Fans take to 100-year-old Lincoln Highway

Workers build the "Seedling Mile" for the Lincoln Highway in Kearney, Neb., in 1915, demonstrating the use of concrete as a roadway surface on what had been a dirt road.
Workers build the "Seedling Mile" for the Lincoln Highway in Kearney, Neb., in 1915, demonstrating the use of concrete as a roadway surface on what had been a dirt road. (Buffalo County Historical Society)
Posted: July 15, 2013

OMAHA, Neb. - Some stretches of the historic coast-to-coast Lincoln Highway looked like a scene straight out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel.

Two processions of Model T's, Model A's and other cars set out on the weekend of June 21 to make their way from New York and San Francisco to the nation's midpoint at Kearney, Neb., to celebrate the 100th year of the Lincoln Highway, considered to be the nation's first transcontinental highway.

"The Lincoln Highway started it all for the automobile," said Paul Gilger, president of the California chapter of The Lincoln Highway Association, who was to lead the tour from San Francisco. "Before that, people traveling outside of their town did so on a train."

The highway was the precursor to America's highway and interstate system, and, in a sense, marked the birth of trucking. Before its creation, people primarily ate only what was grown or raised near them, Gilger said.

"No one in Ohio had ever seen an avocado," he said. "It changed the way we ate. It created a whole culture."

History buffs, road-trippers, and auto lovers are marking the anniversary. The two-day Centennial Celebration in Kearney began June 30 with the arrival of the antique cars in the city's brick-paved downtown, streets. On July 1 - the 100th birthday of the highway - the celebration moved to the Great Platte River Road Archway that spans Interstate 80 at Kearney.

The historic highway "is the mother of all roads," Lincoln Highway Centennial co-chairwoman Ronnie O'Brien said. "The Lincoln Highway really proved that the automobile was here to stay."

Predating America's highway system created in 1926, the Lincoln Highway system was a private venture proposed in 1912 by Carl Fisher - an early automobile entrepreneur and a founder of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway - and several other entrepreneurs tied to the fledgling automobile industry.

First pitched as the Coast-to-Coast Rock Highway, the group soon decided to name the highway for former president Abraham Lincoln, said Brian Butko, a Lincoln Highway historian who has written several books about the route.

"They really meant it as a memorial to Lincoln," Butko said. "Many of their fathers knew Lincoln, and he was their boyhood hero."

It was no accident, Butko said, that those men incorporated the highway on July 1, 1913 - 50 years to the day of the beginning of the Battle of Gettysburg, a turning point in the Civil War.

Over years, the highway was cobbled together from existing trails and beside easy terrain, such as along rivers and rail lines. It was not, however, what most think of as a highway today. Many parts of the route remained unpaved, and even improved sections often were paved with bricks.

While the highway made transcontinental travel by automobile possible, it didn't make it easy. The Lincoln Highway was built before drive-up gas stations. Gasoline was bought at hardware stores and poured from barrels into tanks under the driver's seat.

Many stretches of the road still remain in parts of Nebraska, Iowa, and other states. A few areas remain much as they did 100 years ago, such as unpaved stretches in the Utah desert, Gilger said.

"There's no telephone poles; there's no cellphone service; there are no signs," he said. "You really feel what it must have been like to come across the country in 1913.

"I don't know if you've ever sat for a very long time in a Model A Ford . . . but they're not ergonomically designed."

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