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Lincoln Highway: Illinois January 25, 2012

Posted by Jenny in history, railroads, travel.
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War Memorial Arch over Lincoln Highway in Dixon, IL

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.

Illinois proclaims on its license plates that it is the “Land of Lincoln.” It is therefore fitting that the national headquarters of the Lincoln Highway Association are located in Franklin Grove, IL, a small town smack in the middle of the state’s Lincoln Highway miles.

Westward all the way from Philadelphia, it’s been possible to follow the route of the Highway most of the time by driving US 30. It gets more complicated in Illinois. Entering the state from Schererville, IN, we follow Route 30 as far as Aurora, but then veer north on IL 31 to Geneva. There, we turn west on IL 38 and journey through De Kalb, Rochelle, and Dixon. At Sterling, the Highway rejoins US 30 and departs the state at Fulton to cross the Mississippi River into Iowa.

Soon after entering Illinois, we pass through Chicago Heights, which the city proudly proclaims is “The Crossroads of the Nation.” At first glance, it doesn’t seem all that obvious why the city deserves this description. Shouldn’t the crossroads be closer to the geographic center of the United States, which is Lebanon, Kansas—much further south and west?

The reason is more historic than geographic: Chicago Heights is where the Lincoln Highway crosses the Dixie Highway, a highway that was inspired by the Lincoln—the Dixie project was organized in 1914, just a year after the Lincoln Highway was conceived. It, too, was promoted by Carl G. Fisher. Both were part of the National Auto Trail system.

Fountain erected by Arche Women's Club in 1916 at Lincoln-Dixie intersection

As you see from the map below, the Dixie Highway was not a single route but rather a set of interconnected highways. It had a major split between an Eastern Division and a Western Division (the Western is what passed through Chicago Heights), with various connecting links.

Map of the Dixie Highway

Looked at from one point of view—the large number of divergences and splits in the route—the Dixie Highway disappoints. But from another point of view, it’s wonderful: you can follow it from Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, to Miami. I was even more intrigued when I suddenly realized that I live just a block away from its Carolina Division, which uses what’s now US 25 to go from Knoxville to Waynesboro. Yes, that’s Weaverville Road in Asheville!

Chicago Heights had to fight for the Lincoln Highway to be routed through its downtown area. Back in 1914, the Chicago Heights Automobile Association learned that the Lincoln Highway was to bypass it to the south, going through Frankfort. This was not to be! The citizens of Chicago Heights marshaled their forces. On the quickly designated Illinois Good Roads Day (April 15, 1914), residents of the city went out to spread100 loads of stone on what would become the Highway’s route south of downtown. The Lincoln Highway Association, impressed by the dedication and the sweat, decided to route the highway through downtown Chicago Heights, thus giving travelers the benefit of the city’s hotels, restaurants, and garages, and the city the benefit of all that extra business.

Driving west of Chicago Heights, we arrive at Geneva, which boasts the Fabyan Windmill, dating to the 1850s. Oddly enough, we will encounter another windmill along the route of the Lincoln Highway in Illinois.

Windmill in Geneva, IL

In De Kalb, it’s possible to visit the Barbed Wire History Museum, which commemorates the inventions of city resident Joseph Glidden.

Glidden's four-point triangular line (top) and military concertina wire (bottom)

Continuing across the state, we arrive at Rochelle, known as “Hub City.” As in the case of Chicago Heights, the reason for the designation isn’t all that obvious from a glance at the map, but here the explanation lies in railroads as much as highways: it is located at the crossroads of two major rail lines, the Union Pacific and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe. What’s really great is that the city has created a park where railfans (English equivalent: trainspotters) can watch trains pass through this junction.

Diamond junction of UP and BNSF

As something of a railroad buff myself, I was enthralled when I learned the story of the Rochelle Railroad Park. Apparently, railfans were parking very close to the interchange siding to watch the trains go by, creating a safety hazard. Rather than banning viewers from the area, the city decided to create a park where railfans could safely watch the trains. It created an elevated viewing platform with picnic tables and added a museum, complete with a re-created hobo jungle as well as a historic locomotive, a display of tracks, and a model railroad shop.

The city even included a scanner in the picnic area so that railfans can hear radio traffic on the two railroads. Fantastic! I hope to go there myself some day.

At Franklin Grove, travelers can visit the national headquarters of the Lincoln Highway Association. That is another place I would like to visit.

Downtown Franklin Grove

Further along, the town of Dixon is known not only for its War Memorial Arch (see at top) but for its Petunia Festival. In the early 1960s, after Dixon’s elms were decimated by Dutch elm disease, the town decided to beautify its streets by planting thousands of pink petunias. The petunias continue to be planted, watered, and maintained every year, and in July, Dixon puts on a parade, carnival, concert, and fireworks show.

At the western border of the state in Fulton, travelers can view another windmill. The interesting thing is that this is a recent construction. The city of Fulton contracted with a Dutch company to build the structure. The parts were fabricated in Holland and shipped to Illinois, where they were assembled in 1999. Today, the mill grinds wheat, buckwheat, rye, and cornmeal atop a flood control dike on the Mississippi.

De Immigrant Windmill, Fulton, IL

And now we cross the mightiest river and enter the West.

Lincoln Highway in De Kalb