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
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
|“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,
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
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
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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
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
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.)
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PLANTING THE “SEEDS” FOR FUTURE MODERN HIGHWAYS IN MALTA,
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
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
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:
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
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