The Lincoln Highway was one of the earliest transcontinental highway routes for automobiles across the United States of America. Conceived in 1912 by Indiana entrepreneur Carl G. Fisher, and formally dedicated October 31, 1913, the Lincoln Highway ran coast-to-coast from Times Square in New York City west to Lincoln Park in San Francisco, originally through 13 states: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California. In 1915, the “Colorado Loop” was removed, and in 1928, a realignment relocated the Lincoln Highway through the northern tip of West Virginia. Thus, there are a total of 14 states, 128 counties, and more than 700 cities, towns and villages through which the highway passed at some time in its history.
The first officially recorded length of the entire Lincoln Highway in 1913 was 3,389 miles (5,454 km).[a] Over the years, the road was improved and numerous realignments were made, and by 1924 the highway had been shortened to 3,142 miles (5,057 km). Counting the original route and all of the subsequent realignments, there have been a grand total of 5,872 miles (9,450 km).
The Lincoln Highway was gradually replaced with numbered designations after the establishment of the U.S. Numbered Highway System in 1926, with most of the route becoming part of U.S. Route 30 from Pennsylvania to Wyoming. After the Interstate Highway System was formed in the 1950s, the former alignments of the Lincoln Highway were largely superseded by Interstate 80 as the primary coast-to-coast route from the New York City area to San Francisco.
The Lincoln Highway was America’s first national memorial to President Abraham Lincoln, predating the 1922 dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., by nine years. As the first automobile road across America, the Lincoln Highway brought great prosperity to the hundreds of cities, towns and villages along the way. The Lincoln Highway became affectionately known as “The Main Street Across America”.
The Lincoln Highway was inspired by the Good Roads Movement. In turn, the success of the Lincoln Highway and the resulting economic boost to the governments, businesses and citizens along its route inspired the creation of many other named long-distance roads (known as National Auto Trails), such as the Yellowstone Trail, National Old Trails Road, Dixie Highway, Jefferson Highway, Bankhead Highway, Jackson Highway, Meridian Highway and Victory Highway. Many of these named highways were supplanted by the United States Numbered Highways system of 1926. Most of the 1928 Lincoln Highway route became U.S. Route 30 (US 30), with portions becoming US 1 in the East and US 40, US 50 and US 93 in the West. Since 1928, many sections of US 30 have been re-aligned with new bypasses; therefore, today’s US 30 aligns with less than 25% of the original 1913–28 Lincoln Highway routes.
Most significantly, the Lincoln Highway inspired the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, also known as the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act (Public Law 84-627), which was championed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, influenced by his experiences as a young soldier crossing the country in the 1919 Army Convoy on the Lincoln Highway. Today, Interstate 80 (I-80) is the cross-country highway most closely aligned with the Lincoln Highway. In the West, particularly in Wyoming, Utah and California, sections of I-80 are paved directly over alignments of the Lincoln Highway.
The Lincoln Highway Association, originally established in 1913 to plan, promote, and sign the highway, was re-formed in 1992 and is now dedicated to promoting and preserving the road.
Concept and Promotion
In 1912, railroads dominated interstate transportation in America, and roadways were primarily of local interest. Outside cities, “market roads” were sometimes maintained by counties or townships, but maintenance of rural roads fell to those who lived along them. Many states had constitutional prohibitions against funding “internal improvements” such as road projects, and federal highway programs were not to become effective until 1921.
At the time, the country had about 2.2 million miles (3.5×106 km) of rural roads, of which a mere 8.66% (190,476 miles or 306,541 kilometres) had “improved” surfaces: gravel, stone, sand-clay, brick, shells, oiled earth, etc. Interstate roads were considered a luxury, something only for wealthy travelers who could spend weeks riding around in their automobiles.
Support for a system of improved interstate highways had been growing. For example, in 1911, Champ Clark, Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, wrote, “I believe the time has come for the general Government to actively and powerfully co-operate with the States in building a great system of public highways … that would bring its benefits to every citizen in the country”. However, Congress as a whole was not yet ready to commit funding to such projects.
Carl Graham Fisher, 1909
Carl G. Fisher was an early automobile entrepreneur who was the manufacturer of Prest-O-Lite carbide-gas headlights used on most early cars, and was also one of the principal investors who built the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He believed that the popularity of automobiles was dependent on good roads. In 1912 he began promoting his dream of a transcontinental highway, and at a September 10 dinner meeting with industry friends in Indianapolis, he called for a coast-to-coast rock highway to be completed by May 1, 1915, in time for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. He estimated the cost at about $10 million and told the group, “Let’s build it before we’re too old to enjoy it!” Within a month Fisher’s friends had pledged $1 million. Henry Ford, the biggest automaker of his day, refused to contribute because he believed the government should build America’s roads. However, contributors included former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt and Thomas A. Edison, both friends of Fisher, as well as then-current President Woodrow Wilson, the first U.S. President to make frequent use of an automobile for relaxation.
Fisher and his associates chose a name for the road, naming it after one of Fisher’s heroes, Abraham Lincoln. At first they had to consider other names, such as “The Coast-to-Coast Rock Highway” or “The Ocean-to-Ocean Highway,” because the Lincoln Highway name had been reserved earlier by a group of Easterners who were seeking support to build their Lincoln Highway from Washington to Gettysburg on federal funds. When Congress turned down their proposed appropriation, the project collapsed, and Fisher’s preferred name became readily available.
On July 1, 1913, the Lincoln Highway Association (LHA) was established “to procure the establishment of a continuous improved highway from the Atlantic to the Pacific, open to lawful traffic of all description without toll charges”. The first goal of the LHA was to build the rock highway from Times Square in New York City to Lincoln Park in San Francisco. The second goal was to promote the Lincoln Highway as an example to, in Fisher’s words, “stimulate as nothing else could the building of enduring highways everywhere that will not only be a credit to the American people but that will also mean much to American agriculture and American commerce”. Henry Joy was named as the LHA president, so that although Carl Fisher remained a driving force in furthering the goals of the association, it would not appear as his one-man crusade.
The California Section
- U.S. Route 93 Alternate and U.S. Route 93 from West Wendover southward to Ely, Nevada.
- U.S. Route 50 from Ely westward across Nevada, to 9 miles west of Fallon, Nevada.
- From 9 miles west of Fallon to Sacramento, California, there are two Lincoln Highway routes over the Sierra Nevada:
- Route #1 – Sierra Nevada Northern Route: U.S. Route 50 Alternate northwestward to Wadsworth, Nevada, then Interstate 80 & old U.S. Route 40 westward, through Reno, Nevada, and over Donner Pass and the Sierra Nevada to Sacramento.
- Route #2 – Sierra Nevada Southern Route: U.S. Route 50 westward, through Carson City, Nevada, then around Lake Tahoe and over Johnson Pass (nearby Echo Summit) and the Sierra Nevada to Sacramento. (Note: This section runs right in front of the Elk Grove Stage Stop & House Museum.)
- Old U.S. Route 40 (with sections under Interstate 80) from Sacramento southwestward across California’s Central Valley to the University Avenue exit in Berkeley, California.
(Note: Originally this leg of the Lincoln Highway followed what would later become U.S. Route 50, from Sacramento south through Stockton and over the Altamont Pass to the East Bay (now Interstates 5, 205, and 580), but was realigned when the Carquinez Bridge was completed in 1927.)
- University Avenue from Interstate 80 westward to the Berkeley Pier.
(Note: In 1928, Lincoln Highway travelers crossed the San Francisco Bay via a ferry from the Berkeley Pier to the Hyde Street Pier in San Francisco. Today, use Interstate 80 to connect from University Avenue down to the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge (opened in 1936) to cross the bay into San Francisco, then take the Embarcadero from the Bay Bridge northwestward along the waterfront to connect to the Hyde Street Pier in Fisherman’s Wharf.)
- From the Hyde Street Pier in San Francisco, take:
- Hyde Street southward 2 blocks to North Point Street.
- North Point Street westward 3 blocks to Van Ness Avenue.
- Van Ness Avenue southward 16 blocks to California Street.
- California Street westward 54 blocks to 32nd Avenue.
- 32nd Avenue northward 2 blocks to Camino del Mar
- Camino del Mar westward into Lincoln Park, arriving at the Lincoln Highway Western Terminus Plaza and Fountain in front of the California Palace of the Legion of Honor. The Western Terminus Marker and Interpretive Plaque are located to the left of the Palace, next to the bus stop.