TBT: Driving from sea to shining sea

The 1919 Transcontinental Motor Convoy.
Photo from the Eisenhower Presidential Library.
Sitting down at a desk at the Rock Island Arsenal in Rock Island, Illinois, Lieutenant Colonel Dwight D. Eisenhower began composing his report. It was November 1919 and Eisenhower had just completed an arduous two-month drive across the United States with a column of Army trucks on the Lincoln Highway, the new transcontinental highway stretching from New York’s Times Square to San Francisco’s Lincoln Park.

At least, that’s the road which the Army thought it was going to use. In his report Eisenhower cleared up any misconception which the Army might have had about the Lincoln Highway being an actual road.

“Through Ohio and Indiana a great portion was paved and macadamized,” he wrote. “In Illinois train started on dirt roads, and practically no more pavement was encountered until reaching California.”

Over the course of the two-month ordeal, the soldiers had eventually reached California. One afternoon they parked all 65 of their vehicles in Dixon, Illinois, and sat on the courthouse lawn eating a lunch prepared for them by local citizens. But farther out west, vehicles had broken down and been abandoned, roads and bridges had been destroyed by the passage of the heavy vehicles, and Dwight Eisenhower had seen first-hand how important it was going to be for a 20th-century nation to have good roads.

"Hoping it will hold" - a vehicle from the convoy
crosses a precarious looking bridge.
Photo from the Eisenhower Presidential Library.
The Lincoln Highway had been the idea of an Indiana auto parts manufacturer named Carl Fisher. In 1909, Fisher had joined with other investors in building the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. After a disastrous start, Fisher developed safer methods of racetrack construction, and in 1911 the first 500-mile race at America’s most famous racetrack was a tremendous success.

In 1913, Fisher turned his attention to an even more ambitious project: a transcontinental highway. He set a goal of 1915 for its completion: the same year that San Francisco would host the Panama-Pacific International Exposition.

Fisher knew the project would require not only a group of extraordinary roadbuilders, but it would also need a superior public relations effort. An admirer of the nation’s 16th President, Fisher chose the name “Lincoln Highway” for his project. He sought to kick start the construction effort by collecting private donations; raising $1 million from such luminaries as Theodore Roosevelt and Thomas Edison. President Woodrow Wilson donated $5. He was given, “Highway Certificate #1.” These high-profile donations were publicized in order to gin up more support.

On July 1, 1913, the Lincoln Highway Association (LHA) was formed. Their first mission was to select a route for the highway. “Trailblazers” from the group set out from Indianapolis all across the northern part of the country trying to find the most direct route from New York to San Francisco. They included a number of newspaper correspondents for publicity, including a writer from the Chicago Tribune. Naturally, this route brought them to Illinois.

Crossing from the Atlantic to the Pacific, the Lincoln Highway enters Illinois near Lynwood and follows the Sauk Trail west to Joliet, then shifts northwest to Aurora. There it turns north to Geneva, before heading straight west again through DeKalb and Dixon, Sterling and Fulton, and then over the river into Iowa. In total, the highway traverses 179 miles in Illinois.

The announcement of the route that October brought bonfires and celebrations here and in the other 12 states selected for the highway. But the highway was still just a line on a map, theoretically connecting a few local roads. Soon it was clear that private donations were not going to be enough to make the transcontinental highway a reality. Undeterred, the LHA came up with a brilliant concept: the “seedling mile.”

To show the public just how wonderful a paved highway really was (“to demonstrate the desirability of this permanent type of road construction,” as an LHA guidebook would later explain), and perhaps to encourage citizens to put pressure on their legislators for funding for more such roads (“crystalize public sentiment” toward the goal of “further construction of the same character,”) the LHA built one-mile stretches of paved highway along the route. The first was constructed in 1914 near Malta in DeKalb County.

Publicity for the highway would rely heavily on Abraham Lincoln. Not only did the highway end at Lincoln Park in San Francisco and cross the Land of Lincoln itself, but it also would pass important points from Lincoln’s life, such as the battlefield at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Carl Fisher also made sure to commission statues of Lincoln for communities along the way.

For the miles of highway across Illinois, Fisher had another idea. To quench the thirst of motorists along the route, the LHA would offer a free drinking fountain to any Lincoln Highway town if it met certain criteria. One of the requirements was that the town must name the city street on which the highway passed “Lincoln Way.” By the time the Malta mile opened, nine of these fountains had already been accepted, and a total of 17 were eventually installed in Illinois. The story of the Lincoln Highway fountains is told on a Lincoln Highway mural in Creston, in Ogle County. Along the stretch of highway in the Frankfort-New Lenox area, the local leaders took this re-naming one step farther. Today the communities have four high schools that are part of the Lincoln-Way Community High School District.

Van Buren Sisters on Motorcycles
As its fame grew, the Lincoln Highway became a popular course for racers. The Van Buren sisters rode motorcycles across the country along the highway in 1916. Auto manufacturers began sponsoring drivers in cross-country races to prove the superiority of their vehicles. In a 1916 challenge, driver Bobby Hammond made it across the country in just under a week. The LHA presented an award to drivers who set a new record. In Byron, a mural depicts driver Louis Miller and his trophy for setting a new record of 102 hours and 45 minutes in 1925.

But as Eisenhower’s misadventure proved, the road was going to need a lot of help if it was going to be able to handle heavy traffic and commerce. In Illinois, the Lincoln Highway became part of an overall “Good Roads Movement” of the 1910s and 1920s. The highway would become part of Illinois’ emerging system of state roads. To help with this project, Illinois in late 1918 approved a road building program which designated nearly 5000 miles of existing roads as state highways and issued $60 million in bonds to finance road building and maintenance. The effort was backed by Governor Frank Lowden and strenuously promoted by the Illinois Highway Improvement Association and its President, William G. Edens of Chicago. The enthusiastic support for road building continued into the 1920s during the term of Governor Len Small, the “Good Roads Governor.”

One key part of this new highway system in Illinois and nationally, however, involved discontinuing the practice of giving highways names and instead creating a system of numbered highways. In 1926, much of the Lincoln Highway became U.S. Highway 30 (also Illinois 31, Illinois 38 and Illinois 2). This could have marked the end of the Lincoln Highway story, if not for another creative decision by the LHA.

The LHA wanted to ensure that the name did not fade from memory. On September 1, 1928, Boy Scouts working with the LHA placed concrete Lincoln Highway markers from one end of the road to the other: red, white and blue signs with a large blue L in the middle, beneath a bronze medallion with Lincoln’s profile and the words “This highway dedicated to Abraham Lincoln.” Many of these markers still stand today. The iconic logo appears on waysides and exhibits across many miles of the Lincoln Highway.

Gradually, more and more miles of the Lincoln Highway were built across Illinois. The new road deeply affected each town it reached. In 1921, the Ogle County town of Ashton celebrated the opening of its section of the road with a party called the “pavement jubilee,” which also marked the installation of the town’s streetlights. The opening of the Lincoln Highway helped make Rochelle the “hub city” that it remains today. In Mokena, a roadside garage became the region’s first Ford dealership in 1916. Morrison ended up setting an attendance record after the city advertised plenty of vehicle parking for Lincoln Highway travelers visiting the 1921 Whiteside County Fair.

Lincoln Highway Marker
At the junction of the Lincoln Highway and another famous road; Route 66; Plainfield found itself at the crossroads of the two longest highways in the entire world. To the east, Chicago Heights was the crossroads of the Lincoln Highway and the famous Dixie Highway which carried drivers from the Great Lakes down to sunny Miami.

When the highway reached the Mississippi River at Fulton, in Whiteside County, the town became a tourist attraction. The new bridge over the river provided such a scenic backdrop for photos that motorists would often stop their cars and get out in order to capture a picture of the bridge and the riverbanks. The highway brought tourists to St. Charles’ Hotel Baker and Arcada Theater; the Blackhawk statue in Oregon; and the Pilcher Park Tourist Camp in Joliet.

The road held a special place in American pop culture by the early 1940s. NBC radio carried a program called “Lincoln Highway,” which featured Hollywood stars; including Lucille Ball and Rita Heyworth; in dramatic episodes set along the route. It has been featured in movies, television programs, music and books.

By the 1950s, Eisenhower was in the White House and one of his biggest initiatives was the creation of the Interstate highway system. Many miles of the Lincoln Highway route were absorbed into Interstate 80, though its Illinois route is closer to Interstate 88. In 2000, the miles of the Lincoln Highway in Illinois were designated as an Illinois Scenic Byway.

The LHA ended its operations in the 1920s when the federal government took over the highway, but it was reborn in 1992 as a historic preservation and tourism entity, with its headquarters in Franklin Grove. The association has painstakingly mapped the original highway and its many re-alignments over the years, a total of 5872 miles from coast to coast. They have also compiled a directory of all the points of interest along its many routes, from the Dutch Windmill Welcome Center in Fulton to the Arche Memorial Fountain in Chicago Heights and everything in between (and everything outside of Illinois too).

The LHA has been busy in this decade marking centennials: the centennial of the founding of the LHA and the original Lincoln Highway Plan in 2013, the centennial of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 2015 and this year, the LHA will celebrate the centennial of Eisenhower’s trek with a commemorative tour of the Lincoln Highway from Washington to San Francisco. Unlike during Ike’s time, they expect the drive to take only two weeks.
Eisenhower and friends from the 1919 Transcontinental Motor Convoy