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Lincoln Highway: Iowa February 4, 2012

Posted by Jenny in history, travel.
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Original concrete bridge in Tama, IA

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.

I’ve been perusing back issues of the Iowa Lincoln Highway Association newsletter, and it belatedly dawns on me that the Highway is the focus of all sorts of intriguing social activities. For example:

We have done it again! This makes four years in a row—the Lincoln Highway Amateur Radio Group teamed with the Benton County (Iowa) Amateur Radio Club to wake up the sleepy Youngville One-Stop, which at one time included a vintage gas station, cafe and cabins along the original route of the Lincoln Highway….


Join us “4” a good time at the 4th Annual Iowa Lincoln Highway Association River to River Motor Tour from Pottawattamie to Clinton Counties….

The newsletter features a “Name That Lincoln Highway Spot” photo game as well as informative articles. For instance, Iowa LHA president Allan Richards wrote a column about parades along the Highway in which I learned that Tama, IA will have a grand parade this year to celebrate its 150th anniversary. I wish I could be there—maybe I can. Tama is featured in the photo at top.

I suspect that many of the most active members of the LHA are retirees, for several reasons: they have more time, they have memories of the Highway in earlier incarnations, their solid work ethic motivates volunteer efforts, and they are just plain not afraid of having fun. Their activities might seem unsophisticated to weary urbanites or irony-laden Gen X, Y, and Z-ers, but I don’t think these people worry about that a bit.

The route of the Highway across Iowa is simple: it more or less follows US Route 30, with the exception of the usual bypasses around town centers. First of all, to get into Iowa from Illinois, we have to cross the Mississippi.

Gateway Bridge, opened 1956, linking Fulton, IL with Clinton, IA

This is the bridge that now carries US 30, but the Lincoln Highway originally used another bridge further upstream.

Wagon Bridge, built 1891

The Wagon Bridge had a wooden deck that was replaced in 1933 with metal grating to allow snow to melt through. When the grating was installed, a ceremony was held in which a high-dive specialist from Cedar Rapids, the 19-year-old Walter W. Simon, dove from the bridge into the Mississippi. He was paid $100, or $1 per foot of the bridge’s height above the river. The Wagon Bridge was replaced in 1975 by the North Bridge, located a few miles north of the Gateway Bridge.

Clinton was known as a lumbering center in the second half of the 1800s. Log rafts were floated from the great forests of the Upper Midwest and converted to lumber at the city’s sawmills for transshipment via river or railroad. The city boasted 13 millionaires during the period, a rather high number per capita. Key businesses in Clinton were owned by Friedrich Weyerhaeuser, the timber baron and founder of the Weyerhaeuser Company. He is said to have been worth $72 billion in today’s dollars.

Friedrich Weyerhaeuser, timber baron

Along current Route 30 in Clinton, it’s possible to view the Clinton Public Library, a library built 1903-1904 with matching funds from the famous philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.

Clinton Public Library

Journeying west from Clinton, we arrive at Cedar Rapids, which calls itself the “City of Five Seasons”—the four seasons plus one to enjoy the other four. This seems paradoxical to me, but I don’t begrudge Iowa’s second largest city the effort to identify itself in a unique way. It is also known as the home of a vibrant Czech community and as the residence of Grant Wood, the painter known for the famous “American Gothic” image. The house in the painting’s background is located in Eldon, IA.

"American Gothic" by Grant Wood

Not far from Cedar Rapids in Mount Vernon, a local artist’s version of the painting appears on the side of a barn. Mt. Vernon is also known for a sidewalk-chalk festival each May in which residents and visitors make their own art in chalk on a large section of Main Street.

The route of the Highway jogs briefly south from US 30 at the west end of Benton County and passes through Belle Plaine, where Preston’s Service Station is located.

Preston's Service Station---"Since 1923"

We pass over the wonderful bridge in Tama depicted at top. All along the way, the Highway’s distinctive red, white, and blue markers can be seen. In the photo below, a marker appears on the Union Pacific Railroad bridge in State Center.

UP bridge with Lincoln Highway marker

After passing Ames, home of Iowa State University, the population thins dramatically. Oddly enough, an extensive stretch of the original brick-surface highway exists for eleven blocks in the tiny hamlet of Woodbine, near the state’s western border. These blocks are pleasantly shaded with large trees, a point worth noting because we have now passed that invisible meridian in the Midwest beyond which trees are for the most part found only along rivers and streams or where planted beside houses. The route of the Highway and US 30 dips southwest to reach the Missouri River at the De Soto National Wildlife Refuge. We are about to enter Nebraska.

Red-Headed Woodpecker at De Soto NWR