Around the World: The Lincoln Highway: America’s Original Road Trip
If you feel the need to travel but are pandemic-wary of taking to the skies, take to the road instead. Automobile tourism has been a fact of American life for decades, but this year it has become a most popular option for leisure travelers who are finding – sometimes to their surprise – that getting there can be half the fun.
That’s especially true if you’re just roaming and don’t have to reach a specific destination to attend an event or get the most of a resort booking that provides daily activities. For maximum fun, find a route that has many roadside attractions to keep you entertained while you’re cruising through appealing countryside. For that, the Lincoln Highway might be considered America’s ultimate road trip.
Never heard of the Lincoln Highway? You’re not alone. Some of the people who actually live right on this historic byway can‘t even identify it as such. But the Lincoln Highway is America’s very first transcontinental road, one that has served travelers for more than 100 years. So, driving on the Lincoln Highway is experiencing American history.
Actually, the Lincoln Highway is more like a route of linked sections than a continuous stretch of pavement from coast to coast. Actually, before the Lincoln Highway was built in 1913, the nation had very few paved roads. They were located in major cities, mostly along the east and west coasts. There were virtually no paved roads – and very few packed and 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 had to take the iron horse, and then rely on some sort of horse and buggy rig for local transportation.
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.
It completely re-landscaped the American lifestyle -- so much so that now, a century later, we think nothing of jumping into our automobiles and commuting a hundred miles or so to our work places, or tossing a suitcase in the trunk and heading off to visit friends or family, or enjoy a weekend getaway several hundred miles from home. Not to mention the road trip’s increased popularity as a viable vacation alternative during the pandemic.
Construction of the Lincoln Highway began a road building trend -- or call it a frenzy, if you will -- that added up to our modern cross country traffic jam. The trans-con roadway was conceived of by a daring entrepreneur named Carl Fisher, the man who also happened to build the Indianapolis Speedway and to develop Miami, Florida.
To fund the $10-million Lincoln Highway project, Fisher enlisted help from a consortium of other prominent and wealthy businessmen, some of whom were, not surprisingly, engaged in the automobile industry. Fisher asked auto industry moguls for a donation of one percent of their annual revenues. But men like Henry Joy, president of the Packard Motor Car Company, and Frank Seiberling, president of Goodyear Tires, actually came on board with substantially more than that. Then, Fisher turned to the general public, inviting them to join the highway organization for a five dollar contribution – a fine example of effective grass roots funding.
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 as long as private enterprise built local and long distance roads, the government wouldn’t take responsibility and spend public monies to do so. Perhaps he was right.
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 of the road’s sections were to be graded and packed dirt, or gravel-covered. Paving came much later in 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 too numerous, they were renamed as numbers--as they are still named today.
When road names became numbers, the Lincoln Highway became Route 30 -- which is why some locals don‘t realize they‘re living on or near American motoring history -- THE Lincoln Highway. They may also have lost track of the road’s origins and significance because the routing has actually been slightly relocated several times.
As mentioned, the Lincoln Highway was conceived of and constructed to be a bee line across the United States rather than to intersect with or connect between major cities along the way. So, 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, it goes nowhere near Indianapolis, the state’s capital and home of Mr. Fisher’s famous speedway.
Perhaps it’s this quirky routing that has allowed for long stretches of the Lincoln Highway/Route 30 to remain largely unchanged by the years and undisturbed by 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 the stretches are now paved and well maintained, of course. They are lined with some of the roadway’s original buildings, signage and sites, which are all considered heritage attraction and are lovingly cared for by proud local chapters of the nonprofit Lincoln Highway Association.
The route is quite easy to follow. It 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 originally 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’re not up for a drive from coast to coast, you can choose a section of the Lincoln Highway as a vacation destination. Pick one of the states and explore its expanse of the Lincoln Highway. But once you’ve begun this exploratory road trip, don’t be surprised if you find yourself yearning to see it all. It’s pure Americana!
For more information about the Lincoln Highway, news from state chapters and lists of events to celebrate the Lincoln Highway’s history, visit the Lincoln Highway Association’s Website at www.lincolnhighwayassoc.org, or contact the official tourist offices of each of the Lincoln Highway states.
By the way, even if you don’t own a car, road trips are attractively affordable because car rental agencies are currently offering deeply discounted rates in order to drum up business. If you’re concerned about contagion, you can do your own deep clean before sitting in the driver’s seat.