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Lincoln Highway: Introduction October 19, 2011

Posted by Jenny in history, travel.
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Lincoln Highway at Soda Springs, CA, 1914

Note added 9/27/12: Since I wrote this series, the Lincoln Highway Association has added an interactive map showing the exact route of the Highway in its different stages. You can find it here.

In August and September I wrote a series of posts about a wonderful road trip I took that involved visiting state high points and Civil War battlefields. In the final installment I promised to write about the history of road trips on US highways. It didn’t take me long to realize that the topic was far too vast. I decided instead to narrow the subject to the history of a single highway, the Lincoln Highway. I’d traveled a very small section of this transcontinental highway on my trip, the portion between Gettysburg and McConnellsburg, PA, going over the Tuscarora Summit. One might argue, however, that because I traveled the highway in Gettysburg, I went to the heart of the road named for Abraham Lincoln.

The highway was the first to span the United States, running from Times Square in New York to Lincoln Park in San Francisco.

Route of the Lincoln Highway in 1916 (click for zoom)

A man named Carl Fisher was the force behind the idea. Gung-ho about developing the automobile industry, he was one of the major investors in the Indianapolis Speedway and the founder of Prest-O-Lite, a company manufacturing carbide-gas headlights. He believed that if people were enabled to drive across the country—or even a hundred miles or so between towns—the use of automobiles would get a great boost.

In 1912 he gathered together a group of automobile entrepreneurs and beguiled them with the concept of a “Coast-to-Coast Rock Highway.” At that time, a road was considered “improved” if it even consisted of graded dirt as opposed to rough tracks where automobiles bogged down in dust or in mud.  Hardened surfaces of gravel or brick were limited to short segments near towns, and asphalt surfaces did not yet exist. People did not think of automobiles as the means to travel long distances: that’s what railroads were for.

Carl Graham Fisher, 1909

The president of the Packard Motor Company, Henry Joy, was the individual who thought of naming the highway for Lincoln. At the time, Congress was deliberating over a proposal to build a memorial to Lincoln in Washington, DC. Joy preferred the idea of a transcontinental highway as a memorial. In the end, both would come to be, and a rival route between Gettysburg and Washington would be defeated, making the Lincoln name available for the larger project.

The Lincoln Highway Association was founded in 1913 for the purpose of raising funds and determining the route. A “Trail-Blazer” tour set out in July of that year. The convoy of 17 cars and two trucks wallowed through midwestern mud, then sand drifts in Utah and Nevada, as well as enduring many mechanical problems, and finally arrived in San Francisco for a jubilant parade. Everywhere the convoy went, it was hailed enthusiastically by residents of towns that wanted the highway to come their way. In the end, many were disappointed—particularly in Kansas and Colorado, which were bypassed in the final route decision even though the Trail-Blazer tour had come their way. Under heavy pressure from the Colorado governor, the LHA agreed to a major detour that would take the highway through Denver. Eventually, though, the Colorado loop was eliminated.

In many sections the route made use of old roads, including a 17th-century road in New Jersey laid out by Dutch colonists; the Chambersburg turnpike used by Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to reach Gettysburg; portions of the Mormon Trail; routes used by the Pony Express; and the Donner Pass crossing of the Sierras.

Although some in the automobile industry thought the federal government should pay for the whole thing (Henry Ford was the chief proponent of this point of view), the highway was initially financed by private contributions and state government funds. In 1916, the federal government agreed to provide matching funds to states for interstate construction. It wasn’t until 1925 that a federal-state Joint Board on Interstate Highways was created and a numbering system for highways developed. Although the LHA would have preferred having a single number to designate the highway over its entire transcontinental length, practical considerations about adjoining highways led to the use of several numbers. At present, the highway comprises several different numbers, mainly US 1 in New Jersey; US 30 most of the way between Philadelphia and Granger, WY; US 50 across Nevada and on a southern route across the Sierras; and US 40 from Sacramento to Berkeley, CA. Many other route numbers for short segments are mixed in.

Lincoln Highway in Wyoming, typical sign in 1914.

It is hard for us to imagine the enthusiasm that greeted the dedication of the Lincoln Highway.  On October 31, 1913, the San Francisco Examiner spoke of the highway in glowing terms: it “promises to be a lasting monument to the automobile industry, and one of the greatest developments ever made in the country.” A celebratory program was “by no means limited to oratory. The committee has been promised the presence of Leoncavallo, the great composer who is now visiting the city… and the Municipal Band will render, as a special feature, ‘The United States Forever.’ Beatriz Michelena, the prima donna who established a well-remembered success in ‘The Tik-Tok Man,’ and Mrs. Roy Lee will both contribute musical numbers.” The program also included speeches about Abraham Lincoln, “The Roads of the Nation,” and “The Relation of the Highway to the Panama Canal.”

This has been a very cursory treatment of a big subject. For further details, you can visit the Wikipedia site and the excellent site of the present-day Lincoln Highway Association. In my next installments, I will discuss the highway as it crosses individual states.

Western terminus of the Lincoln Highway. Photo by David Monack.


1. asingleletter.wordpress.com - October 19, 2011

that photo of the Lincoln Highway in Soda Springs is great! To us it seems like a very dangerous road, but to think that in some places of the world there are still roads like this! Just thinking of driving along it gives me the chills.

Jenny - October 19, 2011

Yes, especially in a car that’s so open to the elements!

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