Sunday, September 11, 2016

Driving along the Lincoln Highway

In the early 1900's a need for a nation wide highway was plain to those in the burgeoning automotive industry and Carl Fisher, who manufactured the carbide gas headlights in most auto's of the period as well as being one of the founders of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, organized a meeting in 1911 at which he proposed building a transcontinental highway declaring "Let's build it before we're too old to enjoy it!".  Projected to cost a handsome sum of 10 million dollars (250 million in today's money) within a month he had one million raised from his friends. Other contributors included Thomas Edison, Theodore Roosevelt and the then current president Woodrow Wilson. Interestingly Henry Ford refused to contribute, believing the federal government should foot the bill rather than private donors.

Construction began in 1912 and by 1916 the highway was built and available for travel. According to a road guide at the time the trip would take 20-30 days and a motorist would need to average 18 miles per hour for 6 hours. Driving was only done during daylight hours and drivers were advised to bring: a shovel, an ax, jacks,chains, tire casings and tubes, tools and of course a pair of Lincoln Highway pennants. The guide also mentioned topping fuel at every opportunity as gas stations were few along the route in the early days. And finally "Don't wear new shoes".

There were few hotels unless you passed by a town and there's many a story about sleeping beside your car (Or under it in case of rain)  with only the evening stars as company. The highway's heyday was from the late 1910's thru the early 1950's with president Dwight Eisenhower signing legislation creating the National Interstate system in 1956. After the interstates were built, many directly over the Lincoln roadbeds, the rest of the highway fell into disuse and was largely forgotten.

In Franklin Grove stands the National headquarter for the Lincoln Highway association. Formed in 1992 to identify and preserve the portions of the highway that still existed along with historic sites and monuments that had been built during the highways lifetime. The headquarters is located in a building that had been owned by Harry Isaac Lincoln, a cousin of Abraham.  It's a massive stone block building right in the center of town and of course, along the highway's route.

If you ever get up that way the staff inside are friendly and knowledgeable and eager to talk. Souvenirs of all kinds are available as well as display cases filled with memorabilia from the glory days. It's a short drive on what once was America's very first highway.

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