Friday, November 1, 2013

The Lincoln Highway

One hundred years ago yesterday, The Lincoln Highway was dedicated as the first transcontinental automobile route across the United States running from Time Square in New York City to Lincoln Park in San Francisco.  The popularity of the auto grew rapidly during the first decade of the century (and Henry Ford was about to open his first Model T moving assembly line on December 1, 1913) but the state of the nation's roads was dismal.  Although a Good Roads Movement had started in the 1870s, led by bicyclists, most roads outside urban areas (and America was much less urbanized than today) remain unimproved (that is, ungraded) dirt roads that were nearly impassable in bad weather and dirty, dusty and bumpy the rest of the time.

In 1912 there were approximately 2.2 million miles of rural roads in America of which only about 190,000 miles (less than 9%) were graded and covered with gravel, macadam or concrete.  At that time the Federal Government had no responsibility to maintain roads, nor did most states.  To the extent government undertook road construction and maintenance it was at the local and county level and much of the unimproved rural network was privately built.

The Lincoln Highway was conceived by Carl G Fisher (1874-1939), an Indiana businessman who began his career as a bicycle shop owner and later ran Prest-O-Lite, a manufacturer of carbide gas headlights, which he sold to Union Carbide in 1913, and was also one of the primary investors in the newly opened Indianapolis Motor Speedway.(Fisher)

Fisher's original idea was for the Coast To Coast Rock Highway, for which he would raise ten million dollars in private funds to provide materials to local communities who would take responsibility for construction.  He was unable to raise the funds, the key impediment being the refusal of Henry Ford to contribute as he believed government should be paying for road construction, although he did succeed in getting large contributions from the presidents of Goodyear and Packard Motor Company and they founded the Lincoln Highway Association.                                         (Lincoln Highway near Everett PA)

With less funding the original plans were scaled back to designating the route of the highway and funding selected improvements.  The task was formidable given the state of the roads.  On July 1, 1913 a convoy of 17 cars and 2 trucks set out from Indianapolis to determine the best route to the West Coast.  Thirty four days later the vehicles reached San Francisco.

The official route, 3,389 miles through twelve states, and only half of it paved in any form, was announced later that summer and it was named after President Abraham Lincoln, the first national monument named after the president, the Lincoln Memorial not being dedicated until 1922.

Much of the route remained unimproved for years.  In 1919 the famous US Army Motor Transport Corps convoy followed the Lincoln Highway for most of its two month trek from Washington DC to San Francisco.   The convoy consisted of 81 vehicles and 282 officers and enlisted men including a young Lieutenant Colonel, Dwight D Eisenhower, who thirty-five years later as President would initiate the Interstate Highway System. (Army  Convoy)
During its journey, there were 230 road incidents (repairs, accidents), nine vehicles were disabled and 21 soldiers injured.  On only four days did the convoy exceed an average speed of 9 mph.  An estimated 3 million people watched the expedition pass by.
(Lincoln Highway, Wyoming 1920)

The Lincoln Highway was the first named highway but it inspired many more during the next few years which encouraged motoring but caused great confusion among motorists.  Resolution occurred in 1925 when the American Association of State Highway Officials, with the support of the Lincoln Highway Association and the approval of the United States Secretary of Agriculture created the numbered highway system that is still in use today.

With the numbering system in place, the Lincoln Highway Association disbanded in 1927 (it was refounded in the 1992 and you can find its website here).  Most of the route of the Lincoln Highway became part of US 30 (although the road was been rerouted over time so that only about 25% of today's US 30 follows the old Lincoln Highway).  The initial section in New York and New Jersey largely follows US 1 while much of the Highway west of the Rockies became the original US 40 and 50.

For more information see:
Lincoln Highway Association
Lincoln Highway in Wyoming
Lincoln Highway in Nevada 
Lincoln Highway in Nebraska 
Lincoln Highway in Indiana
Lincoln Highway in Illinois  
Lincoln Highway in Iowa

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