History of trucking in America

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September 6, 2020

History of trucking in America

About 1.7 million truckers drive heavy-duty and tractor-trailer trucks in the United States. Overall, the industry supports 7.4 million jobs. In 29 states—more than half the country—“truck driver” is the dominant occupation, and for good reason. More than 70% of the almost 10.5 billion tons of freight delivered annually in the United States travels by truck. But the industry is more than just a massive job provider and a critical component of American society: It’s also an economic canary in a coal mine.

In 2019 alone, 2,500 truck drivers lost their jobs and several significant trucking companies declared bankruptcy, a fact that worries many economists. The state of the trucking industry is a reliable indicator of overall economic health. When trucking declines, it’s because fewer people are buying things, selling things, shipping things, expanding their businesses, or parting ways with disposable income. Economists worry that this latest downturn in trucking could be yet another indicator that the country is headed for a steep recession. As goes the trucking industry, so goes the nation.

Then the pandemic hit, creating supply chain disruptions, and also more demand for products that weren't available at local markets, and delivery of mission-critical items to people stuck at home. Truck drivers were deemed essential, but this contributed further to the fatigue that was common to many.

The trucking industry emerged, however, three decades before the greatest economic downturn in history, the Great Depression. The drivers in those early years drove vehicles that we wouldn’t even recognize as trucks today, on roads that were often little more than muddy trails. Like so many workers of the time, their labor was exploited by corporate bosses who viewed them the same way they viewed the trucks themselves—commodities to be used until they were in such poor shape that they were no longer profitable. But within a half-century, the trucking industry was a powerful force in labor and politics, and the industry’s leaders have been some of the most dynamic and consequential figures in American history.

Using a variety of sources, Stacker created a timeline of the history of trucking in America. It’s a long and winding road complete with stunning innovations, larger-than-life personalities, bloody conflicts, shipments delivered, and deadlines met. Keep reading to learn about the evolution of the industry that’s responsible for delivering 70% of everything you eat, drink, wear, and own.

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Enslin // Wikimedia Commons

1896: The truck is born

Inventor Gottlieb Daimler in 1896 converted a horse-drawn cart to be fitted with Phoenix, which was the name he gave to a rear-mounted, four-horsepower, two-cylinder engine he’d designed from a modified passenger car engine. It was the world’s first truck: an automated version of the carts pulled by horse or donkey for millennia. Four years later in 1900, Jack and Gus Mack of Brooklyn, N.Y., founded the company that would become Mack Trucks, which would become the standard-bearer of the modern trucking industry.

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Another Believer // Wikimedia Commons

1901: Drivers unionize

Truck drivers at the turn of the 20th century worked 12- to 18-hour days, often seven days a week, for $2 a day in dangerous conditions with no protection or job security. They were also liable for any lost or damaged merchandise. In 1901, 1,700 frustrated and fed-up drivers formed the Team Drivers International Union (TDIU) to organize for better wages and working conditions, but a year later, a breakaway group formed the Teamsters National Union. They soon realized they were stronger together and in 1903 merged once again to form the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT), the most powerful trucking union in history.

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Internet Archive Book Images // flickr

1905: Montgomery Ward Chicago strike

The Teamsters in 1905 joined virtually every union in Chicago in striking against the unfair labor practices of the Montgomery Ward department store. The walkouts and strikes—called interchangeably the Teamsters' strike, the Montgomery Ward Strike, and the Chicago Teamsters' strike—soon involved thousands of workers and affected the entire city. The moment put the power of union solidarity on display and revealed the forces union workers were up against when challenging the established power structure.

The strikes were also a sign of more bloody battles to come. With the backing of powerful business interests, police engaged in a brutal and bloody campaign of violence against the workers, leaving 21 dead and hundreds injured when the strike was finally broken after more than 100 days.

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Internet Archive Book Images // flickr

1907: Teamsters elect Dan Tobin

The Teamsters in 1907 elected Dan Tobin as the union's general president. Tobin, in his early 30s at the time, was an Irish immigrant and self-educated man who was known as a tough, controversial, and visionary leader. He would serve as president of the IBT for an unprecedented 45 years until 1952, growing the organization from fewer than 40,000 members to more than 1.2 million. Tobin was eventually widely understood to be one of the most powerful men in America and is revered as the godfather of the Teamsters.

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Internet Archive Book Images // flickr

1912: Teamster drivers make the first transcontinental delivery

In 1912, a five-man crew of Teamster drivers from the Charles W. Young Company of Philadelphia departed with three tons of Parrot brand olive oil soap bound for Petaluma, Calif. With virtually no maintained roads and a complete absence of creature comforts, the crew arrived at City Hall in San Francisco in a record 91 days. As the first transcontinental delivery, the dangerous journey captivated the nation and started a new chapter in the story of American industry. The era of over-the-road trucking had begun.

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Philip Schubert / flickr

1914-15: The modern truck emerges

Otto Neumann and August Fruehauf in 1914 invented the semi-trailer. A year later in 1915, Hermann Farr and Martin Rocking unveiled the fifth wheel, a coupling device that made it possible to quickly and safely hitch and unhitch semis to trailers. The modern tractor-trailer was born.Fruehauf in 1918 established the Fruehauf Trailer Company in Detroit. That business, which acquired more than 1,000 patents, exploded into a global powerhouse with 16 plants 80 distributorships in the U.S., as well as locations throughout the world. 

Fractures within the family-run corporation resulted in various legal suits. By 1964 the company was out of Fruehauf family hands; further proxy battles in the 1980s eventually led to a 1997 filing for bankruptcy proteciton. Wabash National acquired what was left of the company in 1997.

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DanTD // Wikimedia Commons

1918: Maine sets the first weight-limit rules

The state of Maine in 1918 enacted a law prohibiting any truck weighing more than 18,000 pounds to travel its roads. Weight limits would quickly become the norm and long lines of tractor-trailers queued at roadside weigh stations would soon become a common sight. Seven decades later, in the 1980s, the first weigh station bypass systems emerged to replace the inefficient scale system.

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1920: Pneumatic air-filled tires become standard

Although pneumatic air-filled tires had emerged years before, most trucks were still riding on solid rubber tires during the second decade of the 20th century. By 1920, however, most trucks had been fitted with air-filled tires. The innovation allowed for much greater speeds and far smoother rides, but the moment signaled the arrival of a headache familiar to every trucker who has come since: flat tires.

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PRA // Wikimedia Commons

1933: American Trucking Associations is formed

The American Highway Freight Association and the Federation Trucking Associations of America merged in 1933 to form the American Trucking Associations (ATA). The ATA is the nation’s largest trucking industry trade association and includes affiliated trucking associations from all 50 states.

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Wikimedia Commons

1934: The Minneapolis General Strike

Trouble had been brewing for a long time in the major Midwest shipping hub of Minneapolis before the Teamsters declared a general strike on May 16, 1934. The city’s fiercely anti-union administration cracked down hard, massive street brawls between workers and so-called scab replacement drivers ensued, and on July 20—known as Bloody Friday—police fired indiscriminately into crowds of striking truckers. The National Guard was deployed and the strike finally ended, but the city bowed to most of the Teamster’s demands and the moment was the catalyst for the industrial unionism movement of the 1930s.

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Richard // flickr

1938: Refrigerated containers change America’s food-supply chain

Agricultural trucking took a great leap forward in 1938 when Minnesota trucking executive Harry Werner got bad news from a phone call at the country club where he was playing golf. Werner had lost today’s equivalent of $80,000 when a truck carrying raw chicken broke down, leaving the meat to fester in the hot sun.

Mechanically cooled warehouses had been in use for more than half a century by 1938, but truckers were still packing cold shipments in ice. Doing so forced drivers to make frequent, expensive, and time-consuming stops to re-ice on long journeys. When delays like breakdowns occurred, the cargo was lost.

Werner invented the refrigerated truck, which transformed the regional, seasonal agricultural shipping business into the modern, any-food-anywhere-at-any-time supermarket culture of today.

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AlfvanBeem // Wikimedia Commons

1941: Truckers mobilize for war

When America entered World War II, Teamsters became the driving force in America’s military campaign—literally. While even the highly mechanized German war machine was still relying heavily on horse-drawn carts, American troops and supplies were ferried across Europe and beyond by highly skilled, highly experienced Teamsters—125,000 of whom were enlisted in all branches by 1942.

The difficult, dangerous, and often deadly work of combat trucking—high-speed, no-headlight night runs under heavy fire on mined roads—often fell to segregated African-American units, most notably the famous Red Ball Express.

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Wikimedia Commons

1940s: Trucking dominates post-war America

The economic boom that followed World War II launched American trucking into the modern era as Americans began spending their newfound wealth on luxury goods that had been rationed during wartime. The trucking industry skyrocketed thanks to innovations like the powerful diesel engine, the refrigerated truck container, and a maze of new roads: The country went from 521,000 paved miles in 1925 to 1.72 million in 1945. In the post-war era, trucks surpassed trains as the primary conveyor of goods and products for the first time since the Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869.

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Kārlis Dambrāns // flickr

1945: Al Gross invents the CB radio

Citizens Radio Corporation owner and walkie-talkie inventor Al Gross in 1945 invented the Citizen Band, or CB, radio. The two-way communication device launched generations of amateur ham radio hobbyists—but for the trucking industry, the moment was a revolution. By the 1970s, virtually every trucker in America had a CB, which they used to inform each other about police activity, to give directions, to ask about nearby gas stations and weigh stations, and just to network, chat, and pass the long, lonely hours that are intrinsic to the occupation.

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DanTD // Wikimedia Commons

1940s: The first truck stops emerge

During the post-war boom, small roadside pull-offs began beckoning weary truckers with the promise of diesel fuel, which was rarely offered at traditional filling stations, and a few minutes to rest and stretch their legs. These new truck stops, which soon began offering snacks, coffee, and other comforts, would quickly become a defining characteristic of trucking culture. In 1972, Truckstops of America (TravelCenters of America) became the first truck stop chain. Truck stops today are massive service centers with restaurants, shower facilities, movie theaters, salons, and even casinos and amusement rides.

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Internet Archive Book Images // flickr

1951: Teamsters membership tops 1 million

By 1951, what had started as a small, fledgling group of disgruntled and powerless truckers had grown into a million-member-strong heavyweight force in American politics, industry, and labor. The union now had seven-figure dues-paying membership rolls. Remarkably, the entire journey had taken place under the stewardship of one man—IBT founding father Dan Tobin (pictured here), who retired the following year.

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Wikimedia Commons

1954: Terry Fell records 'Truck Drivin' Man'

Country star Terry Fell recorded “Truck Drivin’ Man,” a tribute to the triumphs, hardships, work ethic, and free spirit that defined the American trucker, on Feb. 17, 1954. The song caught fire and enshrined the trucker as an icon of American culture. “Truck Drivin’ Man” would later be covered by the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Willie Nelson, Conway Twitty, Charlie Walker, the J. Geils Band, and New Riders of the Purple Sage.

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Ninian Reid // flickr

1957: Jimmy Hoffa elected as Teamsters president

Twentieth-century Teamsters history can be divided into two parts: the era of Dan Tobin, and the era of Jimmy Hoffa. When James Riddle Hoffa was elected president of the IBT in 1957, the hardscrabble and aggressive union boss cemented his power, destroyed his rivals, got in bed with the mafia, took on Bobby Kennedy, served time in prison, and became both a revered blue-collar hero and a despised labor-racket criminal all at once. The July 30, 1975, disappearance of the most famous, most controversial, and most powerful boss ever to preside over the union remains one of the greatest mysteries in American folklore.

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State Library of New South Wales // flickr

1950s–1960s: Teamsters drive the civil rights movement

From the organization’s earliest days, the Teamsters were among the most inclusive labor organizations in America—out of pure necessity, if nothing else. Unlike other unions, which often advocated for white workers first, African Americans and other minorities were welcomed into the IBT ranks and women played prominent roles long before they had an equal say even in their households—as early as 1917, the Teamsters made public calls for equal rights and equal pay. When the modern civil rights movement began in the mid-1950s, the Teamsters provided money, organizers, vehicles, and their all-important political clout to the movement. Many of the famous Freedom Rides took place on Teamster buses driven by Teamster union members—murdered civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo was the wife of a Teamster business agent.

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Wikimedia Commons

1956: The Federal Interstate Highway System makes the ride less bumpy

The fear of having to mobilize for a nuclear attack compelled Congress to create—and President Eisenhower to sign—the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956. The bill authorized tens of billions of dollars to build 40,000 miles of interstate highways in what was the largest public works project in American history. The result was a continental network of well-paved, well-maintained highways that enabled anyone—on four wheels or 18—to travel between any two points in the country without encountering a muddy dirt road.

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JoachimKohlerBremen // Wikimedia Commons

1959: Volvo invents the seat belt

The Volvo brand is synonymous with safety, and the genesis of that branding can be traced to 1959 when Volvo engineer Nils Bohlin invented the three-point seat belt: one of the most important and consequential safety innovations in the history of the world. The device, which was so important that Volvo opened the patent so all automakers could use it, has saved more than 1 million lives, many of them truckers. Even still, a 2015 report from the CDC found that hundreds of truckers die every year in fatal collisions because they didn’t buckle up. One in three annual trucker fatalities can be prevented with the simple device Nils Bohlin invented 60 years ago.

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Ninian Reid // flickr

1964: Master Freight Agreement signed in Chicago

In 1964, the force of nature that was Jimmy Hoffa (pictured here) willed into reality something that had long been deemed impossible. That year, decades of IBT sacrifice and struggle came to fruition with the passing of the Master Freight Agreement, which extended to “non-craft” laborers like truckers the basic benefits and protections that had long been enjoyed by other blue-collar workers. Nearly half a million truckers marched into the middle class.

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Adam Moss // Wikimedia Commons

1974: 55 mph becomes the law

Although maximum-speed laws date back to animal-drawn wagons in 1650s New Amsterdam (now New York), speed limits had always been inconsistent, arbitrary, and sometimes non-existent from state to state and county to county. That all changed in 1974 when President Richard Nixon signed a bill that mandated a national 55 mph speed limit across all 50 states. The move was designed as a fuel-saving measure in the wake of an oil embargo, but it also helped auto fatalities to drop from 4.28 per million miles traveled in 1972 to 2.73 in 1983.

In 1995, Congress repealed the law and handed speed limits back to the states.

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Steve Jurvetson // flickr

2016: First self-driving truck

At the end of October 2016, a truck hauled 2,000 cases of Budweiser 120 miles from Fort Collins, Col., to Colorado Springs. It was the kind of delivery that countless truckers had made countless times before. But this time, there was no driver. In partnership with Anheuser-Busch, a start-up called Otto launched one of its new self-driving trucks on a successful mission that the company claims is a window into a future without truck drivers.

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Rennett Stowe // flickr

2019: Willing truckers are hard to come by

In July 2019, Bloomberg reported on a massive trucker shortage that had been brewing for several years. The driver deficit had grown from 10,000 to a whopping 60,800 in just one year ending in 2018, and it’s expected to grow to 160,000 unfilled driver positions in the coming decade as the aging driver pool retires. Today’s average over-the-road trucker is 46.

Although companies have been recruiting heavily and offering higher salaries and better benefits, the lifestyle—characterized by weeks on the road, poor diet, little exercise, and isolation—is becoming a harder sell in the modern age. Otto might have arrived just in time.

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Drew Angerer // Getty Images

2020: The impact of COVID-19

When the pandemic hit, truck drivers were deemed essential. 

Some parts of the industry—those who deliver groceries and home office supplies—saw little impact to their bottom line, though exhaustion became a bigger factor than ever. But the truckers who serve the shuttered entertainment and restaurant industries struggled just as much as their brick-and-mortar customers. 

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