Take the Lincoln Highway and travel through history
By Larry Dreiling
U.S. Highway 66 was the road where Bobby Troup said you could get your kicks.
It was the route Tod and Buz traveled in a Chevy Corvette every week in early 1960s television to a jazzy Nelson Riddle score.
Sure, it had the moniker of The Mother Road, but for every mother, there also needs to be a father.While Route 66 is the stuff of bigger legend, the Father Road, U.S. Highway 30, better known as the Lincoln Highway, is the stuff of true history. While Route 66 offered romance, the Lincoln Highway offered practicality.
It's within all that practicality that a modern nation was formed, linked from coast-to-coast by the automobile.
The first automobile road across the United States, the Lincoln Highway was also the first national memorial to President Abraham Lincoln, predating the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., by nearly a decade.
The Lincoln Highway was dedicated in 1913. The original route was 3,389 miles, extending from Times Square in New York City to Lincoln Park in San Francisco and passing through 13 states.
All of the states through which the Lincoln Highway passed, including Nebraska, are celebrating the Father Road's centennial this year. As Nebraska is at the center of the route, it's going all out for a celebration the weekend of June 30 through July 1.
There will be special tours throughout the week before the weekend celebration for visitors to catch a glimpse of some of the historic parts of the highway that are no longer in use because of highway relocation or replacement by Interstate 80.
The idea of the Lincoln Highway goes back to the construction of the first automobiles. Carl Fisher was a tireless pioneer and promoter of the automotive, auto racing, and real estate development industries.
Wealthy beyond his dreams, Fisher suggested the idea of a transcontinental highway at a dinner of auto industry friends in 1912. He proposed that the auto industry and private contributors should build a coast-to-coast rock highway to be completed in time for the opening of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco scheduled for May 1, 1915.
Fisher believed a continuous improved highway across the country would "stimulate…the building of enduring highways everywhere that will not only be a credit to the American people but that will also mean much to American agriculture and commerce."
Of course, it would also increase the interest of Americans in buying automobiles.
The Lincoln Highway was an outgrowth of a broader trend in the U.S. called the Good Roads Movement. It began informally in the late 1870s as an effort to encourage road building in rural areas, a movement that still holds strong in many rural parts of the nation.
In 1880, bicycle enthusiasts—riding clubs and manufacturers—formed the League of American Wheelmen to advocate improving the nation's roadways and support the growing use of bicycles. By the turn of the century, as the automobile developed, automobile interest groups took a dominant role in the road lobby.
Friends of Fisher, like President Woodrow Wilson, former President Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Edison, and many others, pledged $1 million. Fisher had estimated the road would cost about $10 million.
The Lincoln Highway Association was formed July 1, 1913. Its mission was "to procure the establishment of a continuous improved highway from the Atlantic to the Pacific…" Henry Joy, president of Packard Motor Co., was named president of LHA.
LHA needed to determine the best route across the country. East of the Mississippi there was already a relatively dense road network. To determine the route west of the Mississippi, a "Trail Blazer" tour commissioned by LHA set out from Indianapolis in 17 cars and two trucks, heading to San Francisco.
The Trail Blazers arrived in San Francisco after 34 days. Not long afterward, on Sept. 14, the route across the country was announced. Less than half of it was improved roadway. The route was dedicated Oct. 31, 1913, with celebrations in hundreds of cities along the route.
The next job was to finance and build sections of the highway. Local and regional road associations with local government support provided by county bond issues undertook the construction of the roads.
Road building movement
By the mid-1920s there were about 250 national auto trails. Some were major routes like the Lincoln Highway, the Dixie Highway, and the Old Spanish Trail. Governments were participating in the road building movement and were beginning to take control of it. Federal and state officials formed the Joint Board on Interstate Highways, which proposed a numbered U.S. Highway system to supersede the trail designations. The Lincoln Highway Association supported this idea.
The federal numbering system was put into effect in 1926. Much of the Lincoln Highway was assigned U.S. 30. The last major promotional activity of LHA was in 1928, when Boy Scouts placed some 2,400 concrete markers at sites along the route to dedicate it officially to the memory of Abraham Lincoln. Some 4,000 metal signs were also erected in urban areas.
When the LHA ceased operating, there were still segments of the route that had not been paved. The final segment was completed in 1938.
Nationally, the Lincoln Highway followed much of the route of the Transcontinental Railroad, from New York City and avoiding the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and instead traversing Wyoming through on its way to San Francisco.
In Nebraska, the Lincoln Highway followed the present route of U.S. 30, which in turn closely parallels the Platte River from Fremont to North Platte. West of North Platte, it runs along the South Platte as far as the Colorado line and then continues west along Lodgepole Creek into Wyoming.
From Grand Island west to the Wyoming line, I-80 has replaced U.S. 30 as the principal route. U.S. 30 still serves local traffic. East of Grand Island, I-80 and U.S. 30 diverge. I-80 goes east to Lincoln, while U.S. 30 runs northeast to Columbus, Fremont, and Blair (north of Omaha).
There's plenty to discover in terms of the history of a highway, but just as important, there's plenty to discover in terms of how America changed with the growth of the use of automobiles.
Traveling along the Father Road
There are a few good places in the state to see the oldest parts of the Father Road. Over the years, the alignment of the Lincoln Highway was shifted slightly in different places.
To understand these shifts, it's best to head to the east side of Grand Island, Neb., as a first stop to capture that history.
Carl Fisher's idea that the auto industry could pay for the Lincoln Highway was not realistic. The Lincoln Highway Association did not have the funds to pay for large sections of the road. However, beginning in 1914, the LHA did sponsor "Seedling Mile" projects intended to "demonstrate the desirability of this permanent type of road construction" and develop public enthusiasm for government construction.
The first Seedling Mile was built in 1914, but in 1921, after several years of construction, the LHA attempted to standardize construction methods with specifications provided by a committee of highway experts.
A Seedling Mile in Grand Island was completed in November 1915. It was the second example of a concrete roadway in the U.S. The realignment of the highway in 1931 allowed this section to be preserved. It is the only original concrete Seedling Mile that remains intact.
To find this Seedling Mile, stop at the intersection of today's U.S. 30, Stuhr Road, and Seedling Mile Road, about where you'd find the historic Shady Bend Italian Restaurant. The Mile runs behind the equally historic Kensinger Service Station, on the north side of U.S. 30. This was the start of the concrete paving, which ran east down today's Seedling Mile Road to Seedling Mile School.
There's a good-sized parking lot with a Nebraska State Historical Society marker next to the Mile.
Drive west to Shelton to see two blocks of original bricks that were part of the first alignment of the Lincoln Highway through town. Also, there is an original billboard (repainted) advertising Bromo-Seltzer on the corner of one of the buildings. The Lincoln Highway Visitor Center displays Lincoln Highway memorabilia.
The Lincoln Highway passed through Shelton on a section of roadway paved with bricks. Two blocks survive as part of C Street in the old downtown. In 1931, Lincoln Highway was realigned, following the present route of U.S. 30.
Memorabilia in the Lincoln Highway Visitor Center, which is located in the historic Meisner Bank building, include examples of original road signage of different types as well as souvenirs that took advantage of the Lincoln Highway name—things like Burma Shave containers, postcards, ashtrays, and cigar boxes.
The Automobile Club of Southern California placed signs along the Lincoln Highway in the 1920s. The Shelton Historical Society is collecting signs posted along the highway in Nebraska. Examples are on display at the Lincoln Highway Visitors Center.
Then head west to Gothenburg, on the route of the Pony Express. The town was laid out on Union Pacific land in 1882. The Lincoln Highway in this part of the state was rerouted through downtown Gothenburg. However, a "berm" survives from the original alignment, which was south of Gothenburg.
"This berm was constructed in 1913. That's just a little over 50 years after the Pony Express," said Anne Anderson, executive director of the Gothenburg Community Development Office. "We were already thinking about cars traversing the United States, when once it was just horses carrying the mail. Even in 1913, people were saying, ‘Let's take our cars and go.'"
The Pony Express Station, a log building, was constructed in 1854 at a site along the Oregon Trail a few miles west of Gothenburg. Originally, it was used as a fur trading post and ranch building. Then, in 1860 and 1861, it was a Pony Express Station. From 1861 to 1931, it was an Overland Trail Stage depot and then a bunkhouse and storage building on the Upper 96 ranch. In 1931, it was moved to its present site in a downtown park to preserve it.
Perhaps the central focus of any trip along the Lincoln Highway in Nebraska ought to be Kearney, home of several crane sanctuaries along the Platte River, and the Great Platte River Road Archway Monument.
The Platte River, which joins the Missouri between Omaha and Nebraska City, was one of the most important corridors for the settlement of the American West. In the 1840s, the first wave of migration, settlers going to Oregon Country, followed it. Beginning in 1847, Mormons heading to Utah did the same and so did prospectors heading to California in 1849 and thousands more going to the gold and silver mines of Colorado in 1859.
The First Transcontinental Railroad built between 1863 and 1869 passed through the Platte Valley. Between 1841 and 1866, 350,000 people traveled west along the Great Platte River Road.
The Archway commemorates the importance of the Platte River Valley in the settlement of the West. The Archway itself is a unique piece of architecture. Spanning Interstate 80, and resembling a covered bridge between two towers, its sides change color depending upon the light.
Inside the monument are 15 exhibits, called "vignettes," that tell the story of 150 years of transportation along the Great Platte River Road, beginning with Fort Kearney in 1848 and ending with an early 1960s roadside cafe. In each vignette a story is told using artwork supplemented by written text and audio recordings.
For more information on how to plan a summer trip along Nebraska's Lincoln Highway, visit www.lincolnhighwaynebraskabyway.com. Larry Dreiling can be reached by phone at 785-628-1117, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.