Origin of the Lincoln Highway

In the early 20th century, the lack of good roads was a growing national concern. Automobile companies were selling more cars, but people were not finding reliable places to drive those cars. Iowa faced a particular difficulty in that the state’s roads were known as good -- right up until rainfall, when they turned impassible. With a reputation as one of the states with the worst roads, Iowa leaders faced the very real possibility of being left behind in the mud.1

In 1913, Indianapolis entrepreneur and automotive visionary Carl Fisher proposed a plan to build the nation’s first transcontinental highway from New York City to San Francisco. With a track record that already included an early car dealership, a company that supplied headlights for almost all of the nation’s automobiles, and helping to build the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Fisher brought credibility to the idea few could match. After hearing Fisher announce the concept at a fundraising dinner, the project so gripped Frank Seiberling, the president and founder of Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co., that he donated $300,000 immediately, without a moment of consultation with the company’s board. Fisher’s plan almost fell through when Henry Ford famously refused to go along with the plan for privately financed roads. Henry Joy, president of the Packard Motor Car Co., then stepped in with a donation, lending his assistance and leadership to the Lincoln Highway Association (LHA).2

The building of the Lincoln Highway ran into new hurdles. While selection of the route eventually adopted the somewhat direct line favored by Joy, the process provoked several local and interstate rivalries. Construction of the nation’s first improved coast-to-coast highway went much more slowly than Fisher intended, and contributed funds were spent more quickly than he anticipated. The highway encountered additional problems from the lack of structure for highway planning in various states. Instead of working through states’ highway commissions, in many states, the Lincoln Highway Association had to cobble together a patchwork system of already existing, unpaved roads. Also, a 1919 transcontinental Army convoy along the Lincoln Highway proved that graded roads simply were not sufficient for heavy traffic, tearing apart miles of unpaved roadways. The convoy damaged nearly 100 bridges -- including 14 Pennsylvania bridges in just one day.3 Somehow, Fisher and the Lincoln Highway Association needed to find a way to pave this transcontinental highway.

The planners created a method known as seedling miles. After securing contributions from the Portland Cement Co., workers constructed 1 mile of paved highway in key areas in each state, believing that drivers would note the contrast between graded dirt roads and paved highway, and then press state governments for increased road funding. In Iowa, planners built the seedling mile between Cedar Rapids and Mount Vernon in 1918-1919. It served its purpose, eventually becoming part of an early continuous paved stretch from Chicago to Cedar Rapids. Further, financial aid came from the passing of the Federal Highway Act of 1921. The Act provided $75 million in matching funds to states in order to build primary roads. States along the Lincoln Highway route, with one exception, spent the money on paving the Lincoln Highway. By the 1930s, the Iowa portion of the Lincoln Highway was fully paved.4

As the Lincoln Highway neared completion, planners began to view highway names differently. Noting the confusion caused by the named highway system, with poles sometimes carrying the symbol of several highways at the same time, planners sought to simplify and standardize the naming system. The American Association of State Highway Officials adopted a new numbering system for U.S. highways in March 1925, which would break apart the Lincoln Highway into five different U.S. highways, including U.S. 30 across Iowa.

With its reason for existence becoming obsolete, the Lincoln Highway Association decided to fold, in 1927. The last act of the Lincoln Highway Association was the creation of 3,000 concrete Lincoln Highway markers.


Notes

1. George S. May, “The Good Roads Movement in Iowa,” Palimpsest 36, (January 1955): 2-3.

2. See “Lincoln Highway,” Iowa Department of Transportation, http://www.iowadot.gov/autotrails/lincolnhighway.html; James Lin, “The Lincoln Highway,” ,http://lincolnhighway.jameslin.name/.; Richard J. Maturi, "Lincoln Highway." American History 29, no. 3 (August 1994): 48.

3. See “The 1919 Transcontinental Motor Convoy,” Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum, and Boyhood Home. http://www.eisenhower.archives.gov/research/online_documents/1919_convoy/principal_facts.pdf.; Earl Swift, Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2001), 67.

4. See Iowa Department of Transportation, ibid. ;Lin, ibid.


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