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Driving Through History With Lincoln Highway’s Legacy

Emmanuel Daniels
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In a world saturated with highways, gas stations, and shopping centers, it’s challenging to envision an era before these conveniences existed. However, let’s journey back to where it all began.

Picture yourself at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, a bustling event showcasing the marvels of the era. Amid the excitement, a gentleman approached a peculiar contraption resembling a metal carriage. He turned the crank on its front end, and the machine came to life, emitting a cacophony of rumbling and coughing, enveloped in black smoke. But here’s the twist – it didn’t need a horse to move. This was the birth of the horseless carriage, powered by an internal-combustion engine running on gasoline. Spectators were astonished, and the public’s response was a mix of wonder and intrigue. The car had arrived, and despite the skeptics dubbing it the “devil wagon,” it was here to stay.

The introduction of the horseless carriage triggered a wave of innovation and investment. In just the first four months of 1899, investors poured a staggering $388 million (equivalent to about $11 billion today) into new automobile companies. By the turn of the century, more than 8,000 cars were cruising around the United States. However, a significant challenge remained – the lack of infrastructure. There were no gas stations, traffic lights, mechanic’s shops, or, most crucially, proper roads. Existing throughways were little more than deeply rutted wagon trails that petered out into the countryside. During harsh winters, these “roads” became impassable, leading early car owners to stow away their vehicles until spring.

America needed roads, but public funds were scarce. The federal government viewed cars as novelties and refused to allocate money for road construction. By 1905, when the first modern gasoline filling station appeared, not a single mile of paved rural road existed in the entire country. Despite Henry Ford’s assembly line revolution, which made cars more affordable, the nation found itself with over half a million vehicles and nowhere suitable to drive them.

Enter Carl Graham Fisher, an entrepreneur who had amassed wealth selling Prest-O-Lite brand acetylene automobile headlamps. In 1912, Fisher proposed a groundbreaking initiative to raise $10 million for “The Coast to Coast Rock Highway.” This ambitious plan aimed to create 3,389 miles of two-lane, graveled roadbed, spanning from New York City’s Times Square to San Francisco’s Lincoln Park. Fisher believed that car manufacturers would recognize the project’s benefits and contribute generously, and many did.

Henry Ford’s Surprising Stance

However, one prominent figure was notably absent from the list of contributors – Henry Ford, whose company had produced a substantial portion of the cars navigating the makeshift roads. Ford staunchly refused to contribute, arguing that the public should fund road construction, not the industry. This decision marked a pivotal moment in the project’s development.

Undeterred by Ford’s absence, Fisher and his group pressed on with the project’s planning. Their first task was to rebrand “The Coast to Coast Rock Highway.” Several names were proposed and rejected, including “The Ocean to Ocean Highway,” “The American Road,” and “The Jefferson Highway.” Ultimately, they settled on a name everyone could agree on – the Abraham Lincoln Highway. In a momentous step, the project was officially renamed “The Lincoln Highway,” and on July 1, 1913, the Lincoln Highway Association came into existence. Henry Joy assumed the role of president, while Carl Fisher served as vice president. During that same summer, Fisher orchestrated a remarkable event known as “The Hoosier Tour,” a truck caravan journeying from Indiana to Los Angeles. The tour served a dual purpose: drawing attention to the pressing need for road improvement and promoting the vision of the Lincoln Highway.

With the birth of the Lincoln Highway, a transformative journey began—a journey to create a transcontinental thoroughfare that would connect the United States from coast to coast. This highway would not only revolutionize travel but also stimulate economic growth and transform communities along its route.

The Lincoln Highway Association’s Mission

The Lincoln Highway Association, under the leadership of Henry Joy and Carl Fisher, embarked on a mission to turn their vision into reality. They envisioned a continuous, well-maintained road, allowing automobiles to traverse the nation with ease. To achieve this, they needed both public support and private investment.

To secure the necessary funds, the Lincoln Highway Association employed a creative approach. They encouraged local communities, businesses, and individuals to contribute to the construction and maintenance of the highway. In return, they promised recognition and the potential for increased traffic and commerce in these areas.

The chosen route for the Lincoln Highway was carefully planned to connect major cities and regions across the country. It traversed diverse landscapes, from bustling urban centers to rural heartlands, providing travelers with a glimpse of America’s rich tapestry.

Constructing a transcontinental highway was no small feat. The project faced numerous challenges, from varying terrain and weather conditions to logistical hurdles. Workers had to navigate mountains, deserts, and plains, all while battling inclement weather.

Local communities played a pivotal role in the highway’s development. They contributed funds, provided labor, and welcomed travelers, making the Lincoln Highway a true community effort. Many towns proudly proclaimed their status as a “Lincoln Highway City” and erected iconic markers to guide travelers.

The Legacy of the Lincoln Highway

As the Lincoln Highway neared completion, its impact on America’s landscape and culture became evident. The highway not only facilitated cross-country travel but also spurred economic growth, transformed tourism, and left an enduring legacy.

The Lincoln Highway opened up new opportunities for businesses along its route. Gas stations, diners, motels, and other establishments sprang up to cater to travelers, giving birth to the concept of the American roadside. The highway captured the imagination of adventurers and explorers. It became a symbol of the American spirit of discovery, as intrepid individuals embarked on cross-country journeys to experience the beauty and diversity of their nation.

Over time, the Lincoln Highway evolved, and portions of it were incorporated into the U.S. highway system. However, its legacy endured, as it continued to symbolize the idea of an open road and the boundless possibilities of exploration.

Today, the Lincoln Highway has transformed into a symbol of American heritage and a testament to the nation’s spirit of innovation and progress. Although it may no longer serve as a primary cross-country route, it lives on as a reminder of the pioneering days of the automobile and the determination of visionaries like Carl Graham Fisher. Numerous organizations and enthusiasts are dedicated to preserving and celebrating the legacy of the Lincoln Highway. Historic markers, museums, and events commemorate its significance in American history.

For modern-day adventurers, retracing the Lincoln Highway’s path offers a unique opportunity to connect with the past and experience the diverse landscapes and communities that make up America.

The story of the Lincoln Highway is a testament to the power of vision, determination, and community collaboration. It transformed the American landscape, opening up new horizons for travelers and businesses alike.


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