200 Years of Illinois: That Ribbon Lincoln Highway

lincoln highway illinois route

The nation’s great coast-to-coast route in the pre-interstate era, Lincoln Highway was formally dedicated by the Lincoln Highway Association on October 31, 1913. Carl G. Fisher, the head of the project and a fantastically colorful figure of the era, envisioned the road as a straight-as-possible link between downtown Manhattan and San Francisco but also as an inspiration for the country to build a functioning highway system to facilitate commerce. A former race car driver, Fisher saw enormous potential in the automobile, potential doomed to remain unfulfilled until “it has good roads to run on.”

Fisher, nationally known for his promotional genius and thus well-connected, raised $1 million, mostly from business. Oddly enough, Henry Ford refused to contribute, believing that the government should pay for roads. Woodrow Wilson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Thomas Edison chipped in, though, as did private citizens from as far away as Alaska.

carl g. fisherOn July 1, 1913, Fisher set out from Indianapolis with other LHA officials on a road tour to scout which roads in the West could best be incorporated into the Highway. Thanks to heavy publicity by F. T. Grenell, a Detroit newsman hired by LHA to promote the Highway, the tour found people all along the potential
route eager to cheer the LHA cars and the prospect of having the great road come through their town. Crowds in San Francisco turned out to salute the convoy on the last leg of the route.

The LHA announced the final 3,389-mile route in September. Pieces of the Highway incorporated some of the nation’s oldest roads, including a New Jersey stretch first used by the Dutch in the 1670s and a British military trail near Pittsburgh built for the French and Indian War. The old Mormon Trail, various Native American roadways, the Pony Express route, and former stagecoach lines also lent mileage to the project. People along the final route held parties, dances, and bonfires to celebrate.

In 1919, another well-publicized event took place on the Highway. A U.S. Army convoy departed from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania—having started in Washington, D.C.—and despite broken bridges, mud hazards, and various other obstacles rolled into San Francisco. Road construction boomed in the aftermath. Dwight Eisenhower, a lieutenant colonel, took part in the convoy, later describing the odyssey as “difficult, tiring, and fun.” Yet the experience, combined with his observations of Germany’s autobahn during World War II, paved the way—as it were—for what became, arguably, Eisenhower’s greatest presidential accomplishment: the creation of the interstate road system.