The Lincoln Highway: Main Street across America is the story of America’s first transcontinental highway. When complete the Lincoln Highway spanned the continent from Times Square in New York City 3,389 miles west to Lincoln Park in the northwesternmost point of San Francisco. The Lincoln Highway served as a model for modern highway construction for many years after its completion. Writer and photographer Drake Hokanson has traveled 20,000 miles on the Lincoln Highway over the course of several summers. His travels and research are well documented in this book.
The story starts with Hoosier auto pioneer Carl Graham Fisher, who proposed the idea of
a transcontinental highway to a gathering of leading of Indianapolis automobile manufacturers in September 1912. His idea was to provide the basic road-building materials with the communities along the route furnishing the labor and machinery. His dream was for the highway to be finished in time for 25,000 autos to cross the continent for the Panama-Pacific Exposition in 1915. Prior to this time, less than 7 percent of the nation’s roads were improved in any fashion. Within 30 days of his announcement, Fisher had a $1 million in pledges. In December 1912, Fisher received a letter and a pledge from Henry B. Joy, president of Packard Motor Car Company. The letter encouraged Fisher to “Let good roads be built in the name of Abraham Lincoln.” In July 1913, Joy was elected president with Fisher as vice-president of the new Lincoln Highway Association.
The most immediate need of the association was a route across the nation. The association had determined that three factors would govern the choice of the route.
- The directness between New York and San Francisco.
- The proximity of population centers and points of scenic interest.
- The “amount and character” of support afforded the association by communities along the way.
The proposed route announced in August, crossed 12 states: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California.
By early 1914, Joy proposed that the association fund and oversee the construction of “seedling miles” as a step in the process of educating communities about the benefits of concrete roads. The first seedling mile was completed near De Kalb, Illinois in the fall of 1914. The ball was rolling with this first tangible permanent improvement undertaken by the Lincoln Highway Association.
The Lincoln Highway Association was barely two years old when groups of travelers set out on their cross-country journeys to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Two of the more well-known groups included Emily Post and Henry B. Joy. The late spring of 1915 was one of the wettest anybody in the Midwest could remember. One chapter in the book documents the trials and experiences of these groups as they proceeded on their trip. In due time, both of these groups made it to their destination. Post documented her experiences in her 1917 book By Motor to the Golden Gate. It is estimated that five to ten thousand autos drove the Lincoln Highway to the fair in 1915.
In July 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the Federal Aid Road Act. This act provided money for highway construction and improvement. By the time the United States entered World War I, the Lincoln Highway was popular and passable. The seedling mile program ended in 1919 with exemplary miles built in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Nebraska, and Ohio. The public no longer needed convincing about the value of good roads.
On July 7, 1919, the first Army Transcontinental Motor Convoy launched from the White House. This reliability test of men and machine traveled toward the Lincoln Highway and onward to San Francisco. One of the participants on the trip was Lieutenant Colonel Dwight D. Eisenhower who would later utilize the experiences of the convoy to encourage the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, which created the Eisenhower Interstate System.
The Federal Highway Numbering System of 1925 dealt a near-fatal blow to named highways like the Lincoln Highway and other highways across the Nation. All federal highways would be identified by a federal shield including the highway number. Route markers and signs for named highways were removed. The Lincoln Highway was designated by seven federal highway numbers. In the fall of 1926, the board of directors of the Lincoln Highway Association voted to cease operations at the end of 1927. In the summer of 1928, the last official of the Association was granted permission to erect markers along the route as a memorial to Abraham Lincoln.
Currently Interstate 80, part of the Eisenhower Interstate System, is the single superhighway that connects New York City and San Francisco. Its 2,906 miles offers uninterrupted travel across the continent. A dream that would have satisfied the founders of the Lincoln Highway Association.
Today remnants of the Lincoln Highway are scattered across the country. Original stretches of the two-lane highway meander across the landscape close to the federal highways and the interstate that took over the duties of the long forgotten Lincoln. Numerous communities also still have roads named “Lincoln Way” or “Lincoln Highway,” that remain along the original route.
The author gives us an idea what it was like crossing the Lincoln Highway in the early days. He shows us photographs of establishments and scenery along the way. He also gives us an idea of what we might find if we retraced the route today.
The Lincoln Highway: Main Street across America provides an excellent account of the highway, the people behind the story, and its place in American automotive history. More than 106 photographs in the book cover the progression of the highway past and present. Separate accounts cover the key characters and events along the way. The author’s keen interest and knowledge comes through. Hokanson does an outstanding job of relating the history and experience of the Lincoln Highway past and present.
The Lincoln Highway: Main Street across America, Drake Hokanson, Iowa
City, IA, University of Iowa Press, © 1999, ISBN: 0-87745-676-3
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