A trip down the Lincoln Highway

A nation’s progress is marked by its highways. One such highway that shaped today’s America is the Lincoln Highway, country’s first transcontinental route that completed 100 glorious years of history last month. To mark the occasion, The Lincoln Highway Association organized a centennial tour from June 21 to 30. 270 people from 28 U.S. states and several countries hit the highway in 140 vehicles ranging from 1913 Stoddard Daytons to 2013 rental cars.

Route map of the Lincoln Highway

Route map of the Lincoln Highway that connects San Francisco in the west coast with New York in the east coast. Image by Wikimedia Commons.

The aim of the tour was to follow the original road that spanned from New York to San Francisco. The group was divided into two halves, one part began the journey from the east coast and the other from the west coast, finally meeting at a midpoint in Kerney, Nebraska where a two-day centennial celebration was held on June 30.

Origin of the Lincoln Highway

In 1912, the concept of good roads was somewhat non-existent in the United States. Railways were the main means of transport, and in most cases, the only choice for interstate travel. Though 2.5 million miles of roads had been built already, a good number of them were just dirt, dusty during summers and filthy during rains. Whatever few miles of improved roads existed, were only around towns and cities. Graded roads were taken into the category of “improved”, the use of asphalt and concrete had still not started. Plus, several of these roads led to nowhere, they just started abruptly in the middle of a settlement and ended aimlessly.

AAA officials on a transcontinental auto trip

An AAA Good Roads official passes a dusty, desolate road near Glendive, Montana during a transcontinental auto trip in July 1912. Image by Wikimedia Commons.

Counties or townships maintained the “market roads” outside cities. Worse, the constitution of several states prohibited them from paying for “internal improvements,” such as road projects. People had the notion that, interstate roads were “peacock alleys” intended for the luxury of wealthy travelers who drove around the country in their automobiles.

The idea of a transcontinental highway was proposed by Carl Fisher in 1912, President of Prest-o-lite, which manufactured automobile headlamps. Once, over a dinner with friends from the automobile industry, he proposed a $10 million project for a coast-to-coast rock highway to be completed by May 1, 1915. Within a month, Fisher’s friends pledged $1 million for the mega-project.

Carl Fisher

Carl Fisher also co-founded the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and helped develop the city of Miami Beach, Florida. Image by the Library of Congress.

The Lincoln Highway Association (LHA) was found in 1913. The LHA was run by automobile manufacturers who knew that good roads were important to create demand for vehicles. However, Henry Ford, the biggest automaker during those days, refused to contribute even after repeated pleas from Fisher. He was of the opinion that it was the government’s responsibility, and not theirs to build roads. [Source: Federal Highway Association]

Short of funds, the LHA resorted to promotion. Carl Fisher set out with 19 others cars on the 34 day Hoosier Tour (also called the Indiana–Pacific Indiana Automobile Manufacturers Association tour) from Indianapolis to San Francisco. By the time Fisher’s much publicized trip was over, car production was much more than carriages and wagons in the United States for the first time in history.

Finally realizing the significance of the project, several states started lobbying for the highway to pass through their cities, refusing to let go even after the route was decided. LHA’s members wanted the shortest, best, and most direct path possible between the east and the west coast. They shrunk the final line to 1,598 miles, less than half of the initial 3,389 miles. On October 31, 1913, hundreds of cities in the 13 States along the line celebrated the finalized route with bonfires, fireworks, concerts, and parades. The highway route was named after Fisher’s hero, Abraham Lincoln.

To support its finances, the LHA used contributions for publicity to encourage travel over the Lincoln Highway, as well as to encourage state, county, and municipal officials to improve the road. The LHA did, however, help finance construction of short sections of the route.

By 1925, the transcontinental route was completed. However, in that year, the United States instituted a numbered system for highways and eliminated name designations. In Pennsylvania, the Lincoln Highway became Route 30.

Lincoln Highway’s Signs

Lincoln Highway Markers

The original Lincoln highway markers, designed by landscape architect Jens Jensen, were concrete with a bronze head of President Lincoln and the highway logo. Image by lincoln-highway-museum.org

After the official route was announced on September 14, 1913, patriots across the country set out to mark the glorious way. With enthusiasm running high, within a few months, most of the highway was marked with metal signs, painted fence posts & telephone poles.

The Lincoln Highway Museum’s website states that “concerned officials devised a plan to standardize signage on the Highway. It was both an expensive proposition and a logistical nightmare. Right arrows, left arrows, 30 miles to Omaha, 200 Miles to Salt Lake, not to mention vandals, thieves, and target shooters. Each year they put up thousands of signs only to come back the next year and find 30 to 50 percent missing or damaged.”

The highway was officially marked and dedicated to the memory of Abraham Lincoln on September 1, 1928. Later in the day, groups of Boy Scouts placed 3,400 concrete markers at sites along the route.

These markers were placed on the outer edge of the right-of-way at each important crossroad, at minor crossings, and at other intervals. The signs carried the Lincoln Highway insignia and a bronze medallion. Most of it still remains today, in order to preserve the identity of the historic route that paved the way for America’s first urban corridor.

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