On the Lincoln Highway

Lincoln Highway – named after the famous president – changed travel as much as the Model T. It was the first transcontinental highway, back when railroads dominated intercity travel with an iron fist. The towns it passed through boomed with motels and diners. It convinced a public accustomed to little more than dirt trails the value of good roads. Not just in an economic sense, but as a path to personal fulfillment.

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Ah, the open road. She tugs the manifolds of my heart. (Edited. Original photo by Doug Kerr.)

The man behind the Lincoln Highway, Carl Fisher, is an unsung hero of American automotive history. He ran the country’s first true car dealership; owned Prest-O-Lite, manufacturers of the first mainstream gas headlights; built the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, perhaps the country’s first paved track dedicated to auto racing. He stumped for another famous road, Dixie Highway – connecting Chicago to Miami – and developed Miami Beach to cater to genteel motorists that never touched a wheel without their gloves on.

But Lincoln Highway was the nation’s first “auto trail“, and perhaps Fisher’s most enduring legacy. Fisher’s idea, introduced at a dinner party in 1912, was to connect a then scattered network of roads into a unified, paved highway from New York to San Francisco. And all using private funds, the towns and counties helping out as necessary.

Fisher begged friends in the auto industry to support the highway. He was certain it’d jump-start car sales. Packard president Henry Joy and Goodyear co-founder Frank Seiberling agreed, won over by the enthusiasm of the wild-eyed Fisher in his trademark pince-nez glasses. Henry Ford, on the other hand – cantankerous as ever – told Fisher it was the government’s job to build roads and he’d have none of it (and, purportedly, to get off his lawn).

Not that Fisher let Ford discourage him. No less than Thomas Edison, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson donated to the cause. By 1913 the Lincoln Highway Association had established a route and had begun paving it.

Improvements were as fast and furious as Vin Diesel. In 1916, the LHA bragged that you could now drive across the country in less than 30 days. That sounds slow – a maddening “are we there yet?” excursion – but before, you’d probably have gotten stuck in mud a few miles out of town and given up, cursing your God, your family, and your country. But mostly the mud.

The Lincoln Highway wasn’t perfect. No doubt about that. But it got the job done.

By the passage of Federal Highway Act in 1921, America was crisscrossed with patriotic highways, from Jefferson Highway to Washington Highway. The new act replaced the names with impartial numbers and set aside federal money for the construction of a national highway system. We saw what good roads meant and wanted more, and now. Huge chunks of Lincoln Highway were converted into US 30 by government planners. It remains an important road.

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Lincoln Highway in Pennsylvania.The majestic beauty of a Harley-Davidson logo on a tall pole is hard to beat. (Edited. Original photo by Doug Kerr.)

Not long ago, I drove US 30 from Pittsburgh to Breezewood, PA. It’s an arrow through the rustic heart of ol’ Appalachia. The cities – Greensburg, Everett, Bedford – are living museums of a bygone era, main streets lined with wooden-frame buildings sporting dormer windows and shutters. These are proud, hardscrabble places.

The twists and turns through the mountains can be extreme. It’s a rugged, rock-strewn terrain, covered in thick, tall forests. Dramatic cliffs reveal the country below, verdant green valleys punctuated by the occasional home, a metal guard rail the only protection from the errant car. Giant billboard-sized signs warn truckers of the dangers of tipping over before particularly harrowing junctures. Anything past 2 1/2 MPH is borderline reckless at that point.

The garish neon of Breezewood was a welcome sight after the hardships of the road. The dependable, unremarkable qualities of Holiday Inn and Econo Lodge oddly comforting. Sure, the local news may or may not uncover traces of bodily fluids on the mattresses of budget hotels on occasion. But I know that. And knowing is half the battle, right?

Drivers on the Pennsylvania Turnpike hate Breezewood with a maniacal passion. Because of  an old disagreement between the state and federal governments over funding for an interchange, I-70 hits a traffic light on a surface road in Breezewood. A town, ostensibly, that exists solely to exploit the unfortunate situation. It’s against everything the freeway stands or,  by definition a “way” “free” of obstruction. Why, if drivers wanted traffic lights,  scenery, and they’d take the old highways, thank you very much.

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An inviting establishment in Breezewood. (Edited. Original photo by takomabibelot.)

I, however, slept well that night. It’s become passé to the hate the freeway, but then use it all the time. Small reminders of life before the interstate, like Breezewood,  do Americans good. Or maybe I just wanted the guy that cut me off Youngstown to suck it.

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7 thoughts on “On the Lincoln Highway

  1. Well-written and informative. I remember Breezewood, Pa from my childhood when we drove from Ft Lauderdale to Niles, Ohio in the ’50s. The Pennsylvania leg of the trip was always the most tense—lots of big rigs and fog on a narrow, pocked roadway.

    Back in 2001 I met a family who were traveling through SF and they belonged to the Lincoln Highway Association (?). They were following the route of the old road and were headed for the last mile-marker out at Lands End near the golf course.

    You have brought back a lot of good memories with this post, thanks.

  2. Thanks! I took US 30 blindly in protest of the Pennsylvania Turnpike (I believe it cost around $50 to drive through the whole thing) and was charmed.That PA stretch is a barely tamed road, and the towns along it possess a true sense of history.

    I immediately wanted to write about it, but didn’t get the gumption until I finished The Big Roads by the aptly named (you’ll see) Earl Swift. It’s a history of the interstate, and fairly well-written, if a tad dry. It really drilled home the importance of the Lincoln Highway. The places it intersects sit grandly at the crossroads of American progress.

    Oh, and from what I gathered online, the modern LHA is basically a fan club. And what a fan club it is, lol. I’m moving to Iowa in about a month, and you’d better believe I’m gonna drive the ol’ Lincoln route.

  3. Good luck with your move.

    Have you ever heard of Mike Marino? He wrote The Roadhead Chronicles and he gives us a look at his life from Michigan to California and beyond. Like you, he writes about life on the road, growing up in the Baby-boomer generation with a mixture of history and facts that are downright entertaining to read.

    I look forward to more posts about the Road to Iowa.

  4. I’ll check Roadhead Chronicles out. Never heard of Marino. Right now, I’m reading Henry Miller’s The Air-Conditioned Nightmare. It’s a document of his visit to America just as the Great Depression was winding down, after having lived in Paris for about decade.

    It’s a sneering look at America. Where most travelogues see beauty in places like NYC, Miller just sees the downsides of our economy and way of life, of which we’re all too familiar with.

  5. “It’s become passe to hate the freeway, but then use it all the time.”

    Actually, I never thought about it like that. The idea is not likely to prevent me from wanting to gouge out my eyeballs with a knife when commuting to work everyday on south-bound U.S. 23 to Ann Arbor. But it might help a little, I guess.

    I do avoid the freeways at all costs on the weekends–to my wife’s dismay–but the freeway does afford me the opportunity to live where I want and still make it to work by 8:00 everyday.

  6. Yes, I use the freeways, too. But I’d prefer a train for most trips, if our country could ever get its act together in that arena. I saw an ad from the ’20s that claimed you could get from Chicago to Minneapolis in 4 1/2 hours! That’s faster than driving between the two is today. And WAY faster than Amtrak.

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