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Lincoln Highway: New York October 29, 2011

Posted by Jenny in history, travel.
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The eastern terminus of the Lincoln Highway is Times Square

In this series of posts, we journey on the Lincoln Highway from New York City to San Francisco, taking it state by state. Go here for an introduction.

In 1913, the Lincoln Highway Association developed its cross-country route. Why not think big, and put the eastern terminus at the center of East Coast civilization? The association declared that the southeast corner of Times Square, at 42nd Street and Broadway, would be the starting point of the highway.

Even back then, Times Square was a busy, boisterous place. First named for the New York Times in 1904, when the newspaper moved operations to a skyscraper in the former Longacre Square, it boasted an electrified advertisement that same year and soon had enough electric signs for the section along Broadway to be called the “Great White Way.” And the Hotel Astor was built nearby, occupying an entire city block.

Hotel Astor in its early days

Completed in two phases, in 1905 and 1910, the Astor was the grandest of hotels. It featured two ballrooms and a “Pompeiian” billiard room, grill rooms and themed restaurants, a “Flemish” smoking room, indoor gardens, and a rooftop garden. The hotel operated until 1967 and was demolished the next year.

Roof Garden, Hotel Astor

During the first decades of the Lincoln Highway, Times Square was associated with the high life in the “Tenderloin,” where one might encounter celebrities such as Charlie Chaplin, Fred Astaire, and Irving Berlin. But crime became a problem, and in the years after the Great Depression, the neighborhood went downhill, giving way to the era of adult theaters and go-go bars. It finally experienced a renaissance starting in the early 1990s.

For the first 15 years of the Lincoln Highway’s existence, automobiles traveled from Times Square across the Hudson via the Weehawken Ferry, which landed in Union City, New Jersey. After the Holland Tunnel was opened in 1927, the highway was rerouted to go through it. Confusingly, the Lincoln Tunnel was never the route of the Lincoln Highway—it was named to give equal prominence to Abraham Lincoln after the construction of the George Washington Bridge, and did not open until 1937.

Present-day Holland Tunnel

Within the first decade of the 20th century, ferries were carrying up to 30 million vehicles each year across the Hudson. Clearly tunnels and bridges were needed. Although bridges seemed a less costly solution, there was a slight problem for a crossing from midtown Manhattan: the bridge would need 200′ clearance for ships to travel under it to Hudson River ports. That would require a very long approach.

Although rail tunnels already existed under the river, auto tunnels posed new challenges of vehicle exhaust and a wider required diameter. Engineer Clifford Holland worked to design an exhaust system. He came up with an innovative plan that simultaneously drew in clean air and expelled dirty air, using a total of 84 fans. The tunnel’s air can be completely cleared in 90 seconds.

Construction of the tunnel started in 1920. Workers, called “sandhogs,” often suffered from the “bends,” and 13 died in the course of the project. Teams working from the two shores finally met, and the tunnel was dedicated November 12, 1927. President Coolidge formally “opened” the tunnel with the same key that had dedicated the opening of the Panama Canal in 1915 (one wonders what ceremony it was exactly that he performed with the key).

It takes quite a stretch of the imagination today to picture the first cross-country travelers on the Lincoln Highway, leaving Times Square, catching the ferry, and embarking on a journey of thousands of miles that would take them into the wilds of the west.

Lincoln Highway, c. 1914



1. Thomas Stazyk - October 29, 2011

Great stuff–the idea of New York in the 20s and 30s fascinates me. I wonder how long it would take to build a similar tunnel today?

Jenny - October 29, 2011

Isn’t this great? I love the idea that the Lincoln Highway Association assumed it was the right thing to start from the heart of the East Coast’s biggest city, even though about a mile from the starting point people would have to ferry across the Hudson. It would have been so much easier to start from the New Jersey side, but they didn’t.

2. Gary - November 2, 2011

I guess the state of the trans-Siberian highway now is a bit similar (not paved — when the permafrost melts small vehicles can disappear) — so rail travel is much more convenient —
Best, Gary

Jenny - November 2, 2011

Yes, and then there are the ice roads of Canada’s Northwest Territories that are featured in the reality show “Ice Road Truckers.” During the long winter season when ponds and lakes are frozen, the trucks drive across them, cutting short the distance to supply remote locations like diamond mines. Quite something–I was addicted to that series in its first season! The big enemy on the early Lincoln Highway was mud.

3. Gary - November 2, 2011

oops .. if it melts it’s not actually permafrost .. still the spring thaw could be interesting .. in Bruce Catton, there’s an account of the winter campaign Burnside attempted to launch from north of the Rapahannock near Fredericksburg .. hip deep in mud.

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