MotorCities National Heritage Area
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By Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher
Images Courtesy of Various Sources
Published 8.26.2020

Lincoln Highway color painting by Carl Rakeman 1Lincoln Highway color painting by Carl Rakeman

When the Lincoln Highway was completed in 1916, it represented a milestone in our automotive history -- the first road that allowed travel from the country’s east coast to the west coast. The highway started in New York City’s Times Square and was inspired by the “Good Roads Movement.”

A vehicle stuck in the mud GeocachingA vehicle stuck in the mud (Geocaching)

From the early days of the automobile, roads were a huge problem for many motorists, who would experience muddy and bumpy streets. Americans would often find themselves stuck trying to get around. As the number of drivers continued to increase, Americans began to complain about road conditions and the need for highways to be paved.

The Lincoln Highway project began in New York and ran through Chicago on its way to San Francisco. Other states along the way included New Jersey, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and California. It was not completely paved until 1935.

A Packard rides on the Lincoln Highway Indiana Automotive Landmark News RESIZEDA Packard rides on the Lincoln Highway (Indiana Automotive Landmark News)

The Lincoln Highway project brought great prosperity to many cities and towns along the coast-to-coast route. Many Americans thoroughly enjoyed the Lincoln Highway as a great way to travel for many years.

A Lincoln Highway images from Fallsington PA RESIZEDA Lincoln Highway image from Fallsington PA

A series of memorials to Abraham Lincoln were installed along the highway. They featured a small bust of the late president with an inscription that said, “This highway dedicated to Abraham Lincoln.” There was one monument per mile for a total of 3,000 concreate markers installed for the entire project.

A monument to Abraham Lincoln in WyomingA monument to Abraham Lincoln in Wyoming

A prime mover for the Lincoln Highway project was Carl Fisher, who recognized that better roads were needed for traveling long distances by American motorists. Fisher was also the man who created the Indianapolis Motor speedway. His idea for the Lincoln Highway project was called “the coast-to-coast rock highway.” The project cost about $10 million in 1912, and many key figures in the automotive industry were asked to get involved.

A map showing the Lincoln and Victory Highway RESIZEDA map showing the Lincoln and Victory Highway

James Lin, who has a website dedicated to the history of the project, said, “Communities along the route would help to provide the equipment and in return would receive free materials and a place along America’s first transcontinental highway.” The American public could also become members of the Lincoln Highway Association for five dollars.

Henry Ford, representing the Ford Motor Company, was asked but refused to get involved with the project. Two key automotive figures that did get involved were Frank Seiberling, president of Goodyear, and Henry Joy, president of the Packard Motor Car Company. Joy came up with the idea of naming the highway after Abraham Lincoln. Joy felt it would be a fitting tribute to the late president. Fisher initially did not agree, but later approved of the name because he felt it would add great patriotic appeal to the project.

Map of the Lincoln Highway across California GoGraphicusMap of the Lincoln Highway across California (GoGraphicus)

On July 1, 1913, the association officially voted to call the coast-to-coast road the Lincoln Highway. Later, Joy became president and Fisher vice president of the Lincoln Highway Association, which set up a great system of consuls along the route who would act as local ambassadors. They could answer many questions on matters regarding the highway or other traveling questions.

In conclusion, as the years passed, interest in the Lincoln Highway dropped significantly. As many other highways were constructed throughout the country, the Association stopped activity at the end of 1927. Its last major activity was to mark the highway, not as a route from one destination to another, but as a great memorial to our fallen president Lincoln.

Book cover of The Lincoln Highway The Great American Road Trip RESIZEDBook cover of The Lincoln Highway The Great American Road Trip

For more information on the Lincoln Highway, please read “The Lincoln Highway: Coast to Coast from Times Square to the Golden Gate” by Michael Wallis or “Greetings from the Lincoln Highway: A Road Trip Celebration of America's First Coast-to-Coast Highwayby Brian Butko.

Bibliography

Lin, James. “The Lincoln Highway: An Introduction to America’s First Transcontiental Road for the Automobile.” Website.

Butko, Brian. “Greetings from the Lincoln Highway: A Road Trip Celebration of America's First Coast-to-Coast Highway.” Paperback. May 31, 2019.

Wallis, Michael. “The Lincoln Highway: Coast to Coast from Times Square to the Golden Gate.” Paperback. December 5, 2011.