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Westward on the Old Lincoln Highway

June 2024
17min read

The nation’s first transcontinental motor route can still be experienced in all its obsolescent charm.

I had been driving across Pennsylvania’s hills and valleys for five hours when suddenly my destination for the evening appeared ahead. On a high, level clearing in the state’s mountainous southwest quarter, just beyond the immaculate little town of Bedford, stood the Lincoln Motor Court, a roadside lodging almost exactly the way it looked when travelers passed by in Hudson Hornets and Studebaker Land Cruisers.

The gravel driveway made low, crunching sounds as my car pulled into the court—a U-shaped cluster of thirteen clean little cabins, each of them surfaced in gray Permastone, with white shutters adorning the windows and old-fashioned metal lawn chairs waiting by the front doors. Hip-roofed cabin No. 6 was all mine for twenty dollars a night. What more could an explorer of historic highways ask? I had set out to travel the nation’s first transcontinental motor route, and here I was experiencing the famous Lincoln Highway in all its obsolescent charm.

In 1912 Carl Graham Fisher, president of the Prest-O-Lite carbide headlight manufacturing company and founder of the Indianapolis 500, had first advocated building a road that would let people drive from the Atlantic to the Pacific on a “rock highway”: drive without devoting weeks to the journey, drive without choking in clouds of dust or sinking in axledeep mud. That year the United States Congress had decided to spend $1.7 million to erect the Lincoln Memorial in Washington—a solemn and inspiring piece of symbolism, certainly, but, in Fisher’s view, low on practicality. Highway promoters like Fisher and his ally Henry Joy, the Packard Motor Car Company president, insisted there was a more useful way to honor the sixteenth President. Asserted Joy: “Let good roads be built in the name of Lincoln.”

The plan called for a 3,389-mile route starting in Manhattan’s Times Square and ending in San Francisco’s Lincoln Park.

Fisher and Joy’s plan, as it evolved, called for a 3,389-mile route starting in New York City’s Times Square, spanning the Hudson River via ferries, climbing the nearly three-thousand-foot ridges of the Allegheny Mountains, traversing the mammoth Midwestern prairie, crossing the deserts of Utah and Nevada, and weaving through the Sierra Nevada before coming to an end in San Francisco’s Lincoln Park.


It was a proposal both audacious and prescient. Few people were prepared to make a transcontinental auto trip in 1912. Those who wanted to travel quickly and comfortably went by rail. Nevertheless, by 1912 there were 901,000 cars in operation, and in just three years the number would nearly triple. By 1920 automobile registration would surpass the eight-million mark. Leaders of the nascent auto industry saw the scarcity of reliable roads as an obstacle requiring an all-out national campaign. So Fisher and Joy proposed a motor route that would let Americans drive across the continent to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, a much-anticipated event that San Francisco was going to mount in 1915.

Fisher and Joy were wildly overoptimistic. The cross-country route they charted was primitive when the San Francisco show opened, and it was primitive when the exposition closed a year later. But in their advocacy of roads and cars, the industrialists foresaw a great transformation. The Lincoln Highway, and other roads like it, revolutionized travel. Within fifteen years they spurred into existence a national highway system. Within forty years they generated corridors of commerce that supplied gas, food, lodging, and every other basic need of the American motorist. The Lincoln Motor Court near Bedford was one of the countless businesses brought into being by the expanding highway.

On a breezy Sunday, with the clouds threatening rain, I headed west from Times Square in New York City to follow what remains of the original Lincoln Highway. Early travelers from New York drove to the west end of Fortysecond Street to ride a car ferry across the Hudson River to Weehawken, New Jersey. There they climbed the Jersey cliffs—pausing, if traffic was light, for a panoramic view of New York—and proceeded through a series of closely spaced cities and towns, Newark, Jersey City, and Elizabeth among them. In New Jersey a third of the Lincoln Highway followed existing city and town streets. These, Drake Hokanson observes in his justly celebrated book The Lincoln Highway: Main Street Across America , were dependable, but as soon as cars and trucks proliferated, they became annoyingly congested.

The closest major route across the Hudson today is the Lincoln Tunnel, which departs New York four blocks south of the old ferry landing and emerges in a busy tangle of roads on the New Jersey side. Accompanying me on the run across New Jersey was Doue Pappas, a young lawyer from Hartsdale, New York, who has a hobby of driving old national highways from end to end. We carried with us A Complete Official Road Guide of the Lincoln Highway, Fifth Edition , published in 1924 by the Lincoln Highway Association and reprinted in 1993 by the Patrice Press of Tucson. This 566-page paperback, augmented by road descriptions that Pappas had collected from the 1910s, helped correct our trajectory whenever we strayed from the old Lincoln—and we strayed often, for the roads and cities of northeastern New Jersey have been so thoroughly altered that it’s impossible to follow a 1920s route exactly. Through blue-collar urban neighborhoods, past moribund factories in a landscape without illusions, we turned this way and that until we found ourselves on State Route 27, an easy-tofollow road that carried the Lincoln Highway in the twenties and that was called the King’s Highway in the eighteenth century, when horse-drawn coaches used it to hurry between New York and Philadelphia. In Edison Township we detoured a couple of hundred yards to the north to see the Edison Tower, erected in 1937 on the site where Thomas Edison invented the first successful incandescent lamp. The 131-foot concrete tower, topped by an oversize replica of an early bulb, needs repair and is closed to visitors, but not far from its base we discovered a diminutive amateur-operated Edison museum, packed with interesting objects. When we got back on the highway, Route 27 led us through the well-preserved old towns of Kingston and Princeton, leafy and luxuriant, and then into dilapidated Trenton.


The highway crosses the Delaware River on the narrow, antique Calhoun Street bridge, a succession of light green iron trusses built in just sixty days in 1884 and so delicate, after being shaken by traffic for 111 years, that officers are stationed at each end to turn away heavy trucks. The young bridge-commission officer we met on its western side proved to be a zealous guardian, protecting his bridge span not only from eighteen-wheelers but also from unauthorized picture-takers.

Beyond the Delaware I traveled westward by myself into Pennsylvania, where the early highway builders met their first momentous challenge. In the center of the state looms a series of ridges running generally southwest to northeast. The highway, like the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Pennsylvania Canal before it, squeezed through gaps in the ridges. By the time it reached Bedford, however, the gaps had disappeared. There was no choice but to climb the steep slopes.

From the 1910s until 1928, when it disbanded, the Lincoln Highway Association strove to build, promote, and improve its road. In 1992 a new association was founded, using the same name, and took as its purpose the preservation and commemoration of surviving segments of the highway and sites along its path. It was at Bedford in 1993, during the association’s first national conference, that I met several dozen of its members—among them classic-car owners, historic preservationists, fans of roadside architecture, and individuals who have spent their lives in towns the Lincoln touched. The disparate assemblage climbed into a tour bus and traveled most of the state, led by Brian Butko, a Pittsburgher who is compiling a guide to the Lincoln in Pennsylvania, and Kevin Patrick, a teacher at Indiana University of Pennsylvania who is writing a doctoral dissertation about it.

“People took great pride in being on the highway, as you can see in their propensity for naming their businesses after it,” said Patrick, a quick-witted geographer who had first become acquainted with the Lincoln during six-hour childhood car trips he took with his family from their home in New Jersey to relatives in Houtzdale, in central Pennsylvania’s coal country. The busload of Lincoln Highway devotees admired the “Lincoln Highway Farm”—the name painted in white letters on a red wooden barn. They inspected a 1926 Rickenbacker automobile at the Lincoln Highway Garage in York. They lingered at the Lincoln Motor Court. They stopped at a diner, a produce stand, an amusement park, a dispenser of shoofly pie—old roadside enterprises of every description.

The peak period for naming roadside enterprises in honor of the martyred President was the 1920s, an era when people were proud to be the neighbors of a big-name national highway. In the 1910s and 1920s boosters established the Jefferson Highway, the Dixie Highway, the Midland Trail, the Pikes Peak Ocean to Ocean Highway, and numerous others, emblazoning each route with its own symbols and colors. The mark of the Lincoln was a big blue L on a white background, with a red stripe above and a blue stripe below. In 1925 federal and state highway officials, unhappy with the confusing patchwork of named highways, introduced a system that numbered national routes—even numbers generally running east-west, odd numbers running north-south. Much of the Lincoln Highway became U.S. 30 in the East and the Midwest and U.S. 40 or 50 in Nevada and California. Other parts wound up as county roads and local streets. But the Lincoln name never entirely disappeared, and in recent years it has enjoyed a resurgence. Patrick pointed out that in newly suburbanizing areas such as the outskirts of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, Route 30 is being designated by the locals as Lincolnway or Lincoln Highway. “You see the Lincoln Highway name on these buildings much more now than you ever did,” Patrick observed. Merchants like it; the name provides a more distinctive address than, say, 12080 U.S. 30.

Old businesses, too, are capitalizing on the memory of the Lincoln Highway. After Bob and Debbie Altizer bought the Lincoln Motor Court in 1983, they renamed it the Country Comfort Motel and even installed a whirlpool bath in one of the cabins. “We tried to make it modern, and then we ran out of money,” said Debbie. “We read about the highway, and we decided, Why not make it as it was?” In April 1993 they resurrected the Lincoln name, figuring that the appeal of history was their best drawing card.

Here and there the observant traveler will notice a four-foot-high concrete marker displaying a profile of Lincoln.

A sometimes conflicting amalgam of preservationists, tourism promoters, and government economic-development agencies has lately seized upon the Lincoln as a tool for reviving the stagnant economy in rural areas. Pennsylvania has organized a Lincoln Highway Heritage Corridor, intended to spotlight the history of transportation and commerce in five counties in the southcentral and southwestern part of the state. Making it a popular success may not be simple. In some places those intent on seeing the sights share the road with coal trucks chugging uphill or racing down and tractor-trailers out to beat the turnpike tolls. Complicating matters, highway engineers have to be reined in. “The highway departments still want to widen portions of the road and bring it up to today’s safety standards,” Patrick said, “but it’s the old two-lane sections that appeal to tourists.”

Be that as it may, there’s plenty to explore. East of York stands the Haines Shoe House, which the owner of a chain of shoe stores built in the shape of a shoe in 1946; it’s in good condition, though not generally open for touring. The Coffee Pot, a café built to look like its name in the 1920s, still stands, while several miles to the west the Ship Hotel, built to resemble an ocean liner, rides the crest of the Alleghenies. In the early days of motoring, it was common for eating and drinking places to be built on the tops of long hills, catering to people who would stop and let their overheated radiators cool down. Yesteryear’s pop commercial architecture has a short half-life. The Ship Hotel and the Coffee Pot are now closed and dilapidated. A tour of the Lincoln Highway is a journey into a world that may not hang on much longer.

As the Lincoln heads into the Midwest, it passes through scores of small towns that once fought tooth and nail to be on its path. In 1924 Ohio laws allowed vehicles to travel at thirty-five miles per hour in rural areas, fifteen in towns, and eight miles per hour in commercial or highly developed sections. Low speeds made it easy for businesses to appeal to the passing patron.

Here and there the observant traveler will notice a four-foot-high concrete marker displaying a profile of Abraham Lincoln. As a tribute to the highway’s organizers, Boy Scouts, compensating for the removal of the Lincoln name from official highway maps, installed some three thousand of these markers from coast to coast on September 1, 1928.

From the earliest days, leaders of the Lincoln Highway Association pressed for road-building improvements that would allow faster travel. In western Indiana between Schererville and the town of Dyer, progressive forces in 1922 built the Ideal Section, a stretch of highway that was an astounding feat for its time and place: a four-lane, fortyfoot-wide road of reinforced concrete, well lighted, well drained, with a pedestrian path along its shoulder and with advertising signs prohibited. The Ideal Section, one and a third miles long, was hailed at the time, according to Hokanson, as the “finest section of road in the world.” The association called it an “object lesson” for communities throughout the United States.

The Lincoln stayed well south and west of Chicago and then headed toward a state notoriously challenging to cross-country travel. The rich, deep topsoil that made Iowa immensely productive for farming made it nearly impassable for motor vehicles. Guidebooks in the 1910s and 1920s warned that if you got caught in a rainstorm there, you should save your temper by stopping and giving the roads time to dry rather than get mired in mud.

I crossed Iowa in the company of Bob and Joyce Ausberger, a farm couple who grow corn and soybeans near Jefferson, a town of 4,292 people northwest of Des Moines. The Ausbergers were among the first to campaign against widening and raising a portion of the original Lincoln Highway—old U.S. 30 in the Jefferson area. In 1990 the Greene County Board of Supervisors, on which Bob Ausberger served, decided to rebuild several miles of old 30 (itself now bypassed by a more modern highway), widening its pavement and changing its height. “We knew it needed some work done, but we thought it could have been done while saving the integrity of the road,” said Ausberger, a lanky, earnest man from whom words emerge slowly, the pauses making his sincerity all the more striking.


To Ausberghr the Lincoln Highway is an almost sacred object. The highway got the farmers out of the mud. It gave them an alternative to their monopolistic tormentor, the railroad. It linked dozens of towns into a freely accessible network. “Greene County was the first county in Iowa to pave its entire portion of the Lincoln Highway,” said Ausberger; it had done so by 1924. Just east of Jefferson he stopped the car, climbed out, and peered along the shoulder. It was one of the sections that the county supervisors had “improved.” Ausberger was bothered by what he saw. “They raised it, they widened it.” Where the highway used to stay at the same elevation as the fields, now it proceeds independent of the roll of the land. Between the field and the road is a deep, sloping “borrow ditch,” which further changed the view from the road. “This fellow’s first row of trees was taken out,” Bob observed, displeased.

Then we were off to the west side of Jefferson, where Ausberger stopped the car again. “This is what we want the road to look like: save the trees, save the yards, preserve the identity of the old Lincoln Highway.” On this portion, called West Lincolnway, the county had added two feet of pavement to each side of the original eighteen-foot width but had left a groove visible between new and old. Ausberger likes this more modest and respectful way of dealing with the old road. A traveler could still sense what the Lincoln was like three-quarters of a century ago.

At first I wondered whether such nuances were all that important. But after four days of traveling Iowa with the Ausbergers, I began to see things from their perspective. The land is largely undramatic, ranging mostly from utter flatness to long green swells and troughs, covered by corn and soybeans, soybeans and corn. With two exceptions—the grain elevator, whose simple, undecorated forms inspired modern architects in the 1920s, and the courthouses, those stately edifices from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that dominate the central squares of county seats—rural Iowa possesses few architectural landmarks. Iowa towns by the dozen have watched their old business districts wither under the onslaught of WaIMarts and the centrifugal force of the automobile. In such a setting the highway itself becomes a key part of everyone’s experience, and it merits a kind of communal obeisance. Ausberger has studied its changing details, such as how State Engineer Fred White built the Lincoln in the 1930s with curbs to keep the rain from running off the highway and washing out the shoulders, only to have his successor decide that curbs were undesirable and knock them off. In the road, Bob said, “You can see the history of the thinking of the engineers and the politicians. We think the concept of a living history highway has some big possibilities.”

A number of Iowa communities conduct annual celebrations of the highway. The town of Nevada (pronounced nuh -VAY- duh ) has been holding “Lincoln Highway Days” on the last weekend in August since 1984. Thousands of people, many of them from the nearby university town of Ames, come for a parade, a rodeo, a barbecue, and other events, all honoring the road that connected Nevada (population 6,009) to the rest of America. “Lincoln Highway Days” is a premier local event, raising money for needed community improvements.

In Belle Plaine (population 2,834, which is 1,053 fewer than in 1924), the Ausbergers and I visited the garage-cum-convenience store that was operated for more than half a century by George Preston, a local character whose penchant for nonstop talking once got him onto the Johnny Carson show. Preston’s garage, covered with advertising signs from long ago, is a shrine to Lincoln Highway enthusiasts, lowans still marvel that Preston had, for a time, a 900 phone number that allowed long-distance callers to listen to him reminisce about the highway. The Great Talker having gone to that Great Service Station in the sky, the Ausbergers and I did the next best thing. We visited his widow in her home behind the station. She let us poke through her husband’s enormous, messy collection of auto- and roadrelated objects. Then the Ausbergers and I drove to Belle Plaine’s lonely downtown and dined at the Lincoln Café, an informal, high-ceilinged old place where a fried-chicken dinner set me back $3.87. I passed up Iowa’s most beloved desserts—Jell-O with bits of fruit suspended in it and cream pie. Bob Ausberger, not surprisingly, chose the “Lincoln Burger.”

At the informal, high-ceilinged Lincoln Café in Belle Plaine, Iowa, a fried-chicken dinner set me back $3.87.

The next stop was Tama, Iowa (population 2,697), where the mayor and a delegation of townspeople assembled at the east end of town to show off the little Tama bridge, built in 1915 with side rails of reinforced concrete that spell LINCOLN HIGHWAY . Once in a long while a careless motorist has driven a car into the side of the bridge, damaging the letters, but the town has always seen to it that the name was restored. Most recently Tama has created a pleasant creekside park that nicely complements the bridge.

The Ausbergers and I traveled together as far as eastern Nebraska. Beyond Omaha and Boys Town, a sign pointed north to “Historical Lincoln Highway.” We followed the sign and found ourselves on a narrow old brick road that seemed oddly serene after the thick traffic and the strip-commercial development we had just plied through. This brick road south of Elkhorn, three miles long, appeared to be from a different world—or to be more precise, a different time. The red brickwork, bumpy but serviceable after threequarters of a century, had been laid in 1920. In honor of its intactness, one mile of it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. I imagined the entire scene being transported to Henry Ford’s great Greenfield Village museum in Dearborn, Michigan, to be lined by tearooms, tourist courts, and filling stations dispensing gasoline dyed the distributors’ colors.

In the well-ordered capital, Lincoln (which, ironically, is not on the Lincoln Highway), I bade the Ausbergers good-bye and linked up with two Nebraskans: Carol Ahlgren, who directs the survey program of the State Historic Preservation Office, and Robert Hurst, a retired Air Force officer. The three of us made our way west on U.S. 30, which parallels Interstate 80, which parallels the Union Pacific Railroad, which parallels the Oregon Trail, which parallels the Platte River. East-west transportation routes through Nebraska have clustered within a narrow corridor for about a century and a half. 1-80 now carries most of the cross-country vehicular traffic, leaving Route 30 to the Nebraskans, which gives local idiosyncrasies a better chance of surviving. On 30 I noticed how some drivers would acknowledge oncoming motorists. “There’s a rural custom that people lift one or two fingers from the steering wheel, even though they don’t know you,” explained Hurst, who grew up in Lodgepole, on the high plains of western Nebraska. “Women rarely do it. Mostly it’s a man thing.”

In Fremont we drove Nye Avenue, as the old Lincoln is known locally, and admired a procession of grand houses facing the road from behind deep lawns. The houses appeared to have been built in the 1920s, when the elite still had the practice of erecting their homes on principal streets, making themselves all the more prominent and at the same time bestowing an aesthetic gift on the town.

In Ames an abandoned gas station, its stucco falling away to reveal the lath underneath, attracted our attention. Hurst and Ahlgren speculated that it had been built there because at that spot the Lincoln turned to cross the railroad tracks. In the Midwest the original Lincoln route followed the rigorously north-south and east-west section lines, avoiding the political and economic sin of cutting an efficient diagonal through farmers’ fields. As a consequence, the Lincoln crossed and recrossed the transcontinental railroad tracks, repeatedly exposing travelers in the underpowered vehicles of the 1910s to terrible danger. Deaths on rail crossings led to some of the first reroutings of the Lincoln, as the road’s organizers tried to keep it clear of the tracks. Near Kearney we noticed a tiny old bridge stranded in the middle of a field, one of the visible remnants of Lincoln abandonment that can be found across the country. Seeing it, I wished Ausberger were with us. He had become, to me, the King of Culverts, a man fascinated by every trace of the road no longer taken.

Near Grand Island we cruised Seedling Mile Road. In the Midwest the Lincoln Highway Association had sponsored seedling miles, stretches of road that would be graded and paved for a short distance, in the hope that governments would recognize their value and pave much longer sections. When I recounted the history of the seedling miles for a native of Grand Island, he beamed; he hadn’t realized, until that moment, how the local Seedling Mile acquired its peculiar name.


For Hurst, whose parents operated a motel and café, the route stirs old emotions. “I grew up on the Lincoln Highway,” he recalled. “We would drive from Sidney [Nebraska] to Cedar Rapids [Iowa]. My father would get off work at five or six o’clock, and we would drive all night. I would see the dark sides of the Lincoln Highway—the marquees with the names of the movie that was playing at the time. I wanted to stop for a movie. My dad would stop only for gas or for six hamburgers for a dollar.” Hurst paused and thought some more about the marathon road trips. “He used to take a cooler of beer along. I’d feel this cold rush of air, and I knew it was going to be followed by a clanging sound as he threw out a can. So many things from your childhood, they really burn into your mind.” Hurst and Ahlgren accompanied me halfway across the Cornhusker State. When I left them, they were planning an oldcar tour of Nebraska on the Lincoln for a group of car and road enthusiasts. “I’m going to throw one out just for Dad,” Hurst said.


He may have been serious.

In Wyoming the population and the sights grow sparse, making any monuments stand out all the more. A huge bust of Abraham Lincoln, twelve feet high on a thirty-foot native stone base, was erected in 1959 at the highest point on the old Lincoln Highway—by then U.S. 30—at the summit of Sherman Hill between Cheyenne and Laramie. Said to be the world’s largest bronze head, it now stands about a half-mile away, in a rest area of Interstate 80. Farther on, at Creston, is a small memorial to Henry Joy, commemorating this father of crosscountry travel.

Utah was another difficult state to travel. Instead of towns, there were only ranches to turn to in the desert west of Salt Lake City. In March 1994 a caravan of Lincoln Highway Association members retraced much of the Utah route, visiting Orr’s Ranch, where, in Woodrow Wilson’s day, barrels of gasoline were kept available for travelers. Motorists could pitch tents on the flat land for fifty cents a night. Mrs. Orr served dinners in the family’s log cabin, still standing, for seventy-five cents each. “The Lincoln Highway was a lifeline for the Orrs,” said Gregory M. Franzwa, the first president of the new association, “and the Orrs were a lifeline for the Lincoln Highway.”

Farther on was John Thomas’s ranch at Fish Springs, home of innocentlooking but notorious salt flats that motorists would start to cross only to bog down in mud to their running boards. Thomas left a pile of sagebrush for the stranded travelers and a sign telling them, IF IN NEED OF A TOW, LIGHT FIRE . Seeing the smoke, the sixfoot-four-inch Thomas would arrive with two draft horses and “announce his price to pull the errant car back to the road, usually a dollar a foot,” recounts Drake Hokanson. “He’d silently listen to the driver argue a few minutes, then raise the price to two dollars. … the longer one argued, the higher the price.” Local lore has it that Thomas had water diverted from Fish Springs to keep the mudhole fresh.

There are still isolated areas where services are scarce. In Nevada the Lincoln mainly follows U.S. 50, which east of Fallon is called “The Loneliest Road in America.” A pay phone stands along the shoulder in the vicinity of Sand Mountain; a sign identifies it as “The Loneliest Phone.” The Lincoln followed either Carson or Donner Pass through the Sierra Nevada of California as it continued west toward Sacramento, Oakland, and San Francisco. The terminus of the Lincoln Highway was Lincoln Park, in the northwest corner of San Francisco, above the pounding of the Pacific. In truth, the drama dissipates before the traveler reaches the conclusion. In the big city where it ended and the bigger city where it began, the Lincoln Highway always struck most people as just another street: California Street in San Francisco, Fortysecond Street in New York. The road made its real contribution outside the cities.

That contribution promises to become better marked in coming years. The association is busily painting Lincoln Highway insignia on utility poles in Iowa and some other states. Communities are thinking about adopting the Lincoln name for portions of the road. The surviving concrete pillars installed by the Boy Scouts in 1928 are well cared for, and in certain locations replicas are going up. A chapter in central Ohio is preparing new Burma-Shave signs to give the road its old-time humor. “We’ve got three times as much history as Route 66,” says Franzwa. As Steve Lintner, a self-described “roadside archivist” in Ocean City, New Jersey, puts it, “This is one of the great touring roads of our dinky little planet.” That’s quite an advance from the 1920s, when the Lincoln was sometimes described as “nothing more than a red line on paper, connecting all the worst mud holes in the country.”

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