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Lincoln Highway: Car Industry Aided by a Pioneer Road

Updated on July 1, 2013

The Lincoln Highway: America’s 1st Coast-to-Coast Road is 100


Personal Freedom. Convenience. Reliability. These words come to mind when Americans think of the nation's interstate system.

There it sits, a seemingly endless gray ribbon stretching across the U.S. – a vast thoroughfare we can take any way a map, a GPS or a whim directs us. Today's Interstate is connected to a few 1913 visionaries and their desire to improve automobile transportation by developing a transcontinental highway.

In the early 20th century: “The lines are our friends,” was the adage of travelers and shippers. The lines Americans relied on then were 4½-foot wide railroad lines and the metal tracks built into city streets used by electric streetcars and trolleys.

One hundred years ago, the automobile was still in its infancy and most U.S. secondary roads were bumpy and unsound. City streets were often paved. However, other roadways were rutted dirt path­ways or tire-trapping mud trails. And these rural roads didn't con­nect America’s towns and cities. To get from one city to an­other it was much easier to take the train.

Dedication is Oct. 31, 1913

In 1913, a group of busi­nessmen from the auto­motive industry spear­headed the creation of the Lincoln Highway, America’s first transcon­tinental automobile high­way. When finished their 3,142-mile long, paved road would pass through 13 states con­necting New York City with San Fran­cisco, with an east­ern end in Times Square and its western termi­nus in Lincoln Park, seven miles south of the Golden Gate Bridge.

The road was dedicated on October 31, 1913 as America's first national memorial to President Abraham Lincoln, predating the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. by nine years.

Over the years, the highway was improved and numerous realignments were made. At some time in its history, the highway passed through a total of 14 states, 128 counties and over 700 cities, towns and villages. In its early stages, much of the Lincoln Highway was constructed by improving and link­ing up with pre-existing roads. Today, the Lincoln Highway for the most part parallels US 1, US 30, and I‑80 (plus other routes). In Wyoming, Utah and California, sections of I-80 are paved directly over the Lincoln Highway.

Rutted Dirt Roads Spurred on the Creation of Lincoln Highway

Entrepreneur Carl Fisher conceived of the paved roadway. He was known for his big successful ideas and publicity stunts. Fisher also developed the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Miami Beach. He was a tireless promoter of the automobile and owned one of the country's first car dealerships, Fisher and other businessmen formed the Lincoln Highway Association (LHA) to promote the road and to raise funds from private and corporate donators. Soon contributions came in from Thomas A. Edison, former President Theodore Roosevelt and then-current President Woodrow Wilson, known to go automobiling in his Pierce-Arrow.

Fisher envisioned his gravel highway would cost about $10 million and would be finished in time for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. But a lack of funding and the outbreak of World War I prevented this ambitious project from reaching completion for more than a decade. Actually, the actions of Henry Ford and the war in Europe acted as both challenges and opportunities for the Lincoln Highway proponents.

Fisher's idea that the auto industry and private contributions could pay for the highway was soon abandoned after Ford – the biggest automaker at the time – refused to contribute because he believed it was government’s responsibility to build America's roads.

Photo in the public domain
Photo in the public domain | Source
Henry Ford with his iconic Model T  Ford.
Henry Ford with his iconic Model T Ford. | Source

Ford’s Affordable Model T Meant More American Drivers Longing for Good Roads

On the other side of the ledger, Ford’s affordable Model T had a positive impact on the interstate roadway. Ford's invention of the production line reduced the car's price tag. And with more members of the middle class owning cars, Americans caught the independence bug that only good highways could cure. These new motorists wanted to head anywhere at any time, rather than being slaves to railroad timetables.

It was financially impossible to construct a highway across America without a major infusion of money. But the dream didn’t die. LHA still could identify existing roads and label them as the Lincoln Highway. Instead of spending their money and efforts on pouring concrete they installed signs, which were far cheaper. The early roadway efforts focused on public relations, guidebooks and signs, which kept people interested in the idea.

A military ​convoy drove coast-to-coast on the Lincoln to show the need for better roads. NOTE: Photo in the public domain
A military ​convoy drove coast-to-coast on the Lincoln to show the need for better roads. NOTE: Photo in the public domain

Military Moving Men from Coast-to-Coast was a Trying Task

During this period, the US’ entry into World War I in 1917 also adversely impacted the Lincoln Highway. The government’s primary focus was financing the war effort. The World War (as it was known then) was the first war that the Army used trucks in battle. However, military officers were frustrated with the slow pace of moving men and material in vehicles over inferior European roads.

In 1919 – a year after WWI – the Army dispatched a convoy across the country. The 200 men and various vehicles, known then as a truck train, was composed of a few passenger staff cars, "a compliment of motor cycles, ambulances, tank trucks, mobile field kitchens, mobile repair shops and signal corps searchlight trucks," according to the July 6, 1919 New York Times.

The reason for this trip from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco was to test the feasibility of long distance military movements along America’s roadways and to promote the need for a national network of paved roads.

The truck train followed the Lincoln Highway, much of which existed only on planning maps. The Lincoln’s pavement ended after Illinois and picked up 2,000 miles west in California. It took the convoy two months to reach San Francisco. Along the way, the hard, jagged surfaces caused axles to break and, when it rained, many Army vehicles got mired in mud.

One of those traveling on this truck-destroying roadway was Colonel Dwight "Ike" Eisenhower. After witnessed the Army vehicles navigate on rutted, dusty, dirt roads punctuated with holes and steep grades, he informed the Army brass of the Lincoln Highway's many poor sections. The Army’s experience led to many U.S. road improvements in the 1920s.

Three decades later, after being elected president, Ike recalled his Lincoln Highway experience and contrasted it with Germany's excellence expressways, known as the Autobahn. During World War II, General Eisenhower witnessed how efficiently the road carried enemy men and equipment. Ike considered the transportation challenges America's military could face in post WWII and concluded the country needed its own Autobahn. And so he spread headed the creation of the 47,000 mile limited-access Interstate Highway System. Congress authorized it in 1956. (The $130 billion road network was completed in 1993.) Although it was created with an eye on military defense, the average motorist and American commerce were the big beneficiaries.

An original Lincoln Highway bridge still stands today.
An original Lincoln Highway bridge still stands today. | Source

Lincoln Highway Resulted in New Businesses; Cultural Changes

Road construction surged in the years following the convoy’s journey. By the mid-20s, the U.S was crisscrossed by over 250 named trails and roads, each with unique color markings. At major intersections, telephone poles were adorned with various colored stripes that helped motorists navigate along the routes. Where several of these thoroughfares shared a route an entire pole was painted in various colored stripes.

Some roads, such as the National Old Trails Road, Jefferson Highway, Dixie Highway, Bankhead Highway and the Old Spanish Trail, were major routes. Other roads were developed merely because local groups agreed to pay “dues” to a trail association.

The Coffee Pot in Bedford, PA. Built in 1927 along the Lincoln

The snack bar was designed to generate business at an adjacent gas station.
The snack bar was designed to generate business at an adjacent gas station. | Source

As these roadways grew across the U.S. landscape they did more than cover the soil with pavement and telephone poles with colors. Gas stations, tourist cabins, motor courts, restaurants and refreshment stands – some in unique configurations – sprang up along the highways. Cars also shared the roads with a growing trucking industry, which expanded commerce beyond urban areas and rail routes.

Instead of waiting on a train, more and more people saw the country from inside their cars motoring down the Lincoln Highway and the other roads. Weekend excursions were planned; picnic baskets and children were piled in cars as automobiling became a popular American pastime.

Today, many of the unique gas stations, iron bridges and roadside diners along these highways are facing bulldozers or deterioration. As a result of their plight, the Society for Commercial Archeology was formed and fights to retain these historic structures along the shoulders of these pioneer roads.

1928: Boy Scouts install highway markers. (Below: Marker today)

Courtesy: The Lincoln Highway National Museum & Archives in West Galion, Ohio
Courtesy: The Lincoln Highway National Museum & Archives in West Galion, Ohio

From Names to Numbers

The Lincoln Highway was completed in 1925. While it took ten more years than Carl Fisher had hoped, his primary vision for the roadway was realized. America’s automobile industry flourished because of his highway. At the completion of the Lincoln, there were 25 million cars on U.S. roads

In 1925, federal and state officials established an Interstate Highways board, which eliminated the confusing system of named routes and replaced it with numbered highways. From coast-to-coast, thousands of new road signs sprang up. (They featured a silhouette based on the U.S. shield.) Major east-west routes were inscribed with even numbers, from US 10 across the north to US 90 on the south. Major north-south routes were given odd numbers starting on the east coast with US 1, which runs from Maine to Florida.

The LHA lobbied for their highway to be given the number 30 for its entire route. Although US 30 is Lincoln’s primary identifier, a series of disconnected numbers also designated the thoroughfare. While the new highway numbering system produced clarity, it also reduced the famous Lincoln Highway to just another road.

By Matthew G. Bisanz, (MBisanz) CC-BY-SA-3.0, GFDL
By Matthew G. Bisanz, (MBisanz) CC-BY-SA-3.0, GFDL

LHA's Work is Done in 1930s

By the 1930s, interest in the road dropped considerably and the LHA disappeared. Its last activity was in 1928, when thousands of Boy Scouts lined the route and installed 3,000 concrete markers emblazoned with a small bust of Lincoln.

In 1992, the Lincoln Highway Association was reconstituted with a new purpose of preserving remaining portions of the road and its historic sites. The association has active chapters in most Lincoln Highway states. It operates a national tourist center in Franklin Grove, IL and holds an annual conference along the route. –TDowling

Taking a Road Trip on the Lincoln

Events Celebrating the Lincoln Highway Centennial

• Centennial Tours: To celebrate the Lincoln Highway’s 100th anniversary in 2013 two highway tours are planned. They will start on June 22 simultaneously from New York and San Francisco and will meet June 30 in Kearney, Nebraska for a July 1 - 4 celebration at the Great Platte River Road Archway Monument.

July 1-4 Centennial Celebration: The event in Kearney will include a car show, the Lincoln Highway Association’s annual conference, 4th of July fireworks and the re-creation of a tourist camp featuring classic cars. If there's interest, the tours will continue to the East and West Coasts starting on July 5.


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