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Highway project paid homage to a Missouri general

General John J. Pershing.

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS/WIKICOMMONS

By KEN NEWTON | St. Joseph News-Press | Published: November 17, 2018

MISSOURI (Tribune News Service) -- The Honorable Josiah W. Deane of Aspen, Colorado, alighted in St. Joseph three months after the armistice of World War I with highways on his mind.

The meeting, in early February 1919, concerned the Pikes Peak Ocean to Ocean Highway, a transportation project meant to create an east-west ribbon of roads that did not turn to mud at certain times of the year.

Deane, a county judge back home and a civic booster, liked what he heard.

"The intention is to go after state legislatures and Congress to make it a military road, which of course insures the most favorable grades for commerce and makes best provisions for touring," he reported from St. Joseph, headquarters for the project.

He also noted an addition to the highway's already long name, something set in motion only days after hostilities in Europe had stopped.

The fresh name: the Pershing Transport Route.

Given the route, it seemed fitting. Gen. John J. Pershing, the commander of the American Expeditionary Force, had grown up in Laclede, Missouri, a rural town in the path of the Ocean to Ocean Highway.

Pershing had just emerged as a bona fide hero. Nicknamed "Black Jack," he forged a disparate collection of military units into a disciplined and cohesive fighting force.

"The military didn't amount to very much until he came along," Robert Devoy, president of the Pershing Park Memorial Association, said. "He's kind of the father of the new generation of the military."

After Pershing's victories in France and Belgium, a Chillicothe man named Harry W. Graham, manager of the Missouri division of the Ocean to Ocean Highway, solicited members of Congress to honor the American general with this name.

True, he also appealed to the patriotism of paying 50 percent of the cost of hard surfacing the road across the state, added to the existing federal contribution.

"An urgent appeal in behalf of this movement for the early construction of the 'Pershing Transport Route' is being sent out over the north section of the state," Graham told the News-Press just 17 days after a treaty ended World War I.

"Let every community along the route organize a Pershing Hard Road Club, which will leave no stone unturned until the (route is finished)."

A cable reached Pershing in France asking his consent for renaming the road. On Feb. 20, 1919, the general replied with his consent:

"Appreciate the honor Missouri pays her gallant troops in wishing to call that part of Ocean to Ocean highway, which passes through the state 'The Pershing Transport Route.' Am pleased to accept the compliment in their name. -- Pershing."

The Ocean to Ocean Highway, like the north-south Jefferson Highway that also ran through St. Joseph, became part of an American movement for local communities to help construct hard-surface roads for commerce, agriculture, industry and the growing trend of automobile tourism.

An additional function, one accentuated by the war in Europe, had a national security aspect. The nation needed routes for the unimpeded movement of military gear.

"A lot of these kind of self-funded highway projects were really trying to promote themselves as avenues for additional military," said Stan Hendrix of the Cameron Historical Society and Depot Museum.

"It didn't really stick until after World War I. ... Then they started seeing a real interest by the government in the whole idea."

This also suggested a reason, thought the local communities, for the federal government to pitch in financially.

In 1919, the Jefferson Highway Association and the Ocean to Ocean Highway found their interests intertwined and decided to join their national headquarters in St. Joseph. The east-west route followed roughly the path of today's 36 Highway.

"East to west travel at the time was a lot more popular, both from a commerce standpoint and from just travelers," Hendrix said. "It wasn't really a tourism industry, per se. It's kind of what touched tourism off, having these roads available."

Devoy, a former circuit judge and elected six times to the Missouri Legislature, said the honor extended to Pershing then proved richly deserved. He believes young people today should also take lessons from the general's service to country.

"I think the children are the ones that need to know about people like him, because it gives them some idea of what can be done and what's possible for them," he said. "I think that's really important. It's educational as much as it is memorial as far as kids are concerned."
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(c)2018 the St. Joseph News-Press (St. Joseph, Mo.)
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