In 1913, nine years before the Lincoln Memorial’s dedication, the country’s first official homage to its 16th president was a highway stretching nearly 3500 miles across the United States, known as the Lincoln Highway.
The Lincoln Highway was the brainchild of headlight manufacturer and Hoosier Carl G. Fisher, who wanted to capitalize on America’s new enthusiasm for the automobile. The Lincoln Highway would eventually become known as U.S. Route 30, which was and remains one of the most important transportation corridors in the United States.
Fisher had built a small empire in Indianapolis with the sale of his carbide headlights and wanted to spark the potential of the automobile across the country, first by helping to build the Indianapolis Motor Speedway,then by crossing the cultural gap of the auto from novelty to necessity.
But to create a nation of drivers, you first needed roads and not just neat, narrow rural roads that had to be rebuilt year after year. The country needed wide highways that would inspire auto tourism and span the entire country. That was no small feat: roads in 1910s were, uh, not good.
It would cost millions, of course, but with his own wealth, and the wealth of far-seeing investors like Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Edison and even President Woodrow Wilson, the plan came to fruition. The highway would start at Lincoln Park in San Francisco and streak across thecountry to end at Times Square in New York City. Not since the transcontinental railroad had the US seen a civil engineering project as ambitious. Or as beneficial.
To expedite the road’s construction, Fisher decided to capitalize on any east-west roads in viable condition along the planned route, cutting down the construction time from decades to years. While in Indiana, he decided to utilize a small portion of the Great Sauk Trail, a Native-American trail that had become a popular rural road for the northern part of the state, starting at the Illinois/Indiana border and winding to Fort Wayne.
Fisher’s group had money, but not transcontinental-highway money, so they needed to concoct a way to promote and publicize the advantages of a long-lasting highway. They decided to build “seedling miles” for the project. These would be small stretches of highway using the latest techniques and technology in construction, to demonstrate the dramatic difference between the Lincoln Highway and rural roads and instill public support.
Among the features of seedling miles were a 40-foot wide concrete road, a weight tolerance of four tons PER WHEEL and graceful turns with protective guardrails that allowed a driver to travel 35 miles per hour. It took the group several “seedling” attempts to perfect the construction of these seedling miles, given that no one in the world had ever attempted such a road before.
They finally accomplished their goal at a 1.5 mile stretch of road that would become known, then and now, as the Ideal Section of the Lincoln Highway. This would become the model for all remaining Lincoln Highway construction and was so well-built it is still used by thousands of people every day…without them being aware of its age or historic value (the author of this article literally used this road five days a week for three years without knowing.
The Lincoln Highway happened, although not exactly with the speed or vision Fisher hoped for. The economy and war(s) slowed its completion, and it wasn’t until 1938 that the final forty mile stretch was completed. By then, the Lincoln Highway had formally become U.S. Route 30, with a numerical system easier to depict on signage.
With its completion and success, then-President Franklin Roosevelt proposed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1938, the first step towards today’s transcontinental interstate tollway system we all know and, uh, love.
To mark the 25th anniversary of the Lincoln Highway/Route 30 completion, Carl Fisher spoke on national radio to commemorate the event. Always forward-thinking, Fisher said, “…I believe the country is at the beginning of another new era of highway building to create a system of roads far beyond the dreams of the Lincoln Highway…”
Although corn and soybeans usually receive credit for symbolizing the Hoosier state, I believe our highways and simply DRIVING is more essential to Indiana’s identity. It’s no coincidence we host the largest racing event in the world, or that we are and will always be the birthplace of the modern highway.
I could only imagine what Carl Fisher might think if he rounded the miles and miles of I-465, an eight-lane circle that can literally send you anywhere in the country.
I think he would be proud…Unless it was currently under construction, of course. In that case he’d likely curse like the rest of us.