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As the Interstate Highway System celebrates its historic 50th Anniversary, another history making roadway, the forerunner of the Interstates, is nearing its 100th Anniversary. That road is the Lincoln Highway.

The Lincoln Highway was America’s first transcontinental interstate highway conceived and planned for use by automobiles, motorcycles and trucks. The 3,389-mile route from Times Square in New York to Lincoln Park in San Francisco was dedicated on September 14, 1913 to the memory of Abraham Lincoln, the nation’s famous 16th President. It immediately became one of the most famous roads in the country.

Of course, the route dedicated to Lincoln could hardly bypass Illinois, the “Land of Lincoln,” and 178 miles of it ran across Illinois from the Indiana border at Lynwood to the Mississippi River in Fulton. It still does today as the Illinois Lincoln Highway National Scenic Byway. Current day travelers can drive the Lincoln Highway across Illinois, enjoy its historic heritage and take advantage of numerous attractions and points of interest along the byway, where “Every Mile is A Story.”

LINCOLN HIGHWAY: THE ROAD THAT PUT AMERICA ON THE ROAD

 

The story of the Lincoln Highway’s role in shaping the contemporary American highway system is one that depicts the dynamic interaction of technology and human activity. The technological element of this story was the early 1900s development and proliferation of motorized transport of people and goods. The human element was the struggle to cope with that technological change and create an infrastructure of roads that would make it possible to exploit the opportunities presented by that emerging technology.

The idea of constructing a transcontinental highway was radical enough in the early 20th Century was viewed as a fantastic wish by a dreamer. In fact, it was. The concept was first proposed by Carl G. Fisher. Fisher was an early automobile entrepreneur, a maker of headlights. He was a man of big ideas who relished the challenge of converting ideas into realities. He was also known as somewhat of a promoter, the “P. T. Barnum of Indiana.” In 1908, he attached an automobile to a helium balloon and floated it across Indianapolis. By 1911, his Indianapolis Motor Speedway became a smashing success after he paved it with brick and inaugurated the Indianapolis 500 motorcar race.

Fisher often restlessly shifted his focus from one idea and one project to another. By 1912 he had seized upon the dream of creating an automobile-friendly, gravel surfaced highway spanning the continental United States from New York to San Francisco. He called his idea the “Coast-to-Coast Rock Highway.” PHOTO: Carl G. Fisher, Vice-President, Lincoln Highway Association. Lincoln Highway Digital Image Collection, Special Collections Library, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Year: n.d. Filing Code: Por.16b Size: Small, Accession No: lhc1693.

He went on a speaking tour across the country in 1912 promoting the concept of a transcontinental gravel road and attempting to secure private financial backing for its “ball park” estimated construction cost of 10 million dollars. By July 1, 1913, a core group of auto industry executives formally established an organization to convert Fisher’s “Coast to Coast Rock Highway” idea into a reality. One of Fisher’s auto industry converts, Henry Joy, president of the Packard Motor Car Company, in turn, converted Fisher and the others into re-naming the proposed road in honor of U. S. President Abraham Lincoln. The organization was formally chartered as the “Lincoln Highway Association” (henceforth, the LHA) and adopted as its objective:


“to immediately promote and procure the establishment of a continuous improved highway from the Atlantic to the Pacific, open to lawful traffic of all descriptions without toll charges: such highway to be known, in memory of Abraham Lincoln, as the ‘Lincoln Highway.’”

What is important to note is that the Lincoln Highway idea originated in the private sector, not in government. At first, the LHA did not even seek government funding. Initially, the project’s promoters and the Lincoln Highway Association sought to collect private and corporate donations to build the road.

Many did contribute and others pledged donations. However, the primary “target donor” for the project was one of the wealthiest men in the country, Henry Ford. The highway’s promoters felt that Ford would be a natural supporter of the highway since he was the nation’s largest manufacturer of automobiles and trucks. He and his Ford Motor Company probably could have underwritten the entire project.

But Ford flat out refused to donate to the LHA or to any road building projects. He had his Secretary respond to the LHA’s request for funds thusly:

“Frankly the writer is not very favorably disposed to the plan, because as long as private interests are willing to build good roads for the general public, the general public will not be very interested in building good roads for itself. I believe in spending money to educate the public to the necessity of building good roads, and let everybody contribute their share in proper taxes.”

- James Couzens, Secretary and Treasurer of the Ford Motor Company, expressing the attitude of Henry Ford toward financial support of the Lincoln Highway concept. (LH/MAIN STREET, p. 8)

Ford’s refusal to participate in the funding of the project effectively ended the Lincoln Highway Association’s plans for actually undertaking the construction of the gravel “Coast to Coast Highway.” Henry Ford’s attitude forced a fundamental re-thinking of the objectives and program of the Lincoln Highway Association on the part of its leadership.

Using an automobile analogy, the group and its leaders did not give up or “slam on the brakes,” they merely “shifted gears.” In fact, the leadership was at once discouraged and inspired by the terms of Ford’s response. According to noted Lincoln Highway expert and author Drake Hokanson, Henry Joy, LHA President, thought:

“If we can’t raise the money directly and build this road ourselves .... why not do just as Couzens says and educate the public to the necessity of building good roads? As public opinion changes about good highways, government will be pressured into building them as a resource for all.” (LH/MAIN STREET, p. 18).

Without government funding or adequate private financial backing, it was impossible to construct a road across America. It was, however, possible to identify existing roads and to label them as the Lincoln Highway. Signs were cheaper than rock and concrete. Joy and the LHA quietly abandoned the $10 million idea of building the gravel road and adopted a new, three-part strategy. They would:

1) Encourage the marking of the entire route regardless of its road surface, be it gravel, brick, dirt or whatever;
2) Petition cities, towns and counties to rename their local parts of the route “Lincolnway;”
3) Prod the states and local governments to improve the “route” by pouring concrete roadways to make it a model highway, a permanent, enduring monument to Lincoln.

Any road could be marked as the official route, if it was sanctioned by the Association’s Detroit office. Guidebooks and signs constituted the early highway. In the very first year of their existence, the Association set out to identify a route across the continent. They did it with flair and publicity and an entourage of twenty cars with streaming red, white, and blue pennants as they took a fact-finding road trip across America. The LHA made the Lincoln Highway the centerpiece in a massive marketing campaign to convince the public that better roads were needed and that the government should build them.

Concrete “seedling miles” were built at locations strategically placed between notoriously muddy stretches of dirt road to serve as prototypes of what an improved highway could do for the nation. The first such “seedling mile” was constructed near Malta, Illinois in 1914. Illinois was also the first state to hard-surface the entire section of the Lincoln Highway that ran through the state. PHOTO: The Bluffs, Whiteside County, Illinois. Lincoln Highway Digital Image Collection, Special Collections Library, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Year: n. d. Filing Code: ILL.110 Size: Small, Accession No: lhc1344.

In 1919, The LHA instigated a public relations coup by arranging for a convoy of Army vehicles to conduct a celebrated expedition across the continent using most of the Lincoln Highway. An observer attached to the 1919 convoy was Lt. Colonel Dwight D. Eisenhower, who as President 37 years later, helped launch the Interstate Highway system and in whose honor it was later named. Cross-country racers were setting records and capturing headlines. Songs and poems were written about the road. The highway caught on in the advertising world. Restaurants, motor garages, campgrounds, and hotels proudly displayed the highway’s banners and named themselves after the highway.

By 1925, the web of roads on the face of America had become confusingly marked with a baffling number of signs and painted logos. Some states had already adopted systems of numbering roads, and by 1925, the American Association of Highway Officials instigated a policy of numbering all interstate roads with U. S. Route numbers. All named highways, like the Lincoln Highway, were subject to the numbering system. The Lincoln Highway that connected the country from coast-to-coast would become a series of disconnected numbers.

By the late 1920s it became apparent that the mission of the Lincoln Highway Association had largely been accomplished. In December, 1927 the LHA resolved to make one last gesture to mark the route as a final memorial to Lincoln. They resolved to mark the route with concrete markers. PHOTO: A concrete Lincoln Highway Marker with directional sign. Photo courtesy of the Illinois Lincoln Highway Coalition.

The route markers, designed by landscape architect Jens Jensen of Illinois, are cast concrete with a bronze head of Lincoln, the highway logo, and a blue directional arrow. In one day, September 1, 1928, Boy Scouts placed 3,000 markers at every mile across the coast-to-coast highway. Of the approximately 175 markers placed in Illinois, less than 24 remain. These are some of the last tangible icons of the original Lincoln Highway … “The Road That Put America On The Road.” (McAVOY) Return to Top

CLICK HERE TO READ ABOUT LINCOLN HIGHTWAY LEGACIES

THE LINCOLN HIGHWAY TODAY:
RESURRECTED, RENEWED AND RECOGNIZED

Much of the original Lincoln Highway has been paved over, bypassed, or converted to numbered Interstate, U.S., State and county highways or municipal streets. However, the name Lincoln is still attached to much of the route in the form of roadway and street names, local Lincoln businesses and brochures, articles and artifacts preserved in museums and historical societies along the route.

In recent years, the Lincoln Highway has experienced a major renaissance and renewal of interest both nationally and particularly in Illinois.

In order to preserve the historic heritage of the Lincoln Highway, the Lincoln Highway Association was re-activated in 1992. This 1,000+ member voluntary organization has, much like its predecessor, acted or prompted others to act, to promote an awareness of the rich historical heritage of the Lincoln Highway. The reinvigorated LHA has state chapters; holds an annual convention and publishes a quarterly journal, The Lincoln Highway Forum. (The Lincoln Highway Association (LHA))

In 1997, the Illinois Chapter of the Lincoln Highway Association and an ad hoc group of local tourism, historic preservation and economic development organizations began seeking historic route status for the highway’s route in Illinois. Later organized into the Illinois Lincoln Highway Coalition (ILHC) in 1999, the organization began the process of applying for designation of the route as a national scenic byway.

On June 15, 2000, the U. S. Department of Transportation announced that the Lincoln Highway route in Illinois had been selected as one of 30 new national scenic byways on the strength of its historical significance.

In August of 2000, the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) retraced the route followed by the Boy Scouts on their concrete marker installation project in 1928. However, instead of installing concrete posts, IDOT installed hundreds of new modern directional signs … making it easy to drive the 178.9-mile route from end to end across Illinois in either direction. PHOTO: Historic Lincoln Highway route signs mark the Lincoln Highway National Scenic Byway from the Indiana Border in Lynwood, Illinois to the banks of The Mississippi River in Fulton, Illinois. Illinois Department of Transportation Slide Collection.

The Illinois Bureau of Tourism also designated the Illinois Lincoln Highway as a Heritage Tourism Demonstration Project in 2001. The project is designed to increase and sustain heritage tourism in the communities where the Lincoln Highway had or has an impact and to maximize the opportunity of the Lincoln Highway for the educational and economic benefit of the public, starting with the residents of Illinois. The Coalition is providing services to participating communities, sites and residents throughout Illinois to help them develop their Lincoln Highway story and experiences. It will also implement a strong central marketing campaign that will promote the "Every Mile is a Story" image and the ability to experience those stories through the participating sites and services. (See Section Below: The Lincoln Highway in Illinois Today.) Return to Top

PLANTING THE “SEEDS” FOR FUTURE MODERN HIGHWAYS IN MALTA, ILLINOIS

In 1908, a one-mile segment of a rural country road in Wayne County, Michigan was paved with concrete. It drew motorists from miles around to marvel at its smooth surface. To be sure, there were skeptics, but most were grateful for the lack of mud and dust.

Carl Fisher and Henry Joy, in their initial flurry of Lincoln Highway activity had received a pledge of one million and a half barrels of concrete from A. Y. Gowen of the Lehigh Portland Cement Company on behalf of the concrete industry. They decided to take Mr. Gowen up on his offer. They conceived the notion of paving one-mile stretches of road along the Lincoln Highway route with concrete to point the way to the future. They called these one-mile long paved road segments “seedling miles.” They were also pretty sharp about how they went about planting these “seeds.“ They purposely placed them “out in the boondocks” so that motorists drawn by publicity would have to struggle over unimproved dirt roads in order to reach them.

The first such “seedling mile” was completed in Malta, Illinois, just west of DeKalb, in September of 1914. Hokanson tells the story of this example of a public-private partnership as follows:

The first seedling mile was completed near DeKalb, Illinois in the fall of 1914. With the promise of free cement from the Lincoln Highway Association, supporters there had raised two thousand dollars in cash from public donations and gathered three thousand from the county supervisors. The state had prepared a grade and offered road equipment and engineering supervision. The good-roads people of DeKalb gathered their resources and requested the concrete from Secretary Paddington (the Lincoln Highway Association Secretary). He replied, “The ball is open and you are the leader of the first dance. I have just received word from the Marquette Company that they are shipping you 2,000 barrels of cement. (LH/MAIN STREET, p. 19)

A series of articles by Ivan Prall, a historian from Malta, Illinois, provides some background and tells a more colorful account of the first “seedling mile” and its early days.  Return to Top

CLICK HERE TO READ DEKALB COUNTY AND THE LINCOLN HIGHWAY BY IVAN PRALL

THE LINCOLN HIGHWAY IN ILLINOIS TODAY

Today, most travelers race across northern Illinois on Interstate 80 or I-88.

However, travelers in search of "real" America who want to travel at a leisurely pace can trace the Lincoln Highway through Illinois and ponder automobile travel when the "Tin Lizzie" and the Model A ruled America's roads.

They can take a "Road Trip" through urban cityscapes, cozy riverfront towns and rolling prairie, from its eastern portal at Lynwood to its Mississippi River crossing at Fulton. Entertainment and adventure can be found around every corner. Recapture the adventure. Reconnect with the landscape. Rediscover the threads of history woven together along Illinois' Lincoln Highway National Scenic Byway, where “Every Mile is a Story”.

For assistance in planning your Illinois Lincoln Highway adventure, please use Illinois Lincoln Highway Coalition’s interactive website: www.lincolnhwyil.com. Also, feel free to send an email to: lincolnhwyil@insightbb.com or call their toll-free number: 866-455-4249.

The Lincoln Highway National Scenic Byway runs approximately 179 miles through Northern Illinois, crossing through eight (8) counties: Cook, Will, Kendall, Kane, DeKalb, Ogle, Lee and Whiteside, as well as 32 individual municipalities. Map (Above) Courtesy of the U. S. National Scenic Byways Program.

During its 179-mile trek, the byway offers authentic Lincoln Highway sites and attractions including the first seedling mile near Malta, the Lincoln Highway Association’s National Headquarters in Franklin Grove and Rochelle's Filling Station among many others.

Travelers can also stop at scores of additional attractions along the route such as the I&M Canal State Trail, riverboat gaming, historic movie palaces, hiking and biking trails, architecturally significant homes, Ronald Reagan's boyhood home and the Dutch windmill in Fulton. PHOTOS: Left: Boyhood Home of President Ronald Reagan in Dixon, Illinois; Right: Working, full-size replica of a Dutch Windmill on the eastern bank of the Mississippi River in Fulton, Illinois. Photos courtesy of the Illinois Lincoln Highway Coalition.

Return to Top

FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT THE LINCOLN HIGHWAY
IN ILLINOIS TODAY CONTACT:

The Illinois Lincoln Highway Coalition
Diane Rossiter, Associate Director
200 South State Street
Belvidere, Illinois 61008
(866) 455-4249 (Toll-free)/Fax: 815-547-3749
Or visit: www.lincolnhwyil.com

CLICK HERE TO READ ABOUT THE LINCOLN HIGHWAY ASSOCIATTION (LHA) TODAY

 

Interstate 50th Anniversary

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