Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Lincoln Highway

There was a great documentary on last night on our local PBS affiliate about the Lincoln Highway. Rick Sebak was the producer for WQED of the film entitled A Ride Along the Lincoln Highway. Look for it in your local listings. It is worth watching if you get the opportunity.

So what is The Lincoln Highway? It was the first designated coast-to-coast highway in the United States. The Lincoln Highway was not a product of the federal government or state governments. It was a marketing scheme cooked up by Carl G. Fisher, an early automobile parts entrepreneur. Fisher owned the Presto-O-Lite Company which used pressed carbide pellets to produce acetylene gas for fueling car headlamps before cars had electric lighting. Fisher also built the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Fisher got together with some of his other automotive magnate friends and convinced them that a highway marketing project would give people something to do when they wanted to drive their new cars. The more people drove, the more car products they would need.

The Lincoln Highway Association was chartered on July 1, 1913. The association didn't build any new roads. They laid out a route over existing roads that went from Times Square in New York City to Lincoln Park in San Francisco. The Lincoln Highway was not one single U.S. highway but a variety of highways and state roads that were designated with signage. Fisher wanted to call it The Lincoln Highway as, at that time, there was no national monument to Lincoln (The Lincoln Memorial was not dedicated until 1922). Most of the work of the LHA was working with local officials to mark the existing roads with Lincoln Highway markers as well to insure publicity, guidebooks, etc.

The LHA operated until 1930 when it finally ceased to exist. But the Lincoln Highway segments are still with us. In the early 1990's, a new LHA was founded to preserve and protect as much of the original roadway as possible. The documentary focuses on a lot of the people who are in the current LHA and who are passionate about their hobby. The Lincoln Highway was in some way a predecessor of the Interstate Highway System. In fact, Dwight Eisenhower took a coast-to-coast military convoy across the Lincoln Highway in 1919 to assess military travel by road. That experience, coupled with his contact with the German Autobahn during World War II, lead him to champion the Interstates (now known as the Eisenhower Expressway System).

One of the interesting features of the Lincoln Highway was that in various locations they had a mile of paved road they called Seedling Miles. These were well marked and showed drivers how much more enjoyable a good road could be compared to the gravel and mud that made up much of the early Lincoln Highway. The idea was that people would be begin to demand better roads like the Seedling Miles. And they did.

The original dream of Carl Fisher and his buddies came to pass. (Fisher, by the way, also promoted a north-south highway called the Dixie Highway that went from Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan to Miami Beach, Florida). People did get out and drive. The Lincoln Highway certainly can't claim credit for all of that but it was a brilliant promotional tool for a young industry. We are now predominantly a nation of highways and motor vehicles. You can have too much of a good thing. But the highway still calls to people and is the stuff of songs and stories. The Lincoln Highway was part of where it all started.

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