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Lincoln Highway: Wyoming (Part 2) March 12, 2012

Posted by Jenny in history, travel.
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Lincoln Theater, 16th St. (Lincolnway), Cheyenne

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 my last post about the Lincoln Highway, I talked about the early history of the Highway in Wyoming as well as a bit of my personal history in the state. This post tours a few of the highlights that can be seen along the route today.

Entering the state from Kimball, Nebraska—and as usual in the West following the route of the Union Pacific Railroad—the Highway soon passes through the state capital of Cheyenne. Points of interest along 16th Street (the Highway’s route) include not only the Lincoln Theater shown above but the Atlas Theater.

Atlas Theater, Cheyenne

The Lincoln Theater was built in 1913, or the same year that the route of the Lincoln Highway was mapped out. It must have been a welcome stopping point for travelers braving the primitive roadway of the early Lincoln days. To this day it boasts the original fittings: a big chandelier and balcony seating. It operates today as a second-run movie theater, but with bargain ticket prices of $2.00.

The Atlas down the street, built in 1888, has gone through many transformations. It was constructed as an office building with a tea room (now, there’s a pleasantly obsolete concept!). It was converted to a stage theater in 1908, designed for use by traveling companies, complete with soda fountain, a penny arcade, and a confectionery parlor. It fell upon hard times in the 1920s, becoming a rooming house and then a movie theater called the Strand. The touring drama troupes had faded from existence, replaced by the moving pictures and by the popularity of radio. The Pink Pony Nightclub succeeded the Strand. But now, the longstanding Cheyenne Little Theatre Players use the space for their “Old Fashioned Melodrama” and other productions. Like many other historic structures along the Highway, it is in urgent need of funds for renovation.

Also in Cheyenne, the Union Pacific Railroad Depot fronts the Highway route. It is a lovely structure, complete with Romanesque arches and an imposing clock tower.

Union Pacific Depot, Cheyenne

West of Cheyenne, as we follow I-80—which occupies the Highway route for the majority of mileage across the state—it is possible to stop and view the Tree in the Rock, a small limber pine that seemingly grows out of solid rock. It is said that locomotive firemen on the UP stopped here to give the tree a spritz of water from their buckets. However, the route of the railroad shifted several miles south in 1901.

The Tree in the Rock is located near Buford, an unincorporated community with a population of one. In the late 1800s when the railroad was under construction, it was a thriving community. The town, with its trading post, is currently for sale, following the mayor’s decision to retire.

The Ames Monument at Exit 329 off I-80 commemorates Oliver and Oakes Ames, the primary financiers of the UP. It looks Egyptian to me. Oakes, a U.S. representative in Massachusetts, was implicated in fraud and censured by Congress.

Ames Monument

A bit further along, at the I-80 Summit Rest Area, we encounter a gigantic bust of Lincoln. Formerly located at the highest point on the transcontinental railroad (8,247′), it was shifted a short distance when I-80 came through. University of Wyoming art professor Robert Russin sculpted the bust. It’s amazing how many different styles have been used to depict Abraham Lincoln in sculpture.

Bust of Lincoln at Summit Rest Area

Beside the Lincoln sculpture stands a memorial to Henry B. Joy (1864-1936), first president of the Lincoln Highway Association and also president of the Packard Motor Company.

At Laramie, I-80 and US 30 diverge, the route of the Highway being aligned with US 30. So a traveler of today seeking to follow the Highway makes an arc to the northwest away from the interstate and rejoins it at Walcott. A point of interest along this stretch is Como Bluff, where many dinosaur skeletons were discovered in the late 1800s. A cabin was constructed entirely of dinosaur bones.

Como Bluff

In Medicine Bow, it’s possible to stay at the Virginian Hotel. It was built in the early days of the Highway and named for the novel by Owen Wister, who visited Medicine Bow in the 1880s and used it as the setting for his book. The Virginian is generally considered the first cowboy novel and has all the right ingredients: a stern protagonist with a gentle side, a pretty schoolteacher, and cattle rustlers.  Current Trip Advisor reports for the hotel give it high points for atmosphere and low points for the trains passing close by all through the night.

Owen Wister

After picking up I-80 again, the route arrives at Rawlins, site of the Wyoming Frontier Prison and now a tourist attraction. It opened in 1901 and had no electricity or running water, and heating was inadequate. Overcrowding was a constant problem. It featured a dungeon and a “punishment pole”  to which men were handcuffed and beaten with rubber hoses, a practice finally eliminated in 1930. Prisoners receiving a death sentence were executed by hanging until a gas chamber was installed in 1936. The prison ceased operations in 1981.

The prison website features profiles of selected inmates. George Sabin, pictured below, was imprisoned for second degree murder in 1909. He was the leader of a group of cattle men who killed three sheep men after they brought a herd of 50,000 sheep into a valley that had been claimed by the cattle interests. Once in prison, Sabin started a baseball team, but the team’s fortunes declined after the catcher was hanged. Sabin escaped when working on a road gang because the guard allowed him to wander about a nearby town with money in his pockets.

George Sabin, inmate #1441

At Rock Springs, an arch formerly straddled the Highway. It now stands adjacent to the UP depot.

Rock Springs Coal arch

We arrive at the town of Green River and the crossing of the river itself. The area was depicted by Thomas Moran, who is considered to belong to the “Rocky Mountain School” of landscape painters, also including Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Hill, and William Keith. He had been born in England, and the western landscapes seem to have made a big impression on him.

"Cliffs of Green River" by Thomas Moran

It was near the town of Green River that John Wesley Powell launched his nine-man expedition down the Green and Colorado Rivers, a hazardous journey that took three months.

First camp of the Powell expedition, 1871

The last stop in Wyoming is Evanston, which developed as a railroad and mining town. James Cash Penney ran the Golden Rule Store here before moving to Kemmerer and opening the first of the stores named for him. The town was also known for its large population of Chinese laborers, but the Chinese had left town by the 1930s.

Evanston as seen from the top of Burnt Hill

Lincoln Highway: Introduction October 19, 2011

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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.