I had never thought much about the famous road I live on. I had driven by Lincoln Highway signs most of my adult life, not giving them much notice. Living near the tiny town of Franklin Grove, I have passed by the Lincoln Highway Association building many times on my way to President Regan's hometown of Dixon, Illinois. It wasn't until I listened to a remake of an old Woody Guthrie song that I took an interest in the strip of pavement right outside my door.
Lincoln Highway was the first transcontinental highway in the United States. The highway stretched from New York City to San Francisco. The concept was the brainchild of Carl Fisher, the same man who came up with Indianapolis Speedway and Miami Beach. The idea was simple: a paved road connecting the east and west coasts over the most practical course. Fisher joined forces with Henry Joy, who had come up with the name of the road, to create the Lincoln Highway Association (LHA) in 1913.
At this time, many city streets were paved but most rural roads were still dirt. LHA engaged more in fund-raising than in actual road construction. Linking already paved roads and improving unpaved roads created much of the Lincoln Highway. The project was finished in 1926 at a cost of $10 million, and Lincoln Highway became the first paved route across the United States.
Sadly, with the passage of the Federal Highway Act, the highway designations changed from names to numbers, and Lincoln Highway lost its official name almost the moment it was finished. If it weren't for a band of Boy Scouts, the original Lincoln Highway may have been lost forever. On September 1, 1928, thousands of Boy Scouts walked the highway and placed special markers about a mile apart.
Lincoln Highway changed the way people traveled forever. In 1910, three years before Lincoln Highway was envisioned, there were 180,000 registered automobiles in the United States, or about one car per 5000 people. Until the highway's completion, most folks crossed America by rail and were subjected to the schedules of mass transit. With paved roadways spanning the USA, people were able to travel where they wanted, when they wanted. New businesses were born because of this new means of travel. Roadside cafes, motels, and filling stations began to appear along the highway rather than centrally located within city limits.
In addition to serving the general public's need for transcontinental travel, Lincoln Highway also provided important commercial and military uses. During WWI, railroads were not able to handle the amount of freight being sent to eastern seaboards, and the highways picked up a lot of the traffic.
Lincoln Highway is both older and longer than its more famous cousin, Route 66. Finished in 1926, Route 66 connected Chicago, Illinois and Santa Monica, California. The length of Rte 66 is 2448 miles, compared to Lincoln Highway's length of 3389 miles. Lincoln Hwy had a radio show named after it from 1940 to 1942 while Route 66 had a TV show which ran from 1960 to 1964. During the Dust Bowl years in the 1930's, refugees seeking a better life out west heavily traveled Lincoln Highway and Route 66.
Now, when I drive down the road outside my small town, I don't see just cars or farm equipment--I also see history paved out ahead of me. Amid the cornfields and ribbon of highway, I now envision Carl Fisher's dream, lines of Boy Scouts placing placards, and Dust Bowl refugees seeking a new life. I also hear Woody Guthrie in the background, singing of hard rambling, hard gambling and some hard traveling.
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