Saturday, June 13, 2009

America’s Road

My quest for good weather continues. I studied the maps and come to the conclusion that there isn’t much of it anywhere. While there are pockets of clear air, I have not found them and they are few. It rained in San Diego this week, and short of a trip to Dallas in the next few days where it will be 100 degrees this weekend, I am left with the grim overcast skies and showers alternating with heavy rains that I have experienced most of the trip.

Since decamping Minnesota in the omnipresent rain, I renewed my quest for the Lincoln Highway to defer trips on Interstates. It lowers my blood pressure and takes the ache out of my shoulders. I have followed it through the western corner of Iowa and all of Nebraska after having seen some of the road in Indiana and Pennsylvania on my way East. Nebraska has kept the road running parallel to Interstate I-80, rather than usurping the original roadbed as is the case in many others places.

Most members of my generation have never heard of the Lincoln Highway unless they live along the route, and few know there were many miles of roads named for individuals. The adoption of the numbering system by Federal Fiat was a response to the naming. When a road was named, a band was painted around telephone poles next to the road. Because many roads often shared the same roadbed for long distances due to local naming preferences, the bands became numerous, and the ability to decide where one was more confusing.

The Lincoln Highway was the first of these named roads. It was conceived in 1917 by Carl Fisher. Carl was a man of big ideas, but once he had one underway, he usually became bored with the project and hired others to finish it. Such was the case with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Once he had built it and paved it in brick he gave it over to others. Before the highway, he would see the value of turning a swamp into a great beach resort. It is now Miami Beach Florida.

In 1912, he recognized that while roads were numerous they led nowhere. They often emerged from cities as spokes of a wheel which would go to the farthest residence. Rarely paved, the 2.5 million miles of roads considered “improved” solely because they were graded. Rarely, they had gravel or brick as a base. It made them impassable in rain or snow and dusty and rutted in good weather. Getting from one town to another was easier on the train.

Carl Fisher wanted to change that. In 1912 he proposed that an improved road be
built from east to west across the continent in time for the for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition to be held in San Francisco. He originally called the idea the Coast to Coast Gravel Highway and asked for a 1% donation from automobile manufacturers and accessory companies. The public could join as well for a five dollar donation.

Carl’s idea ran into immediate difficulty. It was estimated it would cost 10 million dollars to build the road, low even for 1912. Key to his plan was the participation of Henry Ford, the scion of auto manufacturers. Ford reasoned that if the manufacturers started building roads, the public would never fund good roads. Two other men from the auto industry pledged their help. Frank Seiberling, president of Goodyear, and Henry Joy, president of the Packard Motor Car Company. It was Joy who came up with the idea of naming the highway and having it run from Times Square in New York City to Lincoln Park in San Francisco, the site of the Exposition.

Joy was a reluctant partner at first, but he urged Fisher to petition Congress to stop the effort to build the Lincoln Monument and instead apply the funds to the road which he saw as a more lasting tribute. It is hard to imagine the Washington, D.C. Mall had the effort succeeded. Joy became an eager spokesman for the highway and helped officially incorporate the Lincoln Highway Association and he was elected its’ first President.

Fisher meanwhile was busy trying to woo state governors to join the effort. He organized the “Hoosier Tour” which was, he insisted, to explore possible routes. He worked hard to distinguish the tour as only that and to raise money and public interest for the project. While he was at it, unfortunately, in his enthusiasm he virtually assured the Governors of Kansas and Colorado that the route would go through their states. They would soon be disappointed.

It was time to name a route. Fisher had been exceedingly secretive about it for two reasons. First, he wanted to keep interest in the project in it high throughout the country. Second, he had no idea what it would be.

To Henry Joy, the most important thing was directness. By avoiding large cities and scenic attractions a winding narrow, congested road would be avoided. Yet many of those who were committed to funding it disagreed. Under the plan, communities along the route were to receive materials and they would provide the equipment to build it and they would have the notoriety of beingpart of the country's only cross country highway. Joy presented his plan to the annual Conference of Governors in Colorado Springs. It was as direct as it could be. When it left New York, it proceeded in a near straight line though New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and into California. Much to the embarrassment of the host of the Conference, Colorado was not included nor was Iowa. Henry Joy’s influence was clear. Fisher, as was his wont, was once again losing interest as the planning and preparations became more complicated.

Almost immediately, the Association began to receive letters asking for deviations in the route. All were declined, although several “dogleg” routes were eventually built by locals to keep them on the economic map. It also appointed “consuls” to communities as well to try to keep the highway on schedule and on route and answer public inquires.

But there was little of the highway to promote or use. In 1914, Joy decided to change strategies when the fundraising stalled at 5 million dollars and Henry Ford still refused to get involved. Faced with both shrinking funds and interest of people who now knew the route would be nowhere near them, Joy set out to build “seedling” sections of road made of concrete to educate the public to the need for such all weather surfaced highways. He built these far out in the countryside along the route and the public began to pressure their elected officials to link the towns between them. It also helped press them for better roads throughout the state.
In a way then, despite the politics, the dogleg routes, and the other named highways, the project eventually succeeded and a coast to coast road along the general roadbed of the Lincoln Highway was built. Those of that generation, familiar with all the publicity called it that despite the numbering system imposed on interstate routes by the federal government. The Lincoln Highway Association did not object to numbering since in the ten years since its inception, thousands of miles of “named” roads had been built. It only asked that the name remain attached to the route.
In 1925, the government began planning a federal highway system. The names were ignored. Major east west routes were, as they later were in the Interstate system in built in the 1950’s, numbered in multiples of ten and north south routes were numbered to end in 1 or 5. There are exceptions today in the newer system, particularly for so-called “beltways” which end in 5 or 0, but they were not foreseen in the days of the original system.

The Lincoln Highway was numbered with a 0 at the end, but did not carry the same number across the country, much to the Association’s displeasure. It is U.S. 1, 30, 530, 50, and 40 respectively as one travels from east to west from New York to San Francisco. U.S. 30 can be followed from east to west from Atlantic City New Jersey to Astoria Oregon, but much of the original road is now numbered as Interstate Highways as well. For Example, Interstate 80 in Wyoming follows the old road, so that is the number that is associated with it. Most maps make note of the dual route but the signage does not.

There is new interest in this first of its kind road. The old Association has been reactivated and restored some of the original road in gravel and brick in Pennsylvania and Indiana. Much as there has been a renaissance in the iconic “Route 66” the old transcontinental route draws more interest and tourists each year. To follow it is at times not an easy task, but to take advantage of large sections that remain particularly in the Midwest and Western states is a charming trip back into history. The names of the towns are musical and individual in their way, Ames, Dennison, Fort Kearney, Ogallala, North Platte, Kimball, Soda Springs, and Mountain Home all are part of the direct and not so famous route that Henry Joy had planned and remains today. People who live there now know little of the highway or that they are a part of history, yet their town was part of the first great American Road.

There are times, when the speed posting is 50 mph or less, and the road passes through one small town after another, that one can get a sense of what is must have been like to travel it and the vision of men like Carl Fisher and Henry Joy.

ED NOTE: It was on June 11, 1909, well before the Lincoln highway was concieved, that the first woman drove across the United States. Alice Huyler Ramsey, left New York City for San Francisco. She was 22 years old, a housewife from Hackensack, New Jersey. Her trip got a lot of media attention. In 1909, not many women drove cars, and some doctors thought that it was dangerous for women to even ride in cars because they would get too worked up at more than 20 miles an hour.
Alice Huyler Ramsey drove 3,800 miles across the country in a Maxwell 30 with three other women, but she was the only one who knew how to drive. They drove for 41 days and used 11 spare tires. She wrote a book about the trip called Veil, Duster, and Tire Iron (1961). In 2000, she was the first woman inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame.


  1. Don't go telling any teen-age boys that driving girls around at more than 20 mph will get the girls worked up. And don't tell Danica Patrick either. Am enjoying the history Michael.

    Don Miguel in Fieldbrook

  2. Great post, Reamus. I enjoyed all the highway history and had never heard it before, though certainly I've heard of the Lincoln Highway, which is U.S. 30 in Iowa, I believe. In Tama, Iowa, is this bridge denoting the road's name. Interesting about the painted bands around the telephone poles.

    Continued safe travels to you!

  3. Farm Wife,

    Thanks so much for the picture of the bridge. I have never seen one like it in all the time of have been on the road. Mind if I send iot to the society to see if they were aware that it still is there?

  4. Very good post, Reamus! Just a few weeks ago I saw a documentary about the Lincoln Highway on PBS. I first became aware of the L.H. while visiting in Pennsylvania in the 1950's.

    I am going to start a rumor that you are Alice Huyler Ramsey reincarnated.

  5. As posted by rhymeswithplague, the documentary on the Lincoln Highway ran again last night.
    Did you see the shoe house?
    We did this with the old Rt 66 going west one year. It was facinating.
    Loved the post. I get"itchy feet" sometimes and your travels always fix that urge.
    Minnesota was sunny and 80+ yesterday. You missed it by about a week.