Automotive Interests Launched Lincoln Highway

When Americans got the travel bug, first on bicycles and then in the automobile, passable roads were few and far between.

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The expansion of the railroads in mid-19th century allowed people who needed to travel across the country, or just get to the next town, to sit in a comfortable coach and travel smoothly and swiftly along steel rails. As a result, cross-country roads were virtually non-existent. The few there were consisted mostly of dirt, which quickly turned into deep mud in wet weather. This was inconvenient and exasperating, but tolerable when vehicles were limited to horse-drawn wagons and buggies.

Then Americans got the travel bug, first on bicycles and then in that snorting, popping, bane of horses: the automobile. People longed to go somewhere, but passable roads were few and far between.

In 1912, Carl Fisher, head of the Prest-O-Lite Co. (a manufacturer of early automotive headlights), had a vision: a rock-paved highway from New York City to San Francisco. He enlisted Henry Joy, who ran Packard Motors, and a few other wealthy automobile men, and he and Joy worked tirelessly to see the scheme to fruition.

A name for the new road was needed, and after some discussion, it was decided to call the thing the Lincoln Highway, invoking the name of the nation's most popular president (at least in the North).

The Lincoln Highway Association was incorporated and the idea caught on. States and cities across the country clamored for the Lincoln Highway to go through their area. Joy, however, was determined to use the shortest, most direct route consistent with the terrain, and laid out the route according to those criteria. The original Lincoln Highway was 3,389 miles long and contained just 650 miles of macadam and stone pavement, almost all of it east of Pittsburgh.

The association raised money, flooded the country with publicity, erected painted signposts marking the route and even built a few short stretches of concrete ("seedling miles," aimed at getting locals interested in paving stretches of the route). They also hired a salesman, Henry Ostermann, who drove a Packard touring car back and forth across the country at least twice a year, promoting the highway.

The association energetically lobbied Washington for federal aid to build a nationwide highway network. Finally, in 1921, President Harding signed the Townsend Federal Highway Act that promised $75 million for each of the next five years for road building.

After the Interstate Highway Numbering System was adopted in 1926, much (but not all) of the Lincoln Highway became U.S. Route 30. If you travel through the towns that were on the original U.S. 30, you'll often find the main east-west street named Lincolnway.