|By Barbara and Ken Beem
Museums are not always indoors. And some of them are measured not in terms of square feet but in linear miles. At least, that is the case with the Lincoln Highway, which turns the big 1-0-0 this year.
Back when transcontinental travel meant riding on a train, when automobiles were still a rich person’s novelty, a pair of Midwestern businessmen with something to gain came up with the idea of linking America’s East and West Coasts by road. Little did they know that their efforts would result, a century later, in a celebration of Americana.
Henry Joy, president of the Packard Motor Car Co., and Carl G. Fisher, of Prest-O-Lite (manufacturer of automobile headlights) and Indianapolis Motor Speedway fame, decided that one way to increase the sale of automobiles, parts and tires would be to give drivers places to go. To that end, in 1913, the pair formed the Lincoln Highway Assoc. (LHA), naming the enterprise in honor of the nation’s 16th President.
Never intending to physically construct the highway, they viewed their mission as one of heavy fundraising efforts, an intense marketing program. According to their best estimate, it would take approximately $10 million, a king’s ransom at the time, to construct a ribbon of paved highway connecting Times Square and San Francisco. To say they had vision is putting it mildly.
It is not as if there was no east-west travel before the turn of the 20th century. And in fact, before the heyday of the railroads, a series of tracks and trails, some following Native American paths, were in use. With the ascent of train service, though, many of these country lanes and local byways were allowed to fall into ruin. Automobiles were no match for the challenges they presented.
Although driving a car in town was not an uncommon thing, taking a road trip was another matter. With that in mind, the stated goal of the LHA was to link fragmented routes together, improving them and making them uniformly passable, thereby creating a uniformed highway.
What resulted in the subsequent years fell short of the original dream, but by 1925, a transcontinental route was completed, imperfect but the best that could be realistically accomplished, given the limitations of the day. To make it official, on Sept. 1, 1928, 15 years after the highway’s inception, Boy Scouts began placing cement markers along the route from Elizabeth, N.J. to Lincoln Park in San Francisco, designating the road as the Lincoln Highway.
Build a highway, and they will come. Now that motorists could travel across the country, they needed fuel, food and lodging. Tourists also sought entertainment, memories and souvenirs. Not surprisingly, it did not take long for service industries to pop up along the way.
The 1920s saw the establishment of numerous mountaintop stopovers, a place for travelers to refresh themselves and their vehicles. Here, drivers could refill their cars’ radiators, which had usually overheated on the steep road up, as well as check the brakes before making the long descent.
Despite the Great Depression, the 1930s saw businesses flourish: motor courts and diners sprang up, and budding tourist attractions were a new part of the landscape. As competition for tourism dollars increased, entrepreneurs became increasingly ingenious as they sought to market themselves and catch the public’s eye. Buildings took on unusual shapes, including shoes and coffee pots. And more than one business along the route bore the word “Lincoln” in its name.
In time, though, the two-lane road proved inadequate and was deemed too slow for moving people across the county. Modern highways, superhighways, and turnpikes were built, and traffic was diverted from the original route. But today, a regeneration of interest in this piece of transportation – and cultural – history is taking place, and the Lincoln Highway is a destination in itself.
Although other states have made efforts to develop tourism along the scenic route, Pennsylvania has made this project a priority. Just as it was originally considered to be the keystone state, connecting the eastern leg of the route with what followed out west, Pennsylvania has continued to lead the way with the formation of the Lincoln Highway Heritage Corridor.
Established in 1996, the LHHC embraces many of the tenets of the original, cutting-edge businessmen who first conceived of a national highway; it is a model for the celebration of the famous road.
Following the Lincoln Highway through six Pennsylvania counties – Westmoreland, Somerset, Bedford, Fulton, Franklin and Adams – the Lincoln Highway Experience showcases buildings, bridges and roadways along approximately 200 miles. With the help of the Lincoln Highway Driving Guide, today’s motorists can trace the original route.
Serving as headquarters for the LHHC is the Johnston House, situated on the eastbound lane of Route 30 in Ligonier, just east of Pittsburgh. Built in 1815 with a “new wing” added in 1829, the original use of the structure is unknown, although there are indications it might have once been a tavern and part of the underground railroad. Visitors can view an introductory film that sets the mood for the road trip; educational and entertaining exhibits, as well as a great gift shop, make this a worthwhile stop.
But there is no substitute for experiencing firsthand the adventures along the open road. This particular leg of the Lincoln Highway can be traversed in a day, but an overnight stay or two along the way is not too much – many opt for the Lincoln Motor Court in Manns Choice to experience firsthand the flavor of the route.
Traveling at slower speeds, motorists can spot the gate to Ligonier Beach (Dean Martin is said to have been a towel boy here), an oversized statue of Little Boy Blue (the remnants of a storybook amusement park), and the King and Queen Pub (still looking regal).
This is the same route taken by Emily Post, the etiquette expert, when she set out for a cross-country trip in 1915. It is also the stretch of road on which Frederick Duesenberg, on July 2, 1932, crashed near Jennerstown; wet conditions and excessive speed contributed to the fatal accident. Along the side of the road west of Bedford are bits of a stone wall, all that remains of the Ship Hotel, once this area’s most famous landmark, the ruins of which are still being chipped away by souvenir hunters.
The story of the Lincoln Highway is an evolving one: it now provides access to the Flight 93 National Memorial; a nearby field hosts scores of eerily beautiful wind turbines. Contemporary art projects, including murals and Roadside Giants – sculptures created by vo-tech students – dot the way.
For fans of the Lincoln Highway, there is plenty to collect: postcards and a wide variety of souvenirs, produced during the highway’s heyday, are still available, as are old photographs, restaurant menus, and the like. But perhaps the best souvenirs are the memories of the experience.
The founders envisioned a “street paved with gold” when they embarked on the project. That did not happen. But the Lincoln Highway laid the groundwork for the American century. Just as their forbearers had headed west in horse-drawn wagons, a new generation of pioneers traversed the country, this time, in motor cars. For history lovers, it is still possible to slow down and become a “two lane” traveler, where getting there is half the fun.
For more details and to obtain a copy of the Lincoln Highway Driving Guide, go to www.LHHC.org. Greetings from the Lincoln Highway, by Brian Butko, is an interesting book and souvenir.