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The Lincoln Highway

Updated: Mar 28, 2022

“The Lincoln Highway is destined to be a much-traveled road. Already the motorists of the West are turning the hoods of their motor cars to face the East and the motorists of the East are starting Westward. Happy is the man who has his hotel or inn situated on the road marked by the red, white, and blue.”

Long before the interstates existed, and even before the first national highway system was put in place in 1926 (see blog post "The First American Highway System"), there was but one recognized trans-continental automobile route -- The Lincoln Highway. Established in 1913, it connected New York City with San Francisco over a 3,389-mile winding path and provided a means for adventurous Americans to explore the country and, for the first time, make the journey from coast to coast by car at their own leisure. The Lincoln Highway gave birth to the great American road trip.

A Very Brief History

At the dawn of the 20th century, if you wanted to travel from the East Coast to the West Coast, the only modes of transportation available to you were by train or by steamer around Cape Horn. The roads that existed outside of major urban areas were mostly dirt pathways used by farmers to get back and forth to town. There was not, as yet, a network of roads by which you could reliably make your way across country. The number of automobiles in the United States was around 8,000 at the turn of the century, and because of their high price tags, they were largely the province of the wealthy. These first automobile owners, with an interest in improving the roads on which they drove their expensive new vehicles, became the first stewards of the Good Roads Movement.

In 1908, Henry Ford produced the first affordable automobile, the Ford Model T. It was the first car mass-produced on moving assembly lines and marketed to the middle class. By 1916, Ford had manufactured more than a million of them. It was the car that put Americans on the road and made travel more accessible to the masses.

In 1912, Carl Fisher, an Indiana automobile entrepreneur and manufacturer of the Prest-O-Lite carbide-gas headlights, conceived of a hard-surfaced, improved transcontinental road. He met with automobile industry leaders in September of that year, pitched his idea and asked for donations to help build his road. His hope was to have the road completed before the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition set to be held in San Francisco. His pitch worked -- within a few months, he had more than $4 million in total pledges. Henry Joy, president of the Packard Motor Car Company, and one of the industry leaders who pledged his financial support, suggested naming the road the "Lincoln Highway," in honor of Abraham Lincoln. With that, the Lincoln Highway Association was formed in Detroit, Michigan on July 1, 1913 with Joy as its president and Fisher as its vice president. It was charged with the task of mapping, promoting and marking the first transcontinental route across America.

On September 14, 1913, the route of the Lincoln Highway was made public and on October 31st of that year, it was officially dedicated with celebrations in hundreds of towns and cities along the route. It was a highway created by stringing together a series of existing roads, streets, turnpikes, trails and paths. Signage was nearly non-existent, however, in those first years. The Lincoln Highway Association encouraged businesses and civic groups to go out and put up placards and paint telephone poles with the large "L" in the red, white and blue stripes that had become emblematic of the route. Guidebooks were published for motorists planning to make the cross-country journey with advice on what to bring and where to find services. These guidebooks also provided detailed descriptions of how to avoid getting lost, with tips on how to spot the landmarks and not-so-obvious signage that pointed the way.

Over the next few years, the alignment of parts of the Lincoln Highway moved to make the route straighter and faster. In 1927, the route from Pittsburgh into Ohio was altered to connect Newell, West Virginia with a crossing of the Ohio River at East Liverpool which saved time and resulted in a new state being added to the route.

In July 1925, Louis B. Miller and C. I. Hansen, driving a Wills Sainte Claire, set a new cross-country speed record on the Lincoln Highway by making the drive from New York City to San Francisco in an astonishing four days, six hours and 45 minutes.

By the end of the 1920s, the Lincoln Highway Association had dissolved (reactivated in 1992), but before doing so, it staged one final, monumental publicity stunt. It ordered the casting of nearly 3,000 concrete markers to dedicate the highway to the memory of Abraham Lincoln. On September 1, 1928, thousands of Boy Scouts fanned out along the highway and, at an average of about one per mile, installed the concrete markers that had a small bronze medallion of Lincoln. The markers bore the route's signature colors of red, white and blue, and a directional arrow pointing the way. Today, only a handful of those markers remain.


The Route

The original route passed through 12 states: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and California.

From New York to Chicago: The Lincoln Highway's starting point (or terminus, depending on your directional perspective), was in Times Square, at the corner of Broadway and 42nd Street. From there, it went due west along 42nd Street to the Hudson River. There being no bridges or tunnels at the time, travelers would catch the ferry to Jersey City and follow the old King's Highway through New Jersey along a marked route to Trenton. From there, travelers would cross the Delaware River into Pennsylvania.

The Lincoln Highway in Philadelphia at Broad Street and Roosevelt Boulevard (1920):

In Pennsylvania, the route passed through Philadelphia and then along the old Lancaster Pike, connecting with several other turnpikes through the Allegheny Mountains until it reached Pittsburgh. From Pittsburgh, the route headed west into Ohio via Canton, Mansfield and Upper Sandusky where the landscape flattened out into farmland, and then into Indiana through Fort Wayne and South Bend. It continued on into Illinois, following the old Chicago to Fort Wayne Trace which was an improved road. The highway passed into Illinois by way of Joliet, intentionally bypassing Chicago which was further north. It was thought that routing the highway through Chicago would result in considerable delay for travelers. Up to this point in the journey, the traveler would have enjoyed relatively good roads. Heading west out of Illinois, however, that would change dramatically.

From Chicago to Salt Lake City: The highway continued west through Illinois, crossing the Mississippi River at Clinton, Iowa. The cities of Cedar Rapids, Marshalltown, Ames and Council Bluffs were skewered by the highway as it punched its way westward. If the weather was dry, the trip would have been pleasant, but woe to the motorist who attempted to cross Illinois and Iowa in the rain. The wet weather turned dirt roads into impassable channels of mud.

At Council Bluffs, it crossed the Missouri River into Omaha, Nebraska. Following the Platte River, the Lincoln Highway continued west through Columbus, Kearney and North Platte. At Big Springs, it veered away from the South Platte and followed Lodgepole Creek on its way through Sidney and Pine Bluffs before crossing into Wyoming at Cheyenne. Leaving Cheyenne, and ascending the Laramie Mountains, the highway crossed Sherman Summit, the highest point along the route. From there, it wound its way through Laramie, Rawlins, Rock Springs and Evanston before entering Utah and descending from the vast plateau of the Rocky Mountains into the Great Salt Lake Basin and Salt Lake City.

From Salt Lake City to San Francisco: Today, the drive from Salt Lake City to the Nevada state line is a quick and direct one along I-80 with the last 50 miles cutting an arrow-straight path across the wide-open Bonneville Salt Flats. In the early days of the Lincoln Highway, however, the route was much more circuitous, poorly defined and rife with danger. It followed the southern shores of the Great Salt Lake and then turned south into Skull Valley.

This photo taken in 1913 of the Lincoln Highway at the north end of Skull Valley is courtesy of the Lincoln Highway Association.

The Utah desert west of Salt Lake City was a dry and forbidding landscape with few services and full of roadway hazards. The roads were mere tracks of sharp stones in the desert with alkali dust that choked carburetors and throats alike. The route between Salt Lake City and Ely, Nevada largely followed the old paths of the Pony Express and the transcontinental telegraph. Travelers were encouraged to bring camping equipment, canned and dried food, containers of water and spare parts in case of mechanical failure. The provisioning of water and food was picked up by a string of ranches on this part of the route. A ranch in Fish Springs, Utah was designated in the guidebooks as a place where travelers could get meals and lodging, or, if trouble arose, "build a sage brush fire. Mr. Thomas will come with a team. He can see you 20 miles off." Continuing its charge westward, the highway passed through Ibapah before crossing into Nevada and into the first major town -- Ely (pron. EE lee). By air, the distance between Salt Lake City and Ely is just 185 miles, but in the early days of Lincoln Highway travel, the distance was 287 miles of driving through the desert across salt flats, sand, sharp rocks and rutted pathways.

The Lincoln Highway continued on through Eureka, Austin and Reno, following a path that would one day become U.S. 50 and dubbed "The Loneliest Road in America." Over the course of 336 miles, it ascended and descended mountain range after mountain range, hopping from one valley to another. Just a few miles west of Reno, it crossed into the last state on the route -- California. Just west of Truckee, the highway ascended the second-highest summit along the route, Donners Pass, at 7,056 feet, then plunged down the western slopes of the Sierra Nevadas into Sacramento and into the San Joaquin Valley. The remainder of the route to San Francisco from Sacramento passed through Galt, Stockton, Tracy, Altamont, Livermore and finally Oakland where travelers would put their vehicles on a ferry to cross the bay and disembark at the foot of Market Street. The last few miles of the Lincoln Highway wound through city streets to Lincoln Park and its western terminus.

The Route Today

Most of the original highway has been lost to progress. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Lincoln Highway became part of the first U.S. Highway system, bearing the numbers U.S. 1 for a small section west of New York City, then U.S. 30 for most of its length until Evanston, Wyoming where it briefly became U.S. 530 until Salt Lake City, then U.S. 40 to West Wendover, Nevada, then U.S. 50 across Nevada, returning to U.S. 40 in Reno all the way to San Francisco. In the 1960s, much of U.S. 30 and U.S. 40 were replaced by the Interstate System, corresponding roughly with I-80. Remnants of the old highway still exist in isolated spots along the streets of cities and towns along the way and parallel to modern highways where you can see Mother Nature slowly absorbing crumbling sections of the old road.

More About the Lincoln Highway

If you're interested in doing a deeper dive into the history and route of the Lincoln Highway, I would recommend these two outstanding resources:

  • The Lincoln Highway - Main Street Across America by Drake Hokanson. This book, which I purchased in the mid 1990s, immediately captured my imagination and galvanized my interest in further exploration and study of America's early system of roads. I consumed the book in just two days. It inspired me to set out on a quest for echoes of the old highway during road trips that crossed its original path.

  • 100 Years on the Lincoln Highway - a fascinating Wyoming PBS documentary on the history and centennial celebration of the Lincoln Highway.

Finding the Lincoln Highway

Shortly after reading Drake Hokanson's book, I began to incorporate specific places into my road trip plans to see if I could catch glimpses of relics along the old Lincoln Highway. I wanted to see if I could find any of the last remaining cement markers erected by the Boy Scouts in 1928 along the route. In 1996, I found this one on the corner of Lincoln Way and 19th Avenue on the southern edge of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.


Then this one in front of the old U.S. Mint building (part of the Nevada State Museum) in Carson City, Nevada in March 2022.


In 1997, driving through Tama, Iowa, I found this iconic 1915 bridge.

Nearby, painted on the side of a building, was this amazing mural:

On a drive through Cheyenne some years later, I saw these banners placed along Lincolnway:

Finally, in 2013, on the 100th anniversary of the dedication of the Lincoln Highway, when my stepmother Lola and I were on our cross-country road trip to New York City, I found this marker in Times Square -- the place where the highway began:

. . . Until next time, dear travelers, may all your journeys be safe and rich in experience!

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