The Lincoln Highway was once the most famous road in America. It was the symbol that “Good Roads” supporters rallied around in their crusade to create a highway system for the country. It was the first successful transcontinental highway and served as the catalyst for the driving improvements that were being demanded by an increasingly mobile public and by the car makers of Detroit. The Lincoln Highway was the first successful, all-weather, coast-to-coast, automobile highway. The Lincoln Highway owed its success to promotion.
In the beginning, there was no federal funding to build highways. In 1913, when Carl Fisher proposed the “Coast-to-Coast Rock Highway,” dirt roads led from one town to the next, and few people could give directions beyond that. Fisher was a dreamer. He had founded the Indianapolis Speedway, owned the Prest-O-Lite Headlight Company, and would later create the Dixie Highway. He approached the fledgling automobile industry for support and funding for his highway. Eager to put America on wheels, many executives from automobile manufacturers and tire companies joined ranks of the Lincoln Highway Association in its inaugural meeting on July 1, 1913.
Henry Joy, president of the Packard Motor Car Company, was elected president of the new association and it was his suggestion to dedicate the road to the martyred Abraham Lincoln.
Without federal funding, and adequate financial backing, it was impossible to construct a road across America. It was, however, possible to identify existing roads and to label them as the Lincoln Highway. Signs were cheaper than rock and concrete. Any road could be marked as the official route, if it were sanctioned by the Association out of their Detroit office. Guidebooks and signs constituted the early highway.
In the very first year of their existence, the Association set out to identify a route across the continent. They did it with flair and publicity and an entourage of twenty cars with streaming red, white, and blue pennants as they took a fact-finding road trip across America.
While the western route fluctuated drastically over the ensuing years, the route through Illinois held relatively steady. The highway was perhaps the first urban bypass, skirting Chicago and its congestion, passing through Chicago Heights, Joliet, Aurora, DeKalb, Rochelle, Dixon, Sterling, Morrison, and finally exiting the state at Fulton with its spindly Mississippi River bridge.
The route across America was determined by a number of factors, such as the need to connect major cities and supportive communities, including scenic landscapes and historic sites, and above all, follow the most direct route.
Within a year of its beginnings, The Lincoln Highway Association was broke, but just beginning their crusade to enlist the public and the government to build better roads.
It was said that the road was paved more with printers ink than with concrete. The Lincoln Highway Association realized that its limited funds were better spent on promotion than on highway construction, especially after corporate America failed to provide strong sponsorship. They made the Lincoln Highway the centerpiece in a massive marketing campaign to convince the public that better roads were needed and that the government should build them.
Concrete “seedling miles” were built at locations strategically placed between notoriously muddy stretches of dirt road to serve as prototypes of what an improved highway could do for the nation. An “Ideal Section” was constructed near the Illinois/Indiana stateline. Illinois, as much as any state embraced and reflected the evolution of the Lincoln Highway. It was the home of the first to hard-surface the entire section of the Lincoln Highway that ran through the state; it took less than 10 years.
The Lincoln Highway and the Good Roads Movement faded away as a result of their own success. By the late 1920’s, there was a reliable network of roads crisscrossing the nation. At least 9 transcontinental highways existed by 1922. The Lincoln Highway, although famous for many more years, was just another road. Federal funding became increasingly available.
The twenties were the peak of fame for the Lincoln Highway. In 1919, the Army embarked on a celebrated caravan crossing of the entire highway as a test of national preparedness. Cross-country racers were setting records and capturing headlines. Songs and poems were written about the road. The highway caught on in the advertising world. Restaurants, motor garages, campgrounds, and hotels proudly displayed the banners and named themselves after the highway.
By 1925, the web of roads on the face of America had become confusingly marked with a baffling number of signs and painted logos. Some states had already adopted systems of numbering roads, and by 1925, the American Association of Highway Officials instigated a policy of numbering all interstate roads. All named highways, like the Lincoln Highway, were subject to the numbering system. The Lincoln Highway that connected the country from coast-to-coast would become a series of disconnected numbers.
The mission of the Lincoln Highway Association was complete. It disbanded on December 31, 1927 as an active board after passing one final resolution to mark the route as a final memorial to Lincoln. The markers were designed by landscape architect Jens Jensen of Illinois, who won a national competition. They are cast concrete with a bronze head of Lincoln, the highway logo, and a blue directional arrow. In one day, September 1, 1928, Boy Scouts placed 3,000 markers at every mile across the coast-to-coast highway. Of approximately 175 markers placed in Illinois, less than two dozen remain. Artifacts from another era, these are some of the last tangible icons of the original Lincoln Highway.
The final loss of identity came after the passage of the Interstate and Defense Act of 1956, which ushered in the “super highway” system of limited access interstates. Ironically, it was signed into law by President Eisenhower who 37 years earlier was a young officer on the 1919 Army caravan that struggled across the Lincoln Highway.
Today, travelers race across northern Illinois on Interstate 80 or 88. Few people realize that just a few miles north lay the remnants of America’s once famous highway. Known now as US30, Ill.31, and Ill. 38, the old route still exists. In some fields and second-growth woodlands, roads and bridges are gracefully disintegrating. In other places, street names, businesses, and communities celebrate the history of the coast-to-coast highway and the stories of lives that “crossed on America’s greatest road.”