(first posted 4/25/2016) If we chose to drive across the country nowadays instead of flying, it’s in serene air-conditioned comfort, with the kids engrossed in their video games. It was quite a different experience in 1948, when Life Magazine photographer Allan Grant spent some time photographing long-distance travelers on US Route 30, which was once one one of the main transcontinental highways, running from Atlantic City to Astoria, Oregon.
I love this shot, as it so perfectly captures the boredom of travel for a teenager, in the pre-electronics era. At least she’s got a mattress to stretch out on in the back of an old pickup, with a crude shelter from the sun. Beats walking alongside a covered wagon on the Oregon Trail one hundred years earlier, which Route 30 roughly paralleled in parts.
Here’s the same vehicle shot from the side. Looks like Ma is taking a turn at the wheel. I wanted to say it’s a Ford, but a closer look says otherwise.
This family, with a baby on board, probably wished it had a car or pickup. Looks like the driver is getting ready to kick start the big V twin, undoubtedly a Harley or Indian. No, they’re not headed for Sturgis.
Not everyone is in an old car. This family is sporting a Frazer, America’s first new post-war car. Gotta’ stop at the tourist traps…
But the newest car of them all is this 1948 Olds ‘Futuramic’ 98. The 98 shared the brand new ’48 GM C Body with Cadillac, while Buick continued to use the old pre-war body one more year. But as ‘Futuramic’ as the new 98 looked, it was powered by the quite elderly flathead straight eight, as Olds’ new V8 wouldn’t arrive until 1949. This one is sporting North carolina plates, as well as an evaporative cooler and big roof carrier, so presumably these folks are on a serious cross-country trip.
Here’s another one of these pre-airconditioning coolers. They were still fairly common when we used to make our annual treks from Iowa City to the Rockies every summer in the 60s. I did a post on them here.
In the first couple of years after arriving in 1960, we had to drive two-lane highways the whole way to Colorado, and my father alternated between Route 6 and Route 30, which parallel each other from Chicago to the west end of Nebraska, where they diverge, as 30 heads northwest, and 6 originally ended in the Los Angeles area.
Although Route 30 (red) does run concurrently with interstates along part of its route, it still has its own alignment along much of the way, unlike the more famous Route 66. Route 30 has its origins in the Lincoln Highway, America’s first transcontinental route, and one funded largely by private donations! Carl Fisher, a very successful Indiana entrepreneur and promoter/developer, spearheaded the Lincoln Highway in 1912. Its success, especially in large troop and supply movements during WW1, directly led to the government’s increased funding for highways, and the eventual interstates.
This looks like it could well be in Iowa, given the gently rolling hills. Parts of Route 30 were widened to four lanes between certain larger cities; I remember it being four lanes like this east of Cedar Rapids; maybe west of it too.
The inner two lanes here are paved with bricks; this was likely part of the old Lincoln Highway. And there’s a curb on the outside edges, something that was presumably done to keep folks from driving off the pavement, like the rumble strips now. But the curbs turned out to be dangerous, as they tended to upset a car’s directional stability at speed. I remember some still around in the 70s in Iowa. One scary drive in an ice, snowy winter day, I used the curb several times to keep my VW from sliding off the side of the road.
Further out west, Route 30 looked like a country road.
Needless to say, breakdowns were a much more common sight in the past. And in the immediate postwar era, the average age of cars was exceptionally old, due to the interruption of new car production during WW2. This flathead Ford is slaking its thirst.
This poor old Ford has a heavy load to pull, so no wonder it’s thirsty. And it’s getting fed from Mom’s tea kettle. Is the hood gone to help keep it cool?
This one has a thirst for beer.
These ‘desert’ water bags were a common sight still in the 60s, although usually carried on the front of the car, not on the back like on this Chrysler.
Flats were a common affliction.
Something’s not right with this handsome Zephyr. I had a major passion for these as a kid after I first saw one.
This cop is pushing an old broken-down car off the pavement. Check out its paint job.
These folks are well prepared.
This trunk makes for a shaded place to eat lunch.
Are these kids riding in the trunk? It rather looks like it, since this is a coupe with only one seat.
They aren’t the only ones.
You kids in the back of the Jeep don’t know how lucky you have it! Dad most likely got it for peanuts as an Army surplus vehicle.
This was the place to spend the night if you could afford it.
And for those that couldn’t, they found whatever shelter they could. #vanlife, circa 1948.
Billboards make a good windbreak, as well as keeping one a bit out of sight, but back then pulling off the road into the open country to camp wasn’t such a big deal.
There were rest areas too.
Trailers were not uncommon. Americans took to living on the road early on.
Makes living on the road a lot more pleasant.
An Olds with trailer and boat.
Bet these guys wish they had one.
So where’s the bathroom?
The shadows are getting long.
A classic teardrop trailer.
And a swivel-wheel trailer. These were also quite common, back when trunks were small. And one didn’t have to worry about backing up skills with these. We did a post on them here.
A Greyhound ‘Silversides’ bus passing a Jeep. Check out all of the license plates on it; back then trucks and buses had to have plates for all the states they regularly did business in.
A little self-promotion.
A lot of towns along the way did good business from the highway, and some resisted the interstates when they came, because of the loss of business to the their core. I remember Cheyenne, Wyoming managed to stall a section of I-80 bypassing it for ages, forcing all the traffic to go right through downtown. It’s the opposite of what one expect, wanting a bypass to reduce traffic.
I’ll end this with one of my other favorite shots, of a man bicycling. Somewhat surprisingly, his bike has a rear derailleur, which was not common in the US then. In fact, the bike is almost certainly European, with its delicate touring frame and thin tires. despite the lack of much gear.
This is Charles Corwin White, bicycling from Los Angeles to New York and speaking along the way on “Americanism” and the citizenry’s participation in a democracy. Here he’s photographed west of Rawlins, Wyo.