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History of trucking in America

  • 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 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.

    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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  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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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