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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: The Fabulous Lincoln Highway

‘The Main Street Across America’

By Tom Morrow

Most of us look upon old U.S. Highway 66 as our “national” road starting at Chicago west to Los Angeles, but, in fact it’s the “Lincoln Highway,” which stretches from New York City to San Francisco. It’s the original “national highway” — most of the road today is U.S. 50, with other numbering scattered along the trail.

Lincoln Highway at Broadway and 42nd St.NYC

The Lincoln Highway was the earliest transcontinental roadway. Conceived in 1912 by Indiana entrepreneur Carl G. Fisher, and formally dedicated Oct. 31, 1913, the Lincoln Highway ran coast-to-coast from Broadway and 42nd Street in New York’s Times Square west to Lincoln Park in San Francisco. The highway, named in honor of President Abraham Lincoln, originally ran through 13 states: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California.

In 1912, when railroads dominated interstate transportation they were primarily of local interest only. Outside most cities known as “farm to market roads” were sometimes maintained by counties, but maintenance of rural roads fell to those who lived along them. State-to-state roads were considered a luxury, something only for wealthy travelers who could spend weeks riding around in their automobiles.

As the first automobile road across America, the Lincoln Highway brought great prosperity to the hundreds of cities, towns and villages along the way. The Lincoln Highway became affectionately known as “The Main Street Across America.

The Lincoln Highway was inspired by the “Good Roads Movement.” In turn, the success of the Lincoln Highway and the resulting economic boost to the governments, businesses and citizens along its route inspired the creation of many other named long-distance roads (known as National Auto Trails), such as the Yellowstone Trail, National Old Trails Road, Dixie Highway, Jefferson Highway, Bankhead Highway, Jackson Highway, Meridian Highway and Victory Highway.

Lincoln Highway through Philadelphia in 1930

The Lincoln Highway inspired the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, also known as the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act. The legislation was championed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. In 1919, as a young soldier, Ike crossed the country in an Army caravan using the Lincoln Highway and experiencing both the wonder and the ordeal of the venture.

According to the Association’s 1916 Official Road Guide, a trip from the Atlantic to the Pacific on the Lincoln Highway was “something of a sporting proposition” and might take 20 to 30 days. To make it in 30 days the motorist would need to average 18 miles an hour for 6 hours per day, and driving was only done during daylight hours. The trip was thought to cost no more than $5 a day per person, including food, gas, oil, and even “five or six meals in hotels”. Car repairs would, of course, increase the cost.

Since gasoline stations were still rare in many parts of the country in the mid-tee motorists were urged to top off their gasoline at every opportunity, even if they had done so recently. The list of recommended equipment included chains, a shovel, axe, jacks, tire casings and inner tubes, tools, and (of course) a pair of Lincoln Highway pennants. And, the guide offered this sage advice: “Don’t wear new shoes.”

In 1926, the entire routing of the Lincoln Highway between Philadelphia and Granger, Wyoming was assigned U.S. 30. East of Philadelphia the Lincoln Highway was part of U.S. 1, and west of Salt Lake City the route became US 40 across Donner Pass. Only the segment between Granger and Salt Lake City was not part of the new numbering plan; U.S. 30 was assigned to a more northerly route toward Pocatello, Idaho. When U.S. 50 was extended to California it followed the Lincoln Highway’s alternate route south of Lake Tahoe.

Today there are a total of 14 states, 128 counties, and more than 700 cities, towns and villages through which the highway passes. The first officially recorded length of the entire Lincoln Highway in 1913 was 3,389 miles. Over the years, the road was improved and numerous realignments were made, and by 1924 the highway had been shortened to 3,142 miles. After the Interstate Highway System was formed in the 1950s, the former alignments of the Lincoln Highway were largely superseded by Interstate 80 as the primary coast-to-coast route from the New York City area to San Francisco.

To enjoy both the Lincoln Highway and old U.S. 66, you have to get off the Interstate and witness the landscape and towns our grandparents and great grandparent experienced – two trips worth taking.

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