Picture yourself back in time 100 years ago when the automobile was taking hold as the new mode of transportation.
The first vehicles were very rudimentary compared to today's models. Pretty much open to the elements, no heating or air cooling systems, no suspension and top speeds in the 30 miles-per-hour range, still, the relatively affordable Model-T Ford and others to come along were something to be marveled at and desired. They gave the gutsy individual (for driving was truly an adventure back then) the freedom to drive where he wanted as long as there was a road, even if it was shared with wagons and horses.
Farmers were among the first to subsidize good roads, according to California Lincoln Highway Association historian Gary Kinst. And when the U.S. Post Office Department instituted free rural delivery in the early 1900s, there was additional impetus to construct and maintain roads. Still, by 1912, even with a reported 112,000 Model T's in use, just seven percent of the reported 12.5 million miles of road in the U.S. were considered safe to drive. At the time, safe roads were definedas those that were eithergraded to smooth out wagon ruts, and/or had been laid with compacted gravel.
Drivers could not rely on uniform road conditions or even a road from one town to another. But with their growing freedom and adventurous heritage, American drivers were not to be denied.
Roads of the day were a hit-and-miss affair. The first roads were usually the main streets of towns, shared bydrivers, horses, buggies, wagons, bicycles and pedestrians.
In 1912, Indianapolis Motor Speedway developer Carl G. Fisher, whose Presto-o-Lite Company manufactured headlamps for automobiles, saw an opportunity. Why not develop a coast-to-coast road that would link towns and communities and encourage commerce?
Henry Joy, who ran Packard Motor Company, got on board with the idea, and in 1913, they began promoting the "Lincoln Highway" (named after President Lincoln) as a means to not only help develop agricultural markets and commerce, but toalso encourage civic pride and cooperation. Townspeople could boast of havinga highway go through their town.
It would also create growing "need" for a car for Americans.
In exchange for a community providing theequipment and labor to build or upgrade a stretch of highway, materials would be free, according Fisher's plan. The goal was to have the nation's first transcontinental road from New York City's Time Square to San Francisco's Lincoln Park completed in time for travel to the 1915 Pan Pacific Exposition in the city by the bay.
Fisher pegged the cost of the "Coast-to-Coast Rock Highway" at $10 million.
To spearhead the project, the Lincoln Highway Association was formed in 1913. The chosen route would cross 12 states: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and California and cover 3,423 miles. Some of its miles would trace established routes such as the Overland Trail and that of the Pony Express.
Kinst says Joy put up $150,000 and the president of Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company contributed $300,000. The public was asked for $5 donations and businesses were urged to contribute one percent of their revenue.
Federal aid was first focused on improving roads served by the U.S. Post Office when free rural delivery was instituted. The Federal Road Act of 1916 committed $75 million to states who matched fundsfor improving rural post (mail routes in farming communities) roads rather than primary roads. It was pretty much left up to each state and local communities to determine how to pay for improving existing roads or construct new highway stretches.
The Lincoln Highway Association placed "consul" liaisons in towns along the designated highway route to promote the highway and represent it locally.
A year into the grand plan though, the association found it wasn't close to meeting its goals. So another promotion was devised.
"A Portland cement company donated the cement, a local gravel company donated the gravel, cities provided the labor," said Kinst. "They graded and they put the gravel down and they put the cement over that. These seedling miles were generally built outside the city limits, outside the improved areas. They were one mile long, 15-feet wide concrete, to give people an idea, if you spent the money, passed the bonds, this is what you could have all the way across the country. They were popular. People would just go out on weekend and just drive along the one-mile stretch of road, like an amusement park. "
Apparently seeing was believing.
Constructing the Lincoln Highway, 1916 (Courtesy California Lincoln Highway Association/Gary Kinst)
"The idea [was] we need this, states got behind this, the local government got behind it, the cities wanted it because they wanted people to go through their town and spend money," Knist said.
The military helped too.
"In 1919,Lt. [Dwight] Eisenhower tested a military convoy across the U.S. They took what was essentially the Lincoln Highway. They destroyed every bridge with their heavy equipment," said Kinst.
The military demonstration showed it was important to have a good road system that could support use. The effect led to state and local bonds for road construction. The Federal Highway Act of 1921 earmarked another $75 million for road construction, but this time with the stipulation that states receiving funds earmark seven percent of the monies for "primary" roads such as the Lincoln Highway.
Lincoln Highway California route
There would be realignments over the years, but basically, the Lincoln Highway had several main routes in the Golden State.
Lincoln Highway in 1924 (Courtesy California Lincoln Highway Association/James Lin)
"Lincoln Highway separated in western Nevada: one over Donner, one over Echo Summit (the Pioneer route) and rejoined in Sacramento," said Joel Windmiller, California Lincoln Highway Association vice president. "The original route went west to Stockton, Tracy, Livermore, to Oakland. Then in 1928, [it was] rerouted to after the Yolo Causeway was completed in '16 then the Carquinez Bridge was completed in '28. Basically, they had a shorter route to get to San Francisco."
Small stretches of the highway exist today. For example, off Old Bass Road in El Dorado County part of the old highway can be found. In Orangevale, the Gold Creek Bridge constructed in 1915, stands as testament as part of the Echo Summit to Sacramento route. A small section of old highway remains on Sisley Road in Penryn.
In 1928, the Boy Scouts of America erected concrete Lincoln Highway markers along the cross-country route. They served to identify the road (many stretches of the highway were known by other names in the areas it served). The markers were also a reminder of the country's first transcontinental road because in 1925, the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved a federal highway numbering system. In California, for example, Lincoln Highway became US 40.
There are several artifacts with connections to the Lincoln Highway on what is known today as Auburn Boulevard and its early years as Auburn Road. Theroad,now a frontage road along the south side of Interstate 80 northeast of Sacramento, was first a route for wagons moving freight from Sacramento to Gold Rush mining camps.
Where Auburn Boulevard intersects with Sylvan Corners in Citrus Heights, for example, a 1928 Lincoln Highway marker shows where Auburn Road jogged north and became what isRiverside Boulevard in Roseville.Citrus Heights historical records indicate that in the 1920s, at 7904 Auburn Blvd., the Cripple Creek gas station and auto camp were built to service travelers. The location is now a cleared lot. Also in the 1920s, the now-boarded 12-Mile House further south on Auburn was a tavern.
Let's go for a ride
For 20 years, the Lincoln Highway was a work in progress. It could be described as "challenging" for those who traveled it.
According to Windmiller, "You would have like a surface road within the town but you get a few miles out of town you were basically to gravel or dirt road that in that summertime was travelable but in the wintertime, you get your car stuck down to the framework in mud. Most of the time, you would have to get your new automobile towed out of mud by your former transportation, the horse.
"[The highway] started out dirt and gravel. They wanted it to have wide, concrete lanes, two beautiful concrete lanes, brick surface and everything but basically they couldn't get this done all at once. They did seedling miles. They just took the surface routes in town, improved on them basically."
Remember early automobiles did not have creature comforts standard on today's machines.
Water stop along the Lincoln Highway in Clarksville (Courtesy California Lincoln Highway Association/Gary Knist)
Motorists had other things to consider. Were there stores or stations to buy gas along the route? When night fell on the unlit road, would a kind farmerlet them camp on their property or stay in the barn?
In time, auto camps would spring up and motels would be built. About 35 miles was the most that could be covered in a day.
The highway, too, was not like today's multi-lane concrete freeways. The specifications of the highway were for 15-feet wide. Surfaces ranged from hard-packed dirt topped with oil and/or gravel, brick or concrete.
In Nevada, Kinst said motorists would lay down tarpaulins to drive over the sand.
""The toughest part was getting the route over the Sierra Nevada," said Windmiller. "You were going from Donner Lake up to the summit. There's one film of cars being basically tied to ropes to get over the Yuba River. The bridge washed out. You have this car, with all its belongings basically being hoisted over the river. I saw one where the driver is still in that thing and he's relying on a rope to get him to get him across a rope. It's white. It's rushing. It's just flowing and you know it's gotta be below freezing."
America's future doyenne of etiquette, Emily Post, was commissioned to write about her trip on the Lincoln Highway. She recounted her car getting stuck in mud in Indiana and her china breaking on the rough ride.
In 1919, Beatrice Massey sat in the passenger seat asher husband drove across the country on the Lincoln Highway. When they reached Salt Lake City, Utah, they detoured from rough Lincoln Highway around the south end of the Salt Lake Desert to an even more desolateroute around the north end ofSalt Lake.
The story goes that the Masseys had enough of the first roads andin Montello spent the large sum of$196.69 to put themselves and their car on a train to reach California.
Even so, Massey wrote in her Might Have Been Worse travelogue:
You will get tired, and your bones will cry aloud for a rest cure; but I promise you one thing-you will never be bored! No two days were the same, no two views were similar, no two cups of coffee tasted alike...My advice to timid motorists is, "Go."
"The things you read about the most were the number of tires they had to repair," Kinst said. "Just graded roads that were sharp rock, some people threw glass down onto the highway because they thought that would provide traction."
One wonders if Goodyear Tires, one of the earliest to get on board with the highway, saw the future?
Theautomobile's impact on American society is known. Roads like the Lincoln Highway were also integral to our tremendous mobility and more.
"It [the highway] brought commerce and it brought travelers," Kinst said. "The amounts of people traveling through their towns went from like 10 cars a week to a 100 cars a week just because the highway was there. It gave people a chance to get from point A to point B."
Those who've studied and traveled the Lincoln Highway believe it should be valued as part of history.
"[In] Rocklin, El Dorado, you can see the original 1919 concrete and see how narrow it was," Kinst says. "It's just like going to a national moment to be able to see it, to relive it. It's there and it's an experience. You got to live and see what people endured."
The California Lincoln Highway Association was recently informed a formerCal Trans workerwho lived in the foothills had, at one time, at least a few dozen of the 1928 concrete Lincoln Highway markers. The association has accounted for some of the markers but would love to hear from anyone else who knows the status of the rest. LHA, California Chaptercanbe contacted at P.O. Box 2554, Fair Oaks, CA 95628-2554 or online to one of its officers whose emails are listed on the chapter's The Traveler website.