The Lincoln Highway, America’s original coast-to-coast interstate roadway, features scenic wonders, historic attractions and wonderful close encounters with oh-so-many down home communities. It’s the quintessential American road trip, and the best part of it is that you can travel it in stages, starting on either coast or right in the heart of the nation.
Never heard of the Lincoln Highway? You’re not alone. Some of the people who actually reside right on this historic byway can‘t identify it as such because almost every stretch of it has a local street name, and that’s what locals call it. And, what a pity that is! They are missing their very own backyard is a slice of Americana.
The Lincoln Highway dates back to 1913. And, it’s more like a route of connected sections that form a thruway across the continental USA. Before the Lincoln Highway took shape, the nation had very few paved--or even packed and graded roads--and those were located in major cities, mostly along the east and west coasts. But there were virtually no paved and few graded roads in between, so if you wanted to travel from a coastal city to an interior town or from city to city in America’s heartland, you simply had to take the iron horse, and then rely on some sort of horse and buggy rig to get from the train station to a small town destination.
The Lincoln Highway was constructed in a more or less straight line from New York to San Francisco, traversing New Jersey, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and California in between.
From the time it was established, the transcontinental byway has completely re-landscaped the American lifestyle--so much so that now, just about a century later, we don‘t give much thought (except about the cost of gasoline) to driving a hundred miles or more on our daily commute to work.
And, we readily pack a bag, put the kids in the backseat of the car and drive hundreds of miles to visit family and friends or escape for a weekend of sun and surf or mountain sports.
Fact is, the Lincoln Highway began the road building trend--or call it a frenzy, if you will--that added up to our modern cross country traffic jam.
The Lincoln Highway was actually the brainstorm of one daring entrepreneur named Carl Fisher, who also happened to build the Indianapolis Speedway and developed Miami, Florida.
To fund the $10-million Lincoln Highway project, Fisher enlisted help from a consortium of other prominent and wealthy businessmen--many of them engaged in the automobile industry. Most notably Henry Joy, president of the Packard Motor Car Company, and Frank Seiberling, president of Goodyear, came on board with major support--well beyond the one percent of their annual revenues that was initially suggested by Fisher to all auto manufacturers and auto accessory companies. Additionally, the public was invited to join the highway organization for a five dollar contribution.
Ironically, Henry Ford, who’s often credited as the major player in making America
mobile, refused to contribute to Fisher’s scheme--apparently because he felt that if private enterprise built local and long distance roads, the government wouldn’t do so. But Ford certainly benefited from the establishment of the highway, along with other automobile manufacturers. .
According to plan, the Lincoln Highway was to be completed in time for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco.
Initially, the surface of many sections of the road were graded and packed dirt, or gravel-covered. Paving came later to rural areas. But, once the road was complete from coast to coast, its success and instant popularity spurred the construction of other cross country highways which were, eventually, funded by local and federal governments.
It was Henry Joy who came up with the name Lincoln Highway--ostensibly as a memorial tribute to the president who’d united the country, albeit by a rather different process than road building.
Initially, copycat roads were also named for famous people, but by 1925, when highways became ubiquitous, they were identified numerically, as they still are today
The Lincoln Highway became Route 30--which is why some locals don‘t realize they‘re living on or near THE Lincoln Highway. That, and the fact that the actual routing has actually been slightly shifted several times.
As mentioned, the Lincoln Highway was conceived of and constructed to be a bee line across the USA, rather than to intersect with or connect between major cities. Thus, in Indiana, for example, the Lincoln Highway passes through the communities of Fort Wayne, Churubusco, Merriam, Wolf Lake, Kimmell, Ligonier, Benton, Goshen, Elkhart, Osceola, Mishawaka, South Bend, New Carlisle, La Porte, Westville, Valparaiso, Deep River, Merrillville, Schererville and Dyer. But Indianapolis, you’ll note, is not on that list--although it’s the state’s capital and home of Fisher’s famous speedway.
Perhaps it’s just this quirky routing that has allowed for long stretches of the Lincoln Highway/Route 30 to remain largely unchanged by years of use and increasing urban sprawl. These stretches of highway retain an unparalleled nostalgic charm that transports you not only through rural America, but back in time.
Every state that’s traversed by the historic road boasts sections of the original two
lane highway--all of which is now paved, of course. There are stretches still lined with some of the roadway’s original buildings, signage and sites--now maintained by local chapters of the Lincoln Highway Association (a nonprofit historical association) as heritage attractions.
The route is well-marked with red, white and blue pillars that are labeled with a large “L,” and all of the sites along the way--whether they’re vintage motels (or “auto cottages,” as they were then called) or roadside diners or barns decorated with large murals or historic sites--are well-marked, too.
All of the states consider their stretches of Lincoln Highway to be major tourism assets, and provide maps of and brochures about the road. Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois and California feature museums with large collections of fascinating Lincoln Highway memorabilia.
So, even if you don’t want to drive from coast to coast, you can pick a stretch of road – one that’s near , or in one of the traversed states and explore the Lincoln Highway piece by piece. But once you’ve seen a bit of America’s first highway, don’t be surprised if you yearn to see more of it.
One state at a time? That could account for eleven road trips to come (not including New York and West Virginia, which each claim only a few miles of Lincoln Highway and can be covered in a Lincoln Highway trip to New Jersey, Pennsylvania or Ohio, respectively. Traveling the whole stretch of the Lincoln Highway could easily become a family tradition or personal travel obsession.
For more information about the Lincoln Highway and state chapters of the Lincoln Highway Association, visit www.lincolnhighwayassoc.org, or contact official tourist offices of the Lincoln Highway states.