America's First Transcontinental Highway Turns 100

Oct 31, 2013
Originally published on October 31, 2013 5:53 pm

A hundred years ago, a new era of transportation in America was ushered in, when the Lincoln Highway was dedicated. For the first time, Americans could drive on one designated route from coast to coast.

The Lincoln Highway still exists in old maps and in the minds of its dedicated fans. The Lincoln Highway Association has charted the old route on Google maps.

Kay Shelton, president of the association and a professor at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, told All Things Considered host Robert Siegel that it was not a highway construction project — it wasn't about building a brand new roadway — but rather a route-making process.

"The Lincoln Highway's really made up of a patchwork of already existing roads," Shelton says. The route was intended to be the straightest possible shot between New York City and San Francisco. It was updated when newer, straighter or smoother legs were found, but Shelton says it still took about a month to get across the country.

The road was the brainchild of Indianapolis Motor Speedway founder Carl Fisher. Industrialists Frank Seiberling of the Goodyear tire company and Henry Joy, who was president of the Packard Motor Car Co., helped him realize the idea of an improved coast-to-coast highway.

America's roadways at the beginning of the 20th century were far from the advanced network of smooth highways we have today. At the time, some cities had brick roads or laid wooden planks to make smoother streets, but once you got into the country, roads were little more than rutted dirt paths. In an era when cars were still novel, these captains of the auto industry thought making a better roadway would spur interest in driving.

"They knew that people would not be interested in cars unless there were improved roads to take their vehicles on," Shelton says. "That was goal of the Lincoln Highway ... not only to promote the vehicle and travel but to show people what improved roads could be like."

If Fisher had his way, Shelton says, the road would have been called the Coast-To-Coast Rock Highway. But he was persuaded to name the road after America's 16th president, making it the first national memorial to Abraham Lincoln.

In the end, America's Main Street, as it came to be known, was not long for the world. By the mid-1920s, state and federal governments had started to take more control over American roadways. In 1925, a newly formed Joint Board on Interstate Highways created a system of numbered, not named, highways. The original Lincoln Highway Association, which was charged with caring for and promoting the route, ceased its activities in 1928, marking a functional end to the roadway.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Today is the 100th anniversary of America's first transcontinental highway. It was called the Lincoln Highway. It stretched from Times Square in New York City to Lincoln Park in San Francisco. On October 31, 1913 it was officially dedicated. This was not only way before the nation's interstate highway system, it was before the U.S. numbered highways were created. The Lincoln Highway still exists in old maps and in the minds of dedicated fans of the hundred-year-old route.

One of them is Kay Shelton who's president of Lincoln Highway Association. She joins from the campus of Northern Illinois University in DeKalb where, among other things, she teaches geography.

Hi. Welcome to the program.


SIEGEL: Was the Lincoln Highway really the first? Did people make cross-country trips by automobile before October 31, 1913?

SHELTON: There were a couple of famous people who did cross before the Lincoln Highway, but they followed routes that eventually became the Lincoln Highway. One of them was Alice Ramsey. And in 1909 she drove a Maxwell car coast-to-coast. And the Lincoln Highway is really made up of a patchwork of already existing roads, and a lot of it followed exactly where Alice Ramsey had gone in 1909.

SIEGEL: It was not a highway construction project. It was a route-making process.

SHELTON: Yes, it was a route-making process. And then once they identified what appeared to be the fastest route between New York City and San Francisco, they worked toward improving the road as much as possible with the available funds.

SIEGEL: What somebody the main brains behind the idea of creating the Lincoln Highway?

SHELTON: That would be Carl Fisher. He was from Indianapolis and he was also the establisher on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. And he envisioned a coast-to-coast highway. He wanted to call it the Coast-to-Coast Rock Highway. But another friend of his, Henry Joy, he came up with the idea of honoring Abraham Lincoln's memory with - and they renamed their plan the Lincoln Highway.

SIEGEL: Are you're saying the runner-up name was the Rock Highway?

SHELTON: The Coast-to-Coast Rock Highway - yeah, not a very catchy name.


SIEGEL: Nor very sensible one, I might add.

You traveled the Lincoln Highway with, I gather, a special map - a very long, skinny special map?

SHELTON: Well, we've join the 21st century on the Lincoln Highway Association's website. The map is now completely digital. And all of the points of interest are marked, as well as the original 1913 route, as well as the improved routes. So sometimes they would have the original route, but they would find a shortcut. Or there was a road that was smoothed out and rerouted. And all versions of the Lincoln Highway are mapped out using Google Maps.

SIEGEL: Now, when the Lincoln Highway was first charted, how long did it take to get from New York to San Francisco?

SHELTON: Generally about a month.

SIEGEL: A month? Now, to put this in some context here; in 1913, the people - the Lincoln Highway Association and the people who drove across the country and who made the speedway in Indianapolis, they were promoting automobiles.


SIEGEL: We weren't yet a country in which everybody had at least one.

SHELTON: Right. And you can kind of close your eyes and imagine what roads were like. They weren't paved. Some places in cities had planks, which were wooden planks. Some places in the cities had bricks. But out in the countryside, it was really just a dirt road. And these automobile manufacturers, they knew that people would not be interested in cars unless there were improved roads to take their vehicles on.

So, yes, that was one goal - the Lincoln Highway - was not only to promote the vehicle and travel, but to show people what improved roads could be like.

SIEGEL: Well, Ms. Shelton, thank you very much for talking with us on the centennial of the Lincoln Highway.


SIEGEL: Kay Shelton is president of Lincoln Highway Association. The Lincoln Highway, the nation's first transcontinental automobile route, was dedicated on this date 100 years ago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.