Summer is the favorite time for road trips, and decades ago, the Lincoln Highway was the great American driving adventure. It was the first coast-to-coast route across the country, spanning from New York City to San Francisco.
It started back in 1912 when a businessman named Carl Fisher, who was involved in the automotive industry, had the grand idea to map out a highway across the nation. He gathered together his fellow industrialists and they proposed “a continuous improved highway from the Atlantic to the Pacific, open to lawful traffic of all description, without toll charges, and to be a lasting memorial to Abraham Lincoln.”
While earlier names such as “The Coast-to-Coast Rock Highway” and “The Ocean-to-Ocean Highway” were considered, it was eventually named the Lincoln Highway in memory of our sixteenth president. Promoters thought a patriotic slant would offer more appeal to the general public.
An association was formed, and by September of 1913, the route was made public. It passed through 13 states and covered 3,389 miles.
It should be noted that the Lincoln Highway was not a specific road building project – it was a marketing project. It used signs and guide books to get people out on the road where they would spend money. Travelers could expect to drive on wagon trails, around fences, and through small towns on Main Streets. Fisher and his fellow promoters envisioned the automobile and highways changing Americans and their lives. It did.
By the mid 1920s, named roads such as the Lincoln Highway were converted to numbered highways. Route 66 was established in 1926 and became one of the most famous roads in American history. The Lincoln Highway, affectionately known as the “Main Street Across America.,” began to fade away. The last big event associated with the Lincoln Highway was held in September 1928. At that time, Boy Scouts across the nation placed nearly 3,000 markers at sites along the route.
A renewed interest in the Lincoln Highway occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The Lincoln Highway Association was revived and plans were made to celebrate the 100th Anniversary in 2013. A new generation of travelers who were tired of the generic interstate routes were re-discovering the small town charms of the Lincoln Highway.
There are excellent history lessons on this road. One example is Gettysburg, Pennsylvania where the highway takes you right through the heart of the downtown area. A few blocks away is Soldiers’ National Cemetery; there President Lincoln delivered his famous Gettysburg Address in November 1863.
The Lincoln Highway also has some lighter stops along the way. Fort Cody Trading Post in North Platte, Nebraska, is full of road kitsch and other souvenirs.
And standing tall in the stockade area of the fort is Muffler Man. He’s been made over to honor Chief Crazy Horse.
It’s fitting that Illinois, the Land of Lincoln, has many noteworthy sites.
In Geneva you’ll find a vintage gas station that has been re-purposed into a bank. The business was originally a Pure Oil Station, built in 1937 in the English Cottage style. Notice the clever way the former service bays have been changed over to drive-up windows.
The Illinois Lincoln Highway Coalition decided to paint murals and install gazebos along their 179 miles of the Lincoln Highway. There are a total of thirty-five murals and sixteen gazebos, each telling a specific story about the highway. You can visit the Illinois Lincoln Highway website to get a complete list. The mural below is located on a building at the corner of Lincoln Highway and Seventh Street in DeKalb.
Although the Lincoln Highway wasn’t about building roads per se, the Lincoln Highway Association secured donations to fund “seedling miles.” They went into a community and put down a mile of concrete road. Promoters wanted to show the public the advantages of good roads and to rally support for government sponsored or private paving beyond that seedling mile.
In 1914, the very first seedling mile was laid in Malta, Illinois, a small town just west of DeKalb. Today there is a gazebo at Kishwaukee Community College to tell the story of this project.
After the Lincoln Highway Association was re-activated in 1992, a site in Franklin Grove was designated the National Headquarters in 1996. Interestingly enough, this former dry goods store was built in 1860 by Harry Lincoln, a distant cousin of the president.
Another unique road stop is De Immigrant Windmill and Cultural Center in Fulton. It sits on the banks of the Mississippi River and marks the last Lincoln Highway community in Illinois before crossing over into Iowa. The windmill was built in the Netherlands , taken apart, and re-assembled in Fulton. Dedication ceremonies were held in May 2000. You can tour the site and purchase flour ground in the windmill.
Today, the Lincoln Highway still allows travelers an opportunity to see interesting landscape and experience history. A detour off the interstate promises to be worth the extra time!