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Eisenhower’s 1919 crossing of Tom’s Creek celebrated

Ike Wilson
Frederick News Post

(6/29) A convoy of about 100 people in 30 vehicles attempted to cross Tom's Creek Bridge on Wednesday. The convoy was part of a re-enactment of the Transcontinental Motor Train of 1919, which involved Lt. Col. Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The motor train, which traveled from Washington to San Francisco, was designed to test the mobility of the military during wartime conditions.

The motor train's first obstacle was Tom's Creek covered bridge, which forced an extensive delay. The bridge was too low for the military vehicles to pass through, causing an unscheduled detour for the caravan. This, along with countless other delays, fueled Eisenhower's interest in creating a better highway system.

When he was president, Eisenhower recalled that the Tom's Creek Bridge experience contributed to his keen interest in efficient interstate travel as he signed the Federal Aid Highway Act on June 29, 1956, creating the national system of interstate and defense highways.

The re-enactment was part of a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the nation's interstate system. During the ceremony, officials unveiled a new historic marker to note the 1919 event.

The convoy, completely fueled by ethanol, included historic cars and trucks, military vehicles, buses, 18-wheelers and a snowplow.

The re-enactment traced the motor train's journey in reverse, beginning its journey to Washington on June 16 from downtown San Francisco, where the Army trek ended. It took the 1919 convoy 62 days to make its trip.

Celebration of the 46,000-mile interstate system concludes today in Washington, 50 years to the day that Eisenhower signed off on the highway program.

"For Frederick County to be a part of this national celebration, of history in the making, is something special and shouldn't be understated or taken for granted," said Delegate Joseph Bartlett.

Mr. Bartlett said the 50th anniversary of the interstate system offers the opportunity to focus attention on what it has meant to the nation's growth, economy and freedom, and what will be needed at the national and state levels to ensure the system remains a vital economic engine for the future.

Gary Rudy, of Middletown, is chairman of the Maryland Motor Truck Association and president of Richard B. Rudy Inc., a local trucking company his father started in 1938.

"I know from firsthand experience that the interstate system has certainly transformed the trucking industry," Mr. Rudy said.

Mr. Rudy said Frederick County is fortunate to have I-70, one of the five-longest interstates in the country, serving as a vital link in the east-west transportation of commercial goods.

When the interstate was created 50 years ago, only 120,000 tractor-trailers were operating on a fragmented configuration of U.S. highways, compared to more than 2 million on a streamlined system today, Mr. Rudy said. Each year, commercial trucks travel more than 400 billion miles and carry more than 8 billion tons of manufactured freight. Much of this travel is done through the interstate system.

Merrill Eisenhower Atwater, a great-grandson of President Eisenhower, traveled with the convoy from California. He said the trip was a far cry from the drive in 1919 when vehicles broke down every 14 miles.

David Marks, chief of staff to Maryland Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan, recalled the state of Maryland's highway system in 1919 and compared it to 2006.

In 1919, the Maryland State Roads Commission had been in existence for only 11 years, and five men were responsible for a statewide road system of 2,000 miles, Mr. Marks said. The salary for the commission chairman was $2,500 and other commissioners made $2,000.

Today, the State Highway Administration, which replaced the State Roads Commission, has more than 3,000 employees responsible for 17,000 miles of road, Mr. Marks said.

In 1914, a few years before the Eisenhower trip, Maryland invested $4 million in building highways for the more than 20,000 registered vehicles in the state. Today, Maryland has a $9 billion investment in highway building and maintenance over six years and about 4.5 million motor vehicles registered.

The bridge over Tom's Creek was refurbished for the celebration. Its original arch is still intact, but workers replaced the parapet walls, constructed new guardrails and power-washed the span.

Emmitsburg residents are pleased with the refurbished bridge, which 33-year town resident Carolyn Wivell said was in bad shape. Work began April 5 and was completed before Memorial Day.

"That was real quick for a state highway job," Ms. Wivell said.

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