How the Trucking Industry Got Its Start

It’s interesting to look back at the origins of the trucking industry to gain a little perspective on what we take for granted today in terms of roads, vehicles and the regulatory environment. Today’s highways are full of trucks hauling materials and goods all across North America. In the U.S.—especially at night—it’s hard to travel a single mile on an interstate without seeing a tractor-trailer. But what conditions set the stage for W.W. Estes to start a trucking company back in 1931? And what was it like at Estes Express Lines in the early days?

Here’s a brief look at the industry in the first half of the last century.

Turn your time dial back to the early 1900s ...

  • Before there were highways, there were just two-lane roads—and they were rarely paved before the 1920s, especially outside of a town or city.
  • The railroads were clearly at the top of the transportation “food chain” until about the 1930s. Before the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, most heavy goods were transported by rail—and the P&D portion for the heaviest loads could take a team of as many as 40 horses, with a “teamster”—a worker who drove a team of horses—for every horse.
  • In the early 1900s, trucks were basically motorized wagons that resembled their horse-drawn predecessors. Trucks didn’t have noses in front of the cab; the motor and other machinery were simply suspended below the driver’s seat.
  • Trucks didn’t begin to overtake horse-drawn wagons as the primary method for transporting shipments until the beginning of the U.S. entry into World War I in 1917. And true tractor-trailer combinations didn’t really exist until the fifth-wheel became common in the early 1920s.

1880-1900

The invention of the internal combustion engine in the mid-1800s really boosted the potential for a functional motorized truck. But it wasn’t until 1893 that the first gasoline-powered “motor wagon” to operate in the United States was built by two bicycle mechanics in Massachusetts.

Things progressed slowly for the trucking industry, especially since the railroads had a lock on the long-haul shipping world. Horses and wagons were used for everything else. In the first decade of the 1900s, the large railroad companies routinely took advantage of their monopoly by charging high rates and side-stepping liability for lost or damaged freight. To prevent the railroads from charging unfair rates, the federal government established the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) in 1887 to regulate the railroad industry.

1910-1930

As motorized trucks became more practical and available, the railroads began losing business to trucking companies. Given the regulatory environment, rail was usually less expensive, but service by truck was far superior in terms of timing.

Meanwhile, trucks were evolving into more of what we think of today as a tractor-trailer rig. They became more sophisticated in the 1920s with the introduction of fifth wheels to hook up trailers. Cabs were now enclosed, which made the vehicles seem more like modern trucks and less like motorized wagons. And in the late teens and early 20s, air-filled tires began to replace solid rubber tires—even on heavier trucks—which enabled trucks to double their former speed.

The first World War really signaled the beginning of a decline in the railroads. One of the main reasons was capacity. When the U.S. entered the war in 1917A 1918 article in Traffic World magazine reported that “Intercity truck transportation has become, almost overnight, a most important business ... Many lines have been organized from one man with one truck to million-dollar corporations with large fleets.” And in a 2007 special commemorative supplement, the magazine summarized, “Many of those fleets got their start hauling munitions and supplies and switched to civilian goods when the war ended in 1918. By that time, there was no going back to the ‘antebellum’ economy, as the spread of production-line manufacturing increased the speed of commerce.” , transporting munitions and other supplies to the east coast for shipping to Europe became a logistics nightmare. Shippers were actually already complaining about the lack of rail capacity for domestic products even before our troops began mobilizing. The result was that the federal government took over the railroads until 1920.

On the other hand, trucks were able to fill that capacity gap and help unclog supply chains in the midst of the rail shortage. And as demand grew, it became more common for trucks to handle both shorter and longer hauls.

1930-1940

The trucking industry boom that accompanied the onset of WWI meant that many entrepreneurs seized the opportunity to throw their hats into the transportation ring. A number of those trucking companies were forced out of business during the Great Depression of the 1930s, but the survivors The oldest major carriers still in service
1907–United Parcel Service (then known as American Messenger Co.).
1918–New England Motor Freight (Paterson, NJ)
1923–OK Transfer (later ABF Freight System)
1930–Roadway Express (now part of YRC Worldwide)
1931–Estes Express Lines
benefitted from the slowly reviving economy.

It was in this environment that W.W. Estes decided to start a local trucking business in Southside Virginia. Like many others of his time, he started very small and with little-to-no capital. His business grew incrementally, even during the hardest years.

However, on a grander scale, a storm was brewing. While railroads were heavily regulated by the ICC, trucking companies were not. And these new “upstarts”—especially those that provided longer-haul services—were taking valuable business away from the rail companies. The rail industry cried “foul,” and in 1935, Congress passed the Motor Carrier Act, which authorized the ICC to regulate interstate trucking as well.

The ICC controlled virtually everything from rates to operating territory for interstate commerce. It was also strict about allowing new carriers into the industry or expanding operating territory for existing carriers.

But that didn’t affect W.W. since none of his business crossed state lines. If he had any interstate business, he would interline it with a carrier that had authority in other states (such as Overnite). This changed in 1965 when Estes acquired Coastal Freight Lines and began branching out to other states in the Mid-Atlantic region.

However, the Virginia state legislature developed intrastate regulations and the State Corporation Commission (SCC) began requiring certificates of authority. This meant that carriers had to apply for rights to haul freight anywhere.

Learn more about what it was like to operate a company amidst an incredibly tangled web of regulatory compliance.