case that the truck didn’t make the trek, Sauer opted to launch the run in Denver for the most difficult part first, west to Los Angeles. From there, it went north to San Francisco, was loaded on a freight rail car back to Denver, then resumed the journey east to New York City.
The driver, George MacLean, a mechanic for the company’s New York City outpost of the time, Corbett came across via connections to MacLean’s descendants while working a different story in Canada. The rest of the writer’s subsequent journey through history is evident in the book, peppered with photos from Mack Trucks’ museum in Allentown. Following find a brief excerpt from a chapter taking place as the truck enters Las Vegas that well illustrates what the early truck makers were up against, well before WWI proved the value of motorized cargo transport by truck. It’s one of many great anecdotes Corbett has reimagined here. For an interview with the author about the book, follow this link.
FROM CHAPTER 14: “JACK MACK AND A HARD SELL”
It wasn’t hard to find the man who owned the garage. We were, after all, buying gasoline and oil from him.
“So this is the truck,” he said when we parked the Pioneer Freighter in his garage.
“Yes, Mr. Davis, a Saurer four-and-a-half-ton,” said Mr. Thompson [Sauer Motor Truck Company’s Chicago rep]. “It’s called the Pioneer Freighter. We have chosen the name because of its ability to carry freight and also because…”
“It’s a pioneer. I get it, son,” said Mr. Davis, cutting off Mr. Thompson and waving his hand at the same time. “Your father has been in touch with me. I told him I didn’t see the point in selling motorized cargo vehicles. Cars, maybe. But not this thing.”
“And why is that, sir?”
“Well, we got a train that comes through town. Maybe you seen it?”
“Yes, sir, we have, but the Pioneer Freighter…”
“Train does a fine job moving stuff around for people. Who in the world would ever buy your contraption?”
“Well, sir, that is an excellent question. The potential market for the Sauer Pioneer Freighter would consist of the following groups — miners, particularly those working in…”
“Why all the wood?”
“Why are you carrying so much lumber, son?”
“Well, the lumber is used to shore up the culverts and bridges we encounter along the way. Also to lay down a corduroy road whenever we…”
“Am I supposed to be selling lumber now, too?”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Davis, I don’t think I…”
“Son, this thing don’t make any sense. I told your father that. Sorry he wasted your time by making you come here. Now, do you boys need any gas?”