Maxwell Tractor Hero of the Transcontinental Motor Convoy

1919 Transcontinental Motor Convoy made easier with help from the Maxwell artillery tractor

The Mack truck hauling the Maxwell tractor went through an iron truss bridge. Here the tractor is being unloaded so the truck can be pulled out.

On Aug. 15, the Mack truck hauling the Maxwell tractor went through an iron truss bridge between Green River and Fort Bridger, Wyo. Here the tractor is being unloaded so the truck can be pulled out.

Photo courtesy Mike Tyler and Sheila Panzone

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In the March 2011 issue of Farm Collector, I wrote about the Reo and Maxwell 5-ton artillery tractors designed by Holt and built during World War I (The Mystery of the Maxwell Crawler Tractor). After the war, in 1919, the Motor Transport Corps of the U.S. Army organized the First Transcontinental Motor Convoy “to service-test vehicles developed for use in the World War, and determine by actual experience the possibility and the problems involved in moving an army across the continent.” 

The convoy left Washington, D.C., on July 7 and traveled north to Gettysburg, Pa., where it picked up the Lincoln Highway. In 16 days the trucks covered 906 miles across generally good roads in states east of the Mississippi. West of the river they struck dirt roads that were ankle-deep in dust in dry weather and knee-deep in mud when wet.

Accompanying the convoy was the Militor, a 3-ton wheeled artillery tractor with 4-wheel drive and a heavy-duty winch used as a wrecker, along with a 5-ton Maxwell crawler-type artillery tractor, both of which were almost constantly busy rescuing stranded vehicles from mud holes and ditches. Eighty-eight wooden bridges and culverts were destroyed or damaged and had to be repaired by the detachment of 5th Engineers that accompanied the convoy.

After reading that column, Mike Tyler, Ridgecrest, Calif., sent me several photos of the Maxwell tractor on the convoy. The photos were taken by Pvt. Andrew Jackson Coleman, a great-uncle of Sheila Panzone, Riverside, Calif., who graciously gave permission to use the photos.  

Born in LaGrange, Ga., in 1893, Andrew Jackson Coleman soon moved with his family to Florida. Coleman, who never married, served in France in the U.S. Army during World War I as a private. After the war, Coleman was selected to accompany the first Transcontinental Convoy, photographing much of the journey and documenting the event. A surveyor by trade, he later moved to Fort Myers, Fla., where he surveyed much of the city of Fort Myers and surrounding areas. Coleman died in 1975; his photos of the 1919 convoy were included in his personal effects and remain in the Coleman-Garrett family archives.

On Oct. 31, 1919, a 30-page after-action report was filed by 1st Lt. E.R. Jackson, the Ordnance Department observer who accompanied the convoy. Jackson wrote:

The majority of the enlisted men of [the] Motor Supply Train were raw recruits with little or no military training, many of whom had not driven a motor truck before although they all claimed to have had experience with passenger vehicles. 

The most uncertain factor was the inexperience of the drivers. Even where the roads were good, some had considerable difficulty in keeping their trucks on the road, while others fell asleep at the wheel and ran their trucks into the ditch. On the fourth day out, in a terrific thunderstorm, one G.M.C. cargo truck skidded off the road on Laurel Hill near Ligonier, Pa., and was lost down the mountainside beyond hope of recovery. 

Jackson also reported on the performance of the Maxwell tractor:

The 5-ton tractor was carried on the back of a Mack truck except when it was necessary to utilize it or where the grades were so steep that the Mack couldn’t proceed until the tractor was unloaded. But for the tractor’s ability to pull heavy loads through mud or deep sand, most of the larger trucks in the convoy would never have reached San Francisco. 

On Aug. 5, while pulling one of the trucks out of a quicksand hole 10 miles west of North Platte, Neb., one of the track shoes was broken. This was quickly replaced and is the only mechanical trouble experienced by the tractor, in spite of the many hours of hard work that it performed. 

The three photos show the Maxwell tractor (stripped of its wartime armor to save weight) in action, as well as road conditions encountered along the way. Many thanks to Andrew Jackson Coleman, who took the pictures, as well as his great-niece, Sheila Panzone, and Mike Tyler for making the pictures available so we can see the difficulties the doughboys encountered on that long ago trip. FC 

Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by e-mail at letstalkrustyiron@att.net.