Adventures on the Old Lincoln Highway

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A circa 1940s postcard humorously showing some of the sights along the Lincoln Highway through Wyoming.
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The Coffee Pot Restaurant and gas station along the Lincoln Highway in Bedford, Pa., in the 1920s.
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An original Lincoln Highway route marker in East Canton, Ohio, showing the route turning right just ahead.
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U.S. Army convoy trucks inching through the Sierra Nevada Mountains in 1919.
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The brass insert on a Lincoln Highway route marker.
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I’ve always been interested in the Lincoln Highway and have actually driven many sections of the old route from eastern Pennsylvania to western Nebraska. I recently bought a neat little book titled The Complete Official Road Guide of the Lincoln Highway.

Published in 1916 by the Lincoln Highway Association, the guide gives the background of the highway’s establishment, describes the route and gives the prospective traveler some do’s and don’ts, as well as a list of the equipment, supplies and clothing that should be taken on a cross country drive. Along with a map of the old Lincoln Highway route, the guide gives a detailed town-by-town (through much of Utah and Nevada the route is from ranch to ranch) description, starting in New York City and ending in San Francisco.

Speed limits varied, with Ohio at 20 mph and Pennsylvania at 24 mph, while New Jersey, Indiana, Illinois and Iowa all allowed 25 mph. West of Iowa, no speed limits are mentioned, although the condition of the roads probably was such that going much over 20 mph was impossible anyway.

H.C. Ostermann, field secretary of the Lincoln Highway Association, assured readers that “The entire expense of a car and four passengers from New York to San Francisco, a distance of 3,331 miles via the Lincoln Highway, should not at any time exceed $5 a day per passenger (about $104 in 2012). This sum will include everything except tire expense and unforeseen accidents. In it I have included gasoline, oil and all provisions, but have not figured the repairs to the car caused by breakage or wear.”

Ostermann goes on to say “If we assume that the tourist encounters perfect weather entirely across the country, absolutely no difficulties may be considered. Practically the only difficulties at present are the result of unfavorable weather conditions. This is due to the fact that so much of the road is yet natural dirt highway, and a season of unusual rainfall inevitably makes driving difficult. The transcontinental motorist should heed the advice that when it rains in the middle west or west, the thing to do is to stop at a comfortable hotel, and not attempt to continue the journey until the rainy spell is over, and the roads have had a day or two to dry up. You will make more progress in the end, and you will be saved many disagreeable experiences. It is hard work driving across Illinois, Iowa or Nebraska during or just following heavy rains.”

As for the time required to follow the whole length of the Lincoln Highway, Ostermann writes: “The usual pleasure party can make the trip in 20 to 30 days, driving approximately 10 hours per day. This estimate means that about 18 mph must be averaged during the driving time. It is possible, of course, for many long stretches to greatly exceed this speed. The wide open stretches of the west, where small traffic is encountered, enables the driver to make any speed of which the car is capable.”

The guide does offer one warning. “A journey from the Atlantic to the Pacific by motor car is still something of a sporting proposition. You must cheerfully put up with some unpleasantness, yet there are no hardships nor experiences which make the trip one of undue severity, even to a woman. Those who want luxury and ease should take a deluxe train. To those who love the wide open spaces of the great west, and who enjoy exertion and the clear pure air of the western plains and the Rocky Mountains, the trip is a delightful outing.”

In 1919, the Motor Transport Corps of the U.S. Army organized the “First Transcontinental Motor Convoy,” which was intended ” … to service-test the special-purpose vehicles developed for use in the World War, … and to determine by actual experience the possibility and the problems involved in moving an army across the continent.” As it turned out, the possibility was somewhere between slim and none, and the problems were many and daunting.

On July 7, the military convoy left Washington D.C. and traveled north to Gettysburg, Pa., where it picked up the old Lincoln Highway. In 16 days the trucks covered 906 miles across generally good roads of the states east of the Mississippi. West of the Father of Waters was another story, however. Dirt roads that were ankle deep in dust in dry weather and knee deep in mud when wet took the trucks slowly across Iowa, Nebraska and Wyoming. The “Militor,” a huge 5-ton artillery tractor with four-wheel drive and a heavy-duty winch, along with a 5-ton crawler tractor, accompanied the convoy and both were almost constantly in action rescuing stranded vehicles. As if the road surface wasn’t challenge enough, 88 wooden bridges and culverts were destroyed or damaged and had to be repaired by the engineer detachment accompanying the convoy.

After a rousing welcoming celebration put on by Salt Lake City officials, the most difficult part of the trip began. To add to the problems, the big artillery tractor finally gave out and had to be left behind in Salt Lake City for repairs. The story of the snail-like progress, as well as the super-human efforts of every man of the convoy as they inched their way across the Salt Lake Desert and the desolate alkali flats of Nevada, makes exciting reading. In many spots the men attached long ropes to the trucks and literally dragged them through the soft ground by hand.

The military convoy finally reached Carson City, Nev., late on a Saturday night and, luckily, had Sunday off to rest and go over their vehicles before tackling the rugged Sierra Nevada Mountains, the last obstacle before they reached smooth sailing on the approaches to Sacramento, Calif. After a hairy crossing, where the steep mountain trails were barely wider than the trucks and the temperature dropped to 30 degrees, the convoy safely reached Placerville, Calif. The road out of the mountains was good from Placerville to Sacramento, the weather was warm and another huge celebration awaited the men in California’s capital city.

The rest of the run, from Sacramento to San Francisco, was anticlimactic. The men got new uniforms at Stockton and rolled into Oakland, Calif., (across the bay from San Francisco) the afternoon of Sept. 5 to a huge celebration with lots of food and dancing.

In those days, before the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge, ferries loaded up the convoy on Saturday morning and carried them to the final stop of the journey. After a huge parade and a luncheon of hot dogs, cookies, pie and coffee served by the Red Cross, the convoy was disbanded. The expedition commander, Lt. Col. Charles McClure sent a telegram to the War Department: “CONVOY ARRIVED FINAL OBJECTIVE SAN FRANCISCO TEN MORNING ALL EQUIPMENT ROLLING NO MECHANICAL DIFFICULTIES OR CASUALTIES DETAILS REPORT LATER”

It took the doughboys 62 days to cover 3,251 miles, averaging just 5 miles per hour. Quite a difference from today’s cross-country motorist, who tools along a smooth interstate highway at 70 mph in climate controlled comfort, while listening to his favorite music on the CD player. FC

I’m a wild Motor Transport man,
Growing wilder as I can,
Nobody wants to bother me,
I’m as wild as wild can be.
For I’m as wild as wild can be.

We’ve drove and dug and sweat like hell,
To cross the desert. Well, well, well:
Nobody wants to bother me,
For I’m as wild as wild can be.
Yes, I’m as wild as wild can be.

If anybody thinks we’ve had good luck,
They ought to ride in a motor truck.
It’s enough to make a crab of me,
So I’m as wild as wild can be.
Yes, I’m as wild as wild can be.

California sure looks good to me,
Girls and fruit under every tree,
They’ll make a native son of me,
And I’ll be wild as wild can be.
Yes, wild as wild can be.

– From a selection of songs printed on the back of a program for a dinner planned to honor the officers and men of the First Transcontinental Motor Convoy by the state of California. It’s not clear whether or not the dinner ever occurred. 

Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by e-mail at

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