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U.S. Route 50 Was the Best Way to the Pacific; Now, It’s a Road to the Past

Felicity Barringer
Sep 24 2019

In 1919, a difficult cross-country trek made the case for better roads in the West. The roads came, but a hundred years later, Central Nevada may be as isolated as ever.

Members of an 81-vehicle Army convoy struggled to get a truck back on the road – such as it was – during a cross-country trip in the summer of 1919

Manifold Destiny Members of an 81-vehicle Army convoy struggled to get a truck back on the road – such as it was – during a cross-country trip in the summer of 1919.   EISENHOWER LIBRARY
 

By Felicity Barringer

Where, exactly, is the West and what, exactly, is it? Wrangling over these questions has gone on forever. But the answer to a corollary question — how to get there? — has changed as people left horses and steamships behind and eventually flew west. Land journeys, though, gave the region context. A crucial step came 150 years ago when two railroad lines were joined in Utah to create a transcontinental track. The West came into even sharper focus when cars could drive there.

So what roads led there? After the birth of the mass-produced automobile in the early 20th century, road building had been left largely to the states, which developed roads to suit their own needs. Advocates sought to create a coast-to-coast “Lincoln Highway.” Out west they selected a course following the Overland Stage and Pony Express route through Utah and Nevada. It was the birth of Route 50, a highway at the heart of the West.

A course following the Overland Stage and Pony Express route through Utah and Nevada was the birth of Route 50, a highway at the heart of the West.

The first big test of this route’s viability came 100 years ago, when the U.S. Army, flush with victory in World War I and needing to test an overstocked inventory of trucks, mobile kitchens, mobile hospitals and repair equipment, sent an 81-vehicle convoy along the highway from Washington to San Francisco. The idea: to see how durable the equipment was and how bad the roads were.

As a later review noted, the Lincoln Highway “existed largely in the imagination or on paper.” Their plan was to follow the track that became Route 50 across Nevada. The convoy spent two hot midsummer months navigating from coast to coast. It was hard going and they took heavy vehicular losses — there were 230 accidents, some because vehicles tumbled over embankments or sank in mud or quicksand. Nine vehicles were destroyed. For the convoy, the West began where roads petered out, leaving dusty, rutted paths and gullies covered by rickety bridges. As the convoy crossed, 88 bridges collapsed under the weight of the equipment. Lt. Col. Dwight Eisenhower, assigned to the convoy as an observer, wrote later that he became convinced that better highways were needed.

Engineers worked to shore up weak wooden bridges over gullies in Wyoming.

Engineers worked to shore up weak wooden bridges over gullies in Wyoming.   EISENHOWER LIBRARY

West of Grand Island, Nebraska, soldiers use a winch to pull a Class B truck out of a ditch. as Lt. Col. P. V. Kieffer surveys the scene.

West of Grand Island, Nebraska, soldiers use a winch to pull a Class B truck out of a ditch. as Lt. Col. P. V. Kieffer surveys the scene.   EISENHOWER LIBRARY VIA NATIONAL ARCHIVES.

It certainly makes sense that the convoy of 1919, whose vehicles overturned trying to navigate ravines or were damaged by primitive washboard roads, led inexorably to the interstate highway system. The Highway Trust Fund that helped pay for it was established during Eisenhower’s presidency.

Map: Approximate route taken in 1919. Present-day interstate highway system shown for comparison.

Approximate route taken in 1919. Present-day interstate highway system shown for comparison.   GEOFF McGHEE/BILL LANE CENTER FOR THE AMERICAN WEST


Many Changes Have Visited Central Nevada, But Isolation Remains

But the convoy’s bumpy trip was also a distant progenitor of modern road trips. Even if smooth surfaces have covered the sand of old dirt roads, Route 50 is still a talisman of a different time, before interstates. On it are traces of old paths and the social and economic forces that created them. A 1920s fight to decide the best route across Nevada was won by proponents of a more northerly route, which Interstate 80 now follows. That highway’s appearance meant the abandonment of Route 50 as a significant cross-country route. In Nevada, it is now a road to the past.

Route 50 east of Ely, Nevada.

Route 50 east of Ely, Nevada.   FELICITY BARRINGER

Interstate 80’s appearance meant the abandonment of Route 50 as a significant cross-country route. In Nevada, it is now a road to the past.

Map of Interstates in Nevada
Bill Lane Center for the American West


Traveling eastwards in 2019 over 400 miles of Nevada’s Route 50 — almost the end of the route the military convoy took westwards — the changes wrought by the last century are palpable. Smooth roads have replaced the deep ruts carved in the mid-19th century, at time of stagecoaches and the Pony Express. Endless lines of poles carrying electric wires now cross the road, which rolls by the coal-fired power plants that feed the wires and the mines that feed the plants. Sixty-two huge wind turbines of the 152-megawatt Spring Valley Wind Farm are a newer source of energy to feed into the wires that vanish in the distance.

The Spring Valley Wind Farm, about 25 miles west of the Utah border.

The Spring Valley Wind Farm, about 25 miles west of the Utah border.   FELICITY BARRINGER

In July 1986, Life Magazine labeled a photograph of Route 50  “The Loneliest Road in America.” Nevada officials embraced the designation with signs like this.

In July 1986, Life Magazine labeled a photograph of Route 50 “The Loneliest Road in America.” Nevada officials embraced the designation with signs like this.   FELICITY BARRINGER

What hasn’t changed is central Nevada’s isolation. Vast empty spaces define it, from the large valleys to the 7,000-foot peaks. In July 1986, Life Magazine published a Statue-of-Liberty-themed issue that featured a long shot of Route 50. The caption: “The Loneliest Road in America.” The Nevada tourism office embraced the designation, and put up highway signs to glorify the idea, just as it embraced the history of the Pony Express and the way stations it left in tiny towns like Austin.

Was Route 50 a lonely road in the late summer of 1919, when the military convoy came through Nevada? Here’s what then-Lt. Col. Eisenhower wrote:

From Orr’s Ranch, Utah, to Carson City, Nevada, the road is one succession of dust, dust, pits, and holes. This stretch was not improved in any way, and consisted only of a track across the desert. At many points in the road, water is twenty miles distant, and parts of the road are 90 miles to the nearest railroads.

Is it still lonely in the wired world of 2019? Well, there is little cell phone access. Towns are more than 60 miles apart. Oncoming traffic goes by in a blink — vehicles passing each other at 80 miles per hour. Such encounters happen at intervals of five minutes or more. Otherwise, all you hear is the wind blowing through acres of invasive cheatgrass; all you see is shimmering pavement headed down valleys toward distant mountains.

Small Towns Retain a Strong Whiff of the Past

A century has made little difference in the silence. Or the passion for mining, which remains, even though large, often Canadian-owned companies have replaced the prospectors of the gold-rush era and the flurry of miners who built towns that remain along Route 50.

The Eureka opera house was built in 1881, when the town’s population was around 10,000

The Eureka opera house was built in 1881, when the town’s population was around 10,000.   FELICITY BARRINGER

The remnants of cultural aspirations that coincided with the mining boom of the 19th century remain. Take the Opera House in Eureka, a town whose population reached 10,000 — including many Italians and other Europeans — when it was built in 1881. There are 600 people today.

There was a different sort of culture in the tiny town of Austin, 70 miles to the west. A local coffee shop had a picture of a buxom, red-haired madam wearing nothing but some flimsy covering at a crucial juncture. More than that, wrote Adam Gorlick, a journalist who, on a brief escape from urban life, came through the town with the old Pony Express station 12 years ago. There, he heard stories of the days long before the 1919 convoy came through.

“And the hour's worth of morning entertainment at the International Cafe was worth the $2 I paid for a bowl of cut up nectarines and a cup of coffee,” Gorlick wrote his friends. “This is where I met Vic and Gail, who bought the International -- an old hotel and restaurant -- about a year ago. The hotel part is now mothballed, and the restaurant is kind of gross. But there's a separate saloon attached, and the bar allegedly was imported from England….”

Austin, too, had a mine-fueled population of about 10,000 at its 1880s peak; today, the number is less than 200. The town is decrepit, but the road through it is transformed from the track the convoy encountered, as described in entries from the official log:

Aug. 27: … Trailmobile Kitchen overturned on a very steep grade, was wrecked and retired from service F.W.D. #415766 burned out a connecting rod bearing when coasting down a steep grade entering Austin… Arrived Austin 2:30 p.m.

Aug. 28 : Departed Austin, 6:30 a.m. White Staff Observation Car #111506 remained behind to tighten up flanges on left rear wheel and clean out oil feed lines. … Wrecked Trailmobile Kitchen shipped back to Washington…. Two Class B trucks skidded off the road in canyons, but were rescued without damage. Spare parts truck was stuck in the sand.”

What Endures in Central Nevada

Pony Express trail marker alongside Route 50.

Pony Express trail marker alongside Route 50.   FELICITY BARRINGER

Route 50 was never where the West began. It is where it existed and still exists, rolling through quintessential western geography — desert lands and the mountains between them. The industries along it were and are extractive. Other businesses along the route were built to carry something across long, empty distances. Letters, in the case of the Pony Express. Electricity, in the case of the power poles.

But the imperatives have changed. The military convoy’s journey made clear the need for good roads. A century later, the imperative along this stretch seems to be avoiding change. Route 50 carries with it cars, trucks, and the past. The understated “Loneliest Road” advertising makes sense. It’s hard selling dark skies with neon lights, or using noise to evoke silence.

 

and the west logo

 

Edited by Geoff McGhee.

 

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Three Texas Cities Are Models of Efficient and Innovative Water Use. Austin adopted a 100-year water plan in 2018 calling for such advanced conservation and recycling programs that the city anticipates supplying a healthy share of its future water demand by reengineering its water system as a water collection and recycling loop. El Paso cut its per-capita water consumption from 205 gallons daily 30 years ago to 129 gallons today. Some of its conservation practices: subsidizing the replacement of water-wasting bathroom fixtures and regulating lawn watering. San Antonio subsidizes the distribution of digital water-flow sensors and encourages the use of native plants to replace the thirstier show species in local gardens. Circle of Blue

“Keep Immigrant Bees Out.” Environmentalists Want Honey Bees Barred from public lands in Utah. Beekeepers’ honey-bee hives sometimes travel to pollinate crops elsewhere — particularly California’s almond crop — before returning to Utah’s national forests to forage in areas free of pesticides. But honeybees are non-native. Environmentalists are petitioning to ban them from these areas, saying they may spread disease and put unnecessary pressure on native bees. Salt Lake Tribune

Shifting the Balance of Power Between Preserving Birds and Developing Energy. A 1.5-million-acre oil-and-gas development proposed in Wyoming is in the middle of a superhighway for migrating birds, and a court’s insistence on retaining federal penalties for accidental bird deaths from power lines and wind turbines. A potential go-ahead from the Interior Department could be coming soon on the project after six years of federal environmental reviews. The decision, which quoted the Harper Lee novel, saying “it’s a sin to kill a Mockingbird,” could dictate how companies operate in Wyoming for the next decade and what happens when they kill birds. E&E Daily

A Trout With Feathers: Looking At the West’s Only Aquatic Songbird. A photo essay on dippers, small gray birds that bob up and down on rocks, dive into streams, and resurface with insects in their beaks. Audubon Magazine

Articles Worth Reading: August 17, 2020

Final Approval to Drill Arctic Wildlife Refuge clears the way for an auction for oil and gas drilling rights on the 1/6 million-acre plain. Four decades of fights over the refuge have paralleled four decades of science showing the burning of fossil fuels is heating the air and the oceans and changing the climate. These changes may make it difficult to sustain the infrastructure needed for drilling. Elsewhere in Alaska, ConocoPhillips is using “chillers” to keep the warming climate from thawing the tundra under its Willow oil drilling platform on the North Slope. Washington Post Bloomberg News

California Heat Sets Records, Creates Rolling Blackouts As Fires Spawn Firenados. The combination of intense heat, dry vegetation and lightning storms has the state struggling on several fronts. The unusual and extreme phenomenon of a fire-generated tornado occurred on August 15 in the Lake Tahoe area as a new fire quickly spun out of control. A few days earlier, the Lake Fire outside Los Angeles spawned its own firenado. Rolling blackouts hit the state while in Death Valley, the temperature hit a record 130 degrees. Los Angeles Times National Public Radio Desert Sun

Arizona’s Drought Intensified as Seasonal Monsoons Again Turn Into “Nonsoons.” With temperatures in Phoenix exceeding 110 degrees for days on end and the three-month period ending in June was the second hottest and third driest in 125 years. Populous Maricopa County, including Phoenix and Scottsdale, is in a severe drought. The impact on the water levels at Lake Mead, which is now at 40 percent of capacity, will mean that Arizona, Nevada and Mexico will receive less water from the Colorado River. Arizona Water News Arizona Republic

Some Oregon Forest Land Would Be Lost as Spotted Owl Habitat if a federal Fish and Wildlife Service proposal becomes final. The proposal would take 204,653 acres, or 2 percent of the total of 9.6 Million Acres, from the area of ancient forests designated as critical habitat and set aside as habitat for the endangered owl. Oregon Public Broadcasting

With Ice Disappearing, Pacific Walruses Are Moving Sooner and Sooner to Beaches of Alaska’s Chukchi Sea. They just gathered at Point Lay at the end of July, earlier than ever before. The walruses had evolved to use floating ice as platforms for foraging and rearing their young. But for the past 13 years, after the first year of a record-low extent of sea ice, they have been moving to the Point Lay site by the tens of thousands every summer. Arctic Today

A Colorado Lab Works to Prepare the National Electric Grid for a Renewable Future. A scientist used this metaphor to describe the challenge of retrofitting the three power grids to let them handle the upcoming changes: It's like updating a reliable 1957 Chevrolet for the complex technologies and climate-related hazards of the 21st century. What was recently unveiled at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado is a proving ground for the high-tech creations and will test the impacts of battery- and hydrogen-powered energy storage systems and large increases of renewable energy. Scientific American

Graphics & the West

Where California Grows Its Food

See the most detailed survey ever done of crops and land use in California. It covers nine million acres of land devoted to grapes, alfalfa, cotton, plums, you name it – food for people and animals all over the world. View map »

California's Changing Energy Mix

A look at the energy sources California utilities have used gives us insights into the state’s progress in decarbonizing its electricity supply. In 2015, 35% of total electricity generation (in-state generation plus imported electricity) came from zero-greenhouse-gas sources, which include solar, wind, hydropower, and nuclear. View Graphic »

U.S. Conservation Easements

Conservation easements of various kinds cover more than 22 million acres of land in the United States, according to the National Conservation Easement Database, a public-private partnership. Take a look at our interactive map of nearly every conservation easement, with details on over 130,000 sites. View map »

 

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