Lincoln Highway, the first (attempt at a) transcontinental US highway
July 17, 2013 9:55 AM   Subscribe

On July 1, 1913, a group of automobile enthusiasts and industry officials established the Lincoln Highway Association "to procure the establishment of a continuous improved highway from the Atlantic to the Pacific, open to lawful traffic of all description without toll charges," and to be a lasting memorial to Abraham Lincoln. The Lincoln Highway efforts started about three years before the first federal road act would provide funding to states to improve the broad network of roads. Never officially finished, the first transcontinental highway eventually became renumbered as various interstate and US routes. To celebrate its centennial, there was a cross-country tour in June.

It all started with one man, Carl G. Fisher, who was influential in the creation of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The speedway was initially designed a vehicle testing facility as there were few good roads in Indianapolis.

Fisher's first idea for a transcontinental road was called the Coast-to-Coast Rock Highway, as it was to be a graveled road that would run from New York City to San Francisco. He wanted the route completed for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition, which would be held in San Francisco. The cost for materials alone would be $10 million, with labor and machinery to be paid for by towns and counties along the route (Google books preview). The money would come from pledges of 1% gross revenues from manufacturers of automobiles and auto accessories, and members of the general public subscribing to an annual membership of $5. Fisher had big hopes that Henry Ford would help out in, but Ford declined. He had his Secretary respond to the LHA’s request for funds thusly:
“Frankly the writer is not very favorably disposed to the plan, because as long as private interests are willing to build good roads for the general public, the general public will not be very interested in building good roads for itself. I believe in spending money to educate the public to the necessity of building good roads, and let everybody contribute their share in proper taxes.”
But another automobile company president did help out. Henry B. Joy, president of Packard Motor Cars, was the one to name the transcontinental road, and became its champion.

The Lincoln Highway Association began promoting the Lincoln Highway from its first day. A "Trail-Blazer" tour of 17 cars and 2 trucks left Indianapolis for San Francisco. The tour included a number of reporters from newspapers, and telegraph companies. It took 36 days to reach the coast of California, after days filled with boiling radiators, flat tires, broken axles and enthusiastic receptions in every community along the way that thought it had a chance of being included on the route. (Google cache; original PDF)

Joy pushed for a more direct route, not deviating for major cities. The Lincoln Highway would start in Times Square in New York City and would run through New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California, where it would end in Lincoln Park in San Francisco, not going through Kansas or Colorado, as Fisher and previously promised. But without significant funding, the major road project stalled before construction started.

With the limited funding, the efforts shifted from a complete gravel road to concrete "seedling" miles, upgrading dirt roads to paved streets to display the superiority of such modern roadways. To further extend the efforts of the Lincoln Highway, existing routes were brought under the umbrella of the highway. Over the next several years, some kinks in the highway were straightened out. But in Utah, west of Salt Lake City, the Goodyear cutoff was never completed, to keep people traveling through Utah (though through the desert), the Arrowhead Trail was promoted by Utah, taking travelers south-west, through Las Vegas, Nevada on their way to Los Angeles, California.

The end of the Lincoln Highway came with the transition from named highways to numbered routes. The last major act of the LHA was to coordinate with Boy Scout troops along the route to get small concrete markers installed along the route, at an average of about one per mile, with a small bust of Lincoln and the inscription "This highway dedicated to Abraham Lincoln."

You don't have to be part of any official tour to re-trace the Lincoln Highway. The LHA website has a marked up Google map with the route, and there's a Wikipedia page on the route of the Lincoln Highway that details the modern route and has some notes on past realignments. If you want to get proper old-timey, here is The Complete Official Road Guide of The Lincoln Highway (second edition from 1916 on Google books; third edition from 1918 on

Parting notes:
You can visit (one of the) last seedling miles of concrete road in Grand Island, Nebraska, near Seedling Mile Elementary School (Google Maps).

Carl Fisher later creating the city of Miami Beach and the Montauk settlement on the eastern tip of Long Island, N.Y., but he lost everything and faded to historical footnote.

For some context, here is Good Roads Magazine, Jan. 1907 - Progress of State Aid in the United States:
The tax of bad roads, or, as it is sometimes called, the "mud tax," is levied on all alike, the rich man as well as the poor man, the man who lives in the country as well as the man who lives in the city, the producer as well as the consumer.
Another tangent from Good Roads Magazine, Sept. 1908: the other proposed Lincoln Highway, an earlier effort to connect the City of Washington to Gettysburg, Pa.
posted by filthy light thief (33 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
Ha! Thanks so much for this! I was literally just thinking about reading up on the Lincoln Highway the other day after looking at a book on US Historic Trails! Happy coincidence and great post!

Of similar interest is the Ken Burns film Horatios Drive about a guy who drove across the country in 1903...
posted by jnnla at 10:03 AM on July 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

A lot of the Lincoln Highway route in NJ still carries the name. How neat!
posted by asperity at 10:05 AM on July 17, 2013

Today I learned that Chicago's Lincoln Avenue (which is... or sadly was... populated with motels which became seedy because it was the entrance/exit of the city until it wasn't anymore) had nothing to do with the Lincoln Highway - something I would have bet the farm on up until 10 minutes ago.

(Thanks for this post. It totally makes up for the whole Corey Feldman song being in my head all day yesterday.)
posted by MCMikeNamara at 10:06 AM on July 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Sorry, but a Lincoln highway should run North and South.
posted by resurrexit at 10:14 AM on July 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

I heard about it this morning on NPR, and wanted to know more. There's a ton of history that they didn't squeeze into the short segment about Europeans touring the Lincoln Highway.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:17 AM on July 17, 2013

Love these old named highways.

I drove US 20 (in some states, the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial Highway, complete with signs.) coast-to-coast a few years back.

Sounds like I should do the Lincoln Highway next. It's unfortunate that large portions have become Interstate. The same thing happed to Route 66.
The price of being successful, I suppose.
posted by madajb at 10:18 AM on July 17, 2013

No, a Lincoln Highway should divide the country into North and South. Or it should promote the union, or something. I'd say a national highway would be a success on that front.

I didn't see this addressed--is this how the Lincoln Tunnel from NYC to NJ got its name?
posted by postel's law at 10:18 AM on July 17, 2013

My father-in-law (b. 1919 (?) in Oklahoma) used to say "It's like the Lincoln Highway in here!" to mean either "there's a lot of traffic" or "they're going really fast".

For years I thought but never said, "What 'Lincoln Highway'? Does he mean the Lincoln Tunnel? Or maybe some random highway that ran from Oklahoma to Lincoln, Nebraska when he was growing up?"

It wasn't until after he'd passed on and the Information Highway was paved that I discovered that there actually was such a thing -- on US30 around these parts, right under my nose but apparently in one of my blind spots.

The subject came up again recently -- and now thanks to you and him, we have a ton of reading to do.

Thanks for all research, Thief.
posted by Herodios at 10:21 AM on July 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

I spent over a decade on or near the Lincoln Highway since it's the main drag of good ol' DeKalb, Ilinois.
posted by FelliniBlank at 10:34 AM on July 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

My home town of Ames, IA has the Lincoln Highway going right through it.

This was published a couple weeks ago discussing the stretch of it through Iowa. Check out the Model-T in the photograph halfway down the page.
posted by mcstayinskool at 10:55 AM on July 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Once on a family vacation I attempted to drive across the country with my kids on the Lincoln Highway, anticipating tons of interesting, quirky historical fun. After encountering the second speed trap outside Marshalltown, Iowa (after being nabbed by IL troopers outside Dixon) I gave it up for the convenience of 80. It's still a dream, but without bored tweens/teens.

As Sammy Hagar reminds us, it is difficult to drive 55 (or less).

Thanks for the post.
posted by readery at 10:59 AM on July 17, 2013

I'm now reading more about Alma Rittenberry (see the transition-from-names-to-numbers link) -- fascinating stuff. And who wouldn't want an obit like this?
When Miss Rittenberry died in 1930, her sister Mary said, "To her, life was a rainbow of hope with the proverbial pot of gold at the end. She was impulsive and quick tempered, but ever true to her better self. Capable and honest, she hated sham and to the end she remained the Captain of her own soul."
posted by asperity at 11:00 AM on July 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

I live on this highway, in the town of Paradise in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. It is frequented by Amish buggies. I love living here. :)
posted by DWRoelands at 11:18 AM on July 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

I didn't see this addressed--is this how the Lincoln Tunnel from NYC to NJ got its name?

You mean the Midtown Vehicular Tunnel?
"It was named after Abraham Lincoln," noted Gillespie, who teaches American Studies. "It was originally called the Midtown Vehicular Tunnel but the planners felt that they had to give a title to the new tunnel that was parallel to the importance of the George Washington Bridge. So it was put on equal footing with both being named for famous presidents."
This fits into the fact that there are a TON of places named Lincoln, and few are related to the old Lincoln Highway.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:35 AM on July 17, 2013

I too lived on Lincoln Highway (Wayne, Exton and Downingtown, PA) for part of my adolescent life and some how ended up at its western end in San Francisco for most of my adult life.
posted by alamedarchy at 11:55 AM on July 17, 2013

I spent my youth along the route as well, in Cheyenne, WY.
posted by scottymac at 12:00 PM on July 17, 2013

The town I live in has several different alignments of the Lincoln Highway running through it, up to and including current US 30. Just to the west in the small town of Colo, the Jefferson Highway (currently US 65) crosses as well.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 12:16 PM on July 17, 2013

The Great Platte River Road Archway Museum in Nebraska has an excellent exhibit of the Lincoln Highway with a recreated 1910s motor camp of the type that was springing up all over the country at the time. I have a couple of pictures at the end of this post on my blog.
posted by LarryC at 12:18 PM on July 17, 2013

Great post. I saw the aforementioned PBS show on the highway, and that made me think driving it would be a fun vacation. I love road tripping.
posted by azpenguin at 12:20 PM on July 17, 2013

The Lincoln Monument is the highest point along the highway, located between Cheyenne and Laramie, Wyoming.
posted by jazon at 12:20 PM on July 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Your Google Maps link to the last seedling mile drops on the right street, but in a part of it that has been paved over with asphalt. The last bit of original uncovered concrete road is a little stub across I-30, between the freeway and the rail lines. There's a plaque, which you can read.

This is an incredible post. A ton of work about a worthy subject. Kudos!
posted by Fnarf at 12:32 PM on July 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Thanks, Fnarf!
posted by filthy light thief at 12:41 PM on July 17, 2013

a good part of the original s bend/mishawaka/elkhart route is still called lincoln way and i've actually driven past the "ideal mile" marker in dyer ind on my way to merrillville
posted by pyramid termite at 1:03 PM on July 17, 2013

Interestingly, these same people went on to organize Hands Across America.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 1:12 PM on July 17, 2013

I had a good time going along the Lincoln Highway/Route 30 in Pennsylvania last September. There's a fair amount of weird you can see there, including and especially Mr. Ed's Elephant Museum. There's also a movie, but I have yet to get to it in my Netflix queue.

Then I came back home to CA and finally noticed those "Lincoln Highway" signs and was all um, what is this? Now I know!
posted by jenfullmoon at 1:21 PM on July 17, 2013

As Sammy Hagar reminds us, it is difficult to drive 55 (or less).
During the early years, a trip from the Atlantic to the Pacific on the Lincoln Highway was, according to the LHA's 1916 Official Road Guide, "something of a sporting proposition." The LHA estimated the trip would take 20 to 30 days, but that assumed the motorist could average a driving time of 18 miles an hour.
Equipment needed included chains, a shovel (medium size), axe, jacks, tire casings and inner tubes, a set of tools, and, of course, 1 pair of Lincoln Highway Penants. In view of the mud the motorist could expect to travel through, the guide offered one bit of practical advice without further comment: "Don't wear new shoes."
Sammy doesn't realize how good he has it.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:27 PM on July 17, 2013

Driving the old fashioned way is still possible ie. camping out and taking offbeat backroads. It's really the most fun way to travel the US. Few do it. It's about the journey not the destination, a cliche but accurate. Driving the Lincoln today coast to coast is sort of missing the point if your staying in hotels and doing it in 7 days.
posted by stbalbach at 2:20 PM on July 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

I know. I just think of how much more of the country you'd see if you were stuck traveling 18 miles an hour. But it feels slow enough going from 55 to 35 miles per hour through some rural communities. In short, we're spoiled.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:45 PM on July 17, 2013

The hospital where I was born is on Lincoln Highway.
posted by double block and bleed at 4:53 PM on July 17, 2013

The hospital where I was born is on the Dixie Highway!
posted by gjc at 8:26 PM on July 17, 2013

I was wanting to make a post like this for the Lincoln Highway on the first day of the anniversary tour, but couldn't focus long enough to do it justice (thanks, ADD). I'm glad somebody else did. Great post.
posted by TrialByMedia at 9:07 PM on July 17, 2013

At a previous job I had to spend some interminable number of weeks on site visits in about 35 cities in Nebraska.

US-30, which is the Lincoln Highway through the whole state save Omaha, is pretty much Main Street in any city of consequence in Nebraska. I-80 is faster - hell, so are the freight trains that run parallel - but it is still hugely important to the state.
posted by OHSnap at 2:07 AM on July 18, 2013

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