Lincoln Highways stretches across the entire U.S.
I first heard of the Lincoln Highway when I was in grade school. It was the theme of our elementary school geography book. The class took an imaginary trip across the United States on the historic roadway. We learned about the eastern states, the central states, the western states, et cetera. At the time, I thought the Lincoln Highway was a fictional creation of the textbook publisher, Houghton-Mifflin. Many years went by before I learned that the Lincoln Highway was an actual highway. Ever since I learned that, I have wanted a copy of that old textbook for myself. I have never been able to learn the exact name of that text nor have I been able to obtain a copy. However, I have been able to learn about the highway's 3,400-mile-long history.
The Lincoln Highway is the first transcontinental highway in the United States. It still exists today. In addition to it serving its function as a roadway, it serves as a tourist attraction, and it served as a stimulus for governmental expenditures for highway improvements.
Paved roads date back to ancient of times. The movement to pave roads in the United States came before the automobile. The movement grew out of the invention and popularity of the bicycle. The 1908 mass production of the Ford Model-T bolstered the demand for more and better paved roads.
In 1912, the United States had few paved roads. Those roads that were paved passed mostly through the centers of towns. The roads connecting city to city were unpaved; muddy when wet and dusty when dry. The popularity of automobiles was beginning to influence decision makers.
In 1912, a group of automobile industrialists, led by Carl G. Fisher, formed the Lincoln Highway Association. The association chose the patriotic name Lincoln to garner support for the concept of a cross-country highway. Fisher had created the Indianapolis Speedway, paved the speedway with brick in 1911, and, in 1911, inaugurated the Indianapolis 500. Fisher, already a multi-millionaire, wanted the cross-country highway built because he felt the nation needed it. The Lincoln Highway Association proposed to create a road from the Atlantic to the Pacific, open to all travelers, toll free.
In September 1913, the association published a proposed route. The published route passed through twelve states; New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California. States and communities wanted the associates to include their state or community in this still paper highway. Over the years, events and time have caused many changes to the proposed and actual route.
The Lincoln Highway, in 1913, was nothing more than a line on a map connecting some paved, but mostly dirt, roads from Times Square, New York City with Lincoln Park, San Francisco; about 3,400 miles. The Lincoln Highway itself, in 1913, was the same succession of mud-holes, or dust bowls, depending on the season, interrupted by an occasional paved or graveled segment of roadway that existed before the Lincoln Highway Association connected them by drawing a line on a map.
The Lincoln Highway Association knew that it could not afford to build the broad boulevard that it had envisioned. Instead, the association constructed "seedling miles" of concrete in a variety of western locations. The hope was that the "seedling miles" would inspire local, state, and federal governments to build the desired highway. Some of these "seedling miles" still exist as relics. Modern roadways have buried some. Others are totally gone.
In Nebraska, there is a school located on and named in honor of a seedling mile. It is the Seedling Mile Elementary School in the City of Grand Island,
By 1916, the nation was in a patriotic fervor and the red, white, and blue colors of the Lincoln Highway emblem were much a part of the fervor. Local governments had made improvements on those portions of the Lincoln Highway that passed through their communities. It was in 1916 that the Lincoln Highway Association realized its first major success. The federal government passed a bill, albeit a weak one, providing matching funds for highway improvements. The Lincoln Highway Association had accomplished its goal; governments on all levels were providing funds for improving the nation's roads and highways.
On July 7, 1919, Harry Ostermann, field secretary of the Lincoln Highway Association, led a military convoy on a sixty-two day, 3,310-mile, cross-country trip on the Lincoln Highway. The soldiers became experienced at driving and repairing their vehicles. They learned to get their vehicles out of streams because many bridges failed under the weight of the equipment. A twenty-nine-year-old, lieutenant colonel, named Dwight D. Eisenhower volunteered to accompany the trip.
When the provisions of the 1916 act expired, the federal government passed the Federal Highway Act of 1921. The 1921 act had more stringent requirements than the 1916 act. A fair share of the funds made available went towards improving the nation's now beloved Lincoln Highway.
By 1921, there were hundreds of named roads, each with its own color code. You've seen the confusing array of route numbers at certain locations. Imagine if, instead of numbers, you saw highway names; some short, like Lincoln Highway; others long, like Memorial to Daughters and Sons of Republic of Texas Highway. In 1925, the federal government inaugurated a system for numbering federal highways; east west roads were to be even numbered; north south routes were to be odd numbered. The lowest numbers would be in the north and east. The interstate system of the 1950s was numbered similarly but, to avoid confusion, the lowest numbers were in the west and south.
Eisenhower's presence with the military convoy of 1919 and his knowledge of World War II's speedy German troop movements on the autobahn has affected each of us. Eisenhower understood the need of our current interstate highway system for national defense. In 1954, Eisenhower announced his Grand Plan for a national highway system. Two years later, he signed the Interstate Highway Act of 1956.
The Lincoln Highway still crosses the United States. The road is alive. Its roadways and bridges deteriorate, and are repaired, replaced, or improved. Its routes change. The Lincoln Highway Association ceased its functions in early 1928. A new, historically oriented, Lincoln Highway Association formed to preserve the highway's heritage. The new association still functions.
On a couple of occasions, my wife and I have stayed at a Best Western Hotel in Easton, Pennsylvania. The hotel's address is Lincoln Highway. Another year, we stayed in a Motel 6 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, "Dutch Country." Again, the motel has a Lincoln Highway address. We drove west on the Lincoln Highway through several cities and towns, including Gettysburg, the historic battlefield that we had visited on previous occasions without previously noticing the historic highway.
After a couple of hours of passing through the center of multiple towns, the trip became tiresome. When we reached the Allegheny Mountains, and, after driving up and down three mountain ridges, we reverted to the appropriately named "The Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways."
A major accomplishment of the ancient Roman Empire is the roadway system they built connecting the far corners of the empire to Rome. The empire built the roadways to promote commerce and for military defense. Eisenhower wanted the United States to build the superhighway system for the same reasons; to promote commerce and for military defense.
I doubt if I ever will cross the entire country on the Lincoln Highway but it is nice to know the highway is still there.