The Lincoln Highway

What is 3389 miles long, nearly 80 years old, and once went for a ride in the back of an '88 Corolla? If you answered "The Lincoln Highway", you could be the next contestant on Win Ben Stein's Money! It may also be that you have visited the latest exhibit at The Lincoln Museum, "Coast to Coast on the Lincoln Highway" (or you read the headline).

Planning for this exhibit started over a year ago when Carolyn Texley, archivist for The Lincoln Museum, began to work with the members of the recently reformed Lincoln Highway Association. The roots of this organization stretch way back to 1913, a time when cars were still considered a luxury. At that time, there was very little in the way of standardized roads. Most were dirt roads that turned into quagmires of mud after summer storms (and the spring thaw and winter snows…), often rendering them impassable. Getting from Fort Wayne to Indianapolis would take over ten hours, if you went at the breakneck speed of 20 m.p.h. and didn't get stuck along the way. It was in such a climate that two visionaries, Carl Fisher, founder of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and Henry B. Joy, President of the Packard Motor Car Company, combined forces to plan a modern, high-speed, hard-surfaced transcontinental highway that would unite the nation. The chosen route was from Times Square in New York City to Lincoln Park in San Francisco. However, the west-coast destination is not the reason why the name of "Lincoln" was chosen. The Lincoln Highway founders hoped that such a transcontinental highway would unite a nation much as Lincoln had fought to unite the nation during the American Civil War. Furthermore, Lincoln had spent much of his early political career working to improve the roads, rails, and canals that made up the transportation system of the mid-1800s.

As for the third part of the riddle, when the association was trying to raise public support for this project, they constructed "seedling miles" around the country, sections of highway to show the public what their roads could be. Indiana was home to the "Ideal Section", a mile and a half of modern highway built to exacting 1940 traffic specifications, able to withstand traffic going a full 35 miles an hour (10 m.p.h. for trucks). Until very recently, this "Ideal Section" was still in use. As a result of a repaving project, this section was finally torn down and dumped into a landfill. Always on the lookout for souvenirs, the members of the Lincoln Highway Association, reformed in 1992 to help preserve the Lincoln Highway, found the location of this landfill. Sensing a chance to bring the highway to the museum, Texley made the journey one day and collected parts of this original section for use in the exhibit.

My own trip to the exhibit, which is open to the public until January 31, 1999, was very enjoyable. The path to the temporary exhibit gallery was lined with Burma Shave poetry signs, the epitome of poetic excellence. The exhibit itself was filled to capacity with artifacts donated by members of the Lincoln Highway Association. One display case held a touring outfit, a thick coat, gloves and goggles meant to keep the bugs and dust out of ones eyes and clothes as you drove along dusty dirt roads in an open car. Another area contained an original Lincoln Highway Association membership kit, complete with membership pin and suggestions for traveling the length of the highway (a popular family vacation which took over a month to complete). Over and over again I was struck with the enormous differences between those early days of travel and the way things are now. It even kept me from complaining about the pothole patchwork on Lake Avenue… for about a day. There are youth activity worksheets available to keep the kids occupied and a video near the end of the exhibit showing footage of the original highway with commentary. On the way out, my son nearly fell over himself in ecstasy at the many toy period cars and car paraphernalia available in the museum store. Personally, I was drawn to the book of Burma Shave poetry, a veritable treasure-trove of bathroom reading.

This article first appeared in WhatzUp, September 1998.