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The Lincoln Highway: Main Street across America

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Trains, planes and automobiles: The second decade of the 20th Century in the Far West region represents a revolution in transportation technology when cars and improved roads began making mountain travel easier, more accessible and more fun.

During the 19th Century, railroads dominated interstate transportation of people and goods. However, the growing popularity of automobiles in the early 20th Century led a group of car enthusiasts and automotive industry officials to establish the Lincoln Highway Association in 1913. Among its stated goals was to “establish a continuous improved highway from the Atlantic to the Pacific, open to lawful traffic of all description without toll charges.” It was a bold vision for this nation 100 years ago, where roads were primarily of interest only to local residents, as most streets ended outside city limits. In the surrounding countryside, so-called Market Roads were poorly maintained by counties or townships.

Before 1910, virtually everyone in the United States traveled long distances by train. Locally, the Lake Tahoe Railway was in its heyday bringing thousands of summer visitors to Lake Tahoe from the transcontinental line in Truckee, but its role as a primary conduit for tourists would be limited to only a couple of decades.

It also was during this period that daredevil pilots were making their first attempts at transcontinental flight and local barnstormers pushed their aircraft to the limit trying to fly over the Sierra Nevada. One of the first efforts to soar over the Sierra was a well-publicized flight by Robert Fowler in 1911, but his primitive, underpowered airplane could not surmount the massive mountain range. That breakthrough event occurred in 1919 when three U.S. Army planes with 90 horsepower engines successfully crossed the Sierra from Sacramento to Reno. Once the airmail route between Reno and San Francisco became established in September 1920, solo flights over the Sierra became almost routine. But it would be decades before travelers boarded passenger airplanes for regular flights that crisscrossed the country.

Construction of the Lincoln Highway played an important role in the evolution of America’s highways leading up to the Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways established in the mid-1950s. Its western route split while entering into California – one road over Donner Pass and the other at Carson Pass near South Lake Tahoe. Both would dramatically impact travel through the Tahoe Sierra and grow into the dominant form of transportation for tourism. During its heyday, the Lincoln Highway was as well known as iconic Route 66, and as vital to our economy as Interstate 80 is today.

The twin goals chartered by the Lincoln Highway Association were ambitious and visionary. First, to build a “Coast-to-Coast Rock Highway” from Times Square in New York City to Lincoln Park in San Francisco. Second, and just as important to Carl G. Fisher, the creator and chief promoter of the Lincoln Highway Association, was to “…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.” Fisher understood his challenges. He said that “the highways of America are built chiefly of politics, whereas the proper material is crushed rock or concrete.”

His idea for a “Main Street Across America” received a big boost when it got the attention of Henry Joy, president of the Packard Motor Car Co., and Frank Seiberling, president of Goodyear. Within a month, members of the auto industry had pledged $1 million toward the anticipated $10 million price tag. The idea was for communities along the route to provide equipment and in return they would receive free building materials and a place along America’s first transcontinental highway. Not all industrialists supported the project. Despite a personal plea from Fisher, Henry Ford, the biggest automaker of his day, refused to contribute, insisting the government should build the nation’s roads, not corporations or investors. Ford’s lack of support was a major setback, and one that would help delay the completion of the project by a decade.

Before the Lincoln Highway Association program began, less than 9 percent of the nation’s rural roads had an improved roadbed of gravel, stone, brick, oiled earth or coal. Many states even had constitutional prohibitions from paying for “internal improvements,” such as road projects. Thoroughfares east of the Mississippi River were generally in better shape than those in the sparsely populated West, so the greatest challenge lay in that direction.

To identify the most direct route possible for the Lincoln Memorial Highway, in July 1913 Fisher organized a “Trail-Blazer” tour that set out from Indianapolis, Ind., an entourage that included 17 cars and two trucks. Fisher was a promotional genius, car racing enthusiast and builder of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, among other major accomplishments. He led his highly publicized motorcade across the country to San Francisco in 34 days. Along the way, spectators from small towns on Fisher’s route cheered him on, all the while hoping that the highway would come through their community. Despite mud pits in Iowa, sand drifts in Nevada and Utah, and boulders on Donner Pass, as well as flooded roads, cracked axles and overheated boilers, Fisher rolled into San Francisco on Aug. 3. After a triumphal auto parade down Market Street in San Francisco before thousands of cheering residents, the Trail-Blazers returned to Indianapolis — by train.

In the West, the Lincoln Highway used sections of the Mormon Trail (the route along which Brigham Young led his Mormon followers to Utah), as well as the route of the Overland Stage Line and Pony Express. During the early years, a trip on the coast-to-coast highway took between 20 and 30 days, assuming that the motorist could maintain an average speed of 18 mph. By 1938, the 25th anniversary of the Lincoln Highway Association, only 42 miles of more than 3,100 miles of the Lincoln Highway had not yet been surfaced with something better than gravel. At the time, Fisher said: “The Lincoln Highway Association has accomplished its primary purpose; that of providing an object lesson to show the possibility in highway transportation. Now I believe the country is at the beginning of another new era in highway building that will create a system of roads far beyond the dreams of the Lincoln Highway founders.”

The visionary entrepreneur was right. In June 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Federal Aid Highway Act, the first official step toward creation of the Interstate System.

Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at thestormking.com. You may reach him at mark@thestormking.com. Check out Mark’s blog at tahoenuggets.com.

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