On September 10, 1913 Henry Joy, President of the Lincoln Highway Association, announced the selection of a route for a proposed coast-to-coast improved and paved highway that would stretch from New York City’s Times Square to Lincoln Park in San Francisco. Just over a month later the route would be dedicated as a memorial to Abraham Lincoln on his birthday even though not an inch of new pavement had been laid down.
The highway was the brainchild of Carl Fisher, an innovative automotive pioneer who made his fortune manufacturing the compressed gas headlamps then used on most American cars. He also owned and managed the Indianapolis Speedway—The Brickyard where auto racing was both fascinating the public and advancing technical capacities of autos. Fisher realized that a truly mass market for cars and trucks would never take off until an effective road system made point to point travel convenient, comfortable, and inexpensive.
In 1913 there was no highway system in America and very few improved roads of any kind outside of urban areas. Roads emanated from towns and cities like spokes linking them to near-by towns or markets. Most were unimproved dirt roads, many only one lane. Road bridges over major rivers often did not exist at all and cars were often expected to ford smaller streams. To get from one place to another, a motorist had to figure out a maze of local roads—even modern road maps did not yet exist—and risk rough, bone shaking roads that were often impassable in rain or snow.Many U.S. roads were nearly impassable in wet conditions making long distance automobile traffic an adventure and an ordeal.
Fisher proposed to create a cross country highway by linking together the best and most direct local roads and improving them by grading and the application of crushed rock or paving. Local and state governments would be responsible for construction and improvement in their jurisdictions using materials paid for or provided to be paid for by funds chipped in by the auto industry that stood to benefit from increased traffic and administered by a private national organization. Fisher proposed raising $10 million for the project.
He first approached the biggest fish of all, Henry Ford. But Ford refused to sign on. He believed that road building was the obligation of the government and that if private business funded roads, the government would never meet its obligations. Fisher even recruited Ford’s close friends Thomas Edison and President Woodrow Wilson to try and get the industrialist to reconsider but they failed.
Undaunted Fisher sought and received the backing of other industry leaders including Goodyear Rubber President Frank Seiberling and Henry Joy, President of the Packard Motor Car Company.
Joy was the most enthusiastic backer. He came up with the idea of naming the proposed route the Lincoln Highway as a way of building public support. At Fisher’s urging Joy wrote to Congress to suggest that $1.7 million they were considering spending on a marble monument to the martyred president in Washington might be better spent on the road. They didn’t get the money, but they did raise considerable public interest in the project.
Impressed by Joy’s efforts, Fisher encouraged him to become the head and public face of the project. On July 1, 1913 the Lincoln Highway Association was formed with Joy as President and Fisher as vice-president. Joy took management control of the project while Fisher undertook a trip from Indianapolis west to supposedly scout possible routes. Fisher went through the relatively populous states of Kansas and Colorado and convinced their governors to join others in supporting the road.
But Joy had other ideas. He wanted to drive the route straight west on as level a route as possible. He tried to avoid congested urban areas and ignored jogs that would take the road to scenic attractions including National Parks. He reasoned that such a route would be easier and cheaper to build, encourage more long distance travel, and that state and local governments would been encouraged to build good roads from major cities and attractions to connect with the trans-continental route.The final route of the Lincoln Highway and feeder roads.
And that is just what Joy unveiled to the governors, some of whom were not happy. The governors of Colorado and Kansas were shocked to discover that the road missed their states and roughly followed the Union Pacific Railroad route from Omaha through Nebraska and Wyoming. Cities in northern Ohio were miffed and Utah wanted to direct the route southwest to Los Angeles instead of San Francisco.
But the organizers pressed on. They raised more money, but soon realized that they would not be able to fund the original plan. By 1914 they had raised only half of the originally targeted $10 and fresh contributions were drying up.
Joy decided to redirect the association to a new goal of educating the country for the need for good roads paved with concrete and the improved Lincoln Highway as an example. The Association would use its funds to oversee the construction of concrete demonstration or ideal miles along the route to emphasize the superiority of concrete over unimproved dirt figuring that as people learned about the advantage of modern pavement, they would press their governments to construct good roads.A Lincoln Highway Demonstration Mile under construction. Horse drawn graters, wagons, and other heavy equipment and plenty of hand labor were the norm.
Over the next several years the plan worked. Not only did the demonstration miles whet the public appetite, but they also helped develop techniques and train local contractors how to proceed. Slowly, portions of the road were being completed. But for many years unimproved gaps along the route persisted.
The route itself was also tinkered with either to increase local support or to improve the efficiency of the route. An attempt to mollify Colorado with a dog leg to Denver backfired as other cities demanded similar consideration. Utah authorities insisted on driving the route straight west from Salt Lake City across a vast wasteland of the daunting Bonneville Salt Flats, mostly to encourage drivers to take their favored southwestern route to Los Angeles which would keep travelers—and their dollars—in the state longer.Even after construction there were problems. In Utah these heavy salt wagons heavily rutted the new road and blocked or slowed auto traffic.
The Highway Association thought it was getting a boost in 1916 when a Federal Highway Act was passed authorizing millions of dollars of grants to states for road construction and improvement. But states were allowed to apply their share to any roads. Although Lincoln Highway sections got some funds, many states decided to use their entire allotment on urban roads, connectors between their principal cities, or even rural farm-to-market road improvements. World War I dried up road improvement funds. The Federal Highway of 1921 mirrored the 1916 act but required the states to identify 7 percent of its total mileage as primary and only those roads would be eligible for federal funds. States through which the Lincoln Highway passed usually allocated the bulk of their funds to completing the road.
But there was competition. The success of the Lincoln Highway inspired a spate of similar named highway schemes. These included Yellowstone Trail, National Old Trails Road, Dixie Highway, Jefferson Highway, Bankhead Highway, Jackson Highway, Meridian Highway, and Victory Highway. Like the Lincoln Highway they were made up of sections of existing roads. In some urban areas two or more named highways used the same route. The highways routes were identified by colored bands painted on phone poles and sometimes cement mile markers.
To overcome confusion, pressure grew through the 1920’s to develop a national highway system with systematically numbered routes. The Lincoln Highway Association supported the move but used its considerable influence to make sure its route was not broken up into many different numbered sections. In 1925 the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO) started planning a federal highway system. All named roads were ignored in their planning. That November, the Federal Government approved AASHO's plan, which set up the now-familiar U.S. highway system.
While Lincoln Highway officials would have preferred a single numerical designation for the length of the road, they did not fare too badly. For about ¾ of its entire distance—from Philadelphia to western Wyoming—it was designated U.S. 30. The roughly north-south leg from New York to Philadelphia was assigned to U.S. 1. The relatively short stretch from western Wyoming to Salt Lake City was U.S. 530. From Salt Lake to the Nevada border and again across California it was U.S. 40. In between, across Nevada, it was U.S. 50.
Rules for the new system decreed that all road signs and markers designating named roads would have to be taken down. They would be replaced by standard markers, white shields with the highway designation in black letters.A surviving Lincoln Highway cement marker.
The Lincoln Highway Association was loathe to abandon its hard fought identity. Although they removed old markers and signs, they designed new cement markers featuring an inset bronze medallion with a bust of Lincoln and the inscription, “this highway dedicated to the memory of Abraham Lincoln.” The markers were also painted with red and blue horizontal stripes with a large capital L in between.
On September 1, 1928 thousands of Boy Scouts and members of civic organizations were recruited to erect the markers, about one each mile—at least in populated areas.
With the road essentially complete, continuing identity assured, and future maintenance in the hands of Federal and State authorities, the Lincoln Highway Association officially dissolved.
While the memory of other named roads faded, the fame of the Lincoln Highway as the first transcontinental route and because of some of those memorial markers endured. Particularly in the west many motels, roadside cafes, gas stations and other business incorporated the name of the road. States and municipalities promoted tourism by promoting the route.
Through the 1930’s major sections of the route were upgraded under the Works Projects Administration (WPA).The Lincoln Monument atop Sherman Hill between Cheyenne and Laramie marked the highest elevation on the route and commemorated the Lincoln Highway.
I was present as a boy in 1959 when the Lincoln Highway was commemorated with a huge bronze bust of Lincoln on a towering native granite pedestal on the summit of Sherman Hill, the high point of the route along U.S. 30 between Cheyenne and Laramie Wyoming.
Ten years later, in 1969, the statue had to be moved a half mile to accommodate the new, much wider, Interstate 80 that continued to follow much of the path of the original Main Street of America.