The Lincoln Highway

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When Carl Graham Fisher, best known as the builder and promoter of Miami Beach who started the Florida vacation craze, died in 1939 the New York Times pointed out that he brought about a far more significant change in the life-style of modern America in his earlier and less conspicuous role as the creator of the idea of the Lincoln Highway, the first automobile road from New York to California. Fisher’s crusade for a hard-surfaced motorcar route across the country, featuring the then-new slogan “See America First,” literally paved the way for long-distance family automobile travel in the United States and the hot-dog stands, billboards, tourist cabins, roadside gift shops, filling stations, and speed-limit signs that came with it.

In 1912, when Fisher proposed the first plan for a coast-to-coast route of paved highways, his idea was regarded as daring, although the need for such roads should have been obvious. In that year there were about a million automobile owners in America, but motoring on the dirt country roads beyond the paved city streets was still almost impossible during most of the winter and spring months and in rainy periods, when wheels sank up to their hubs in mud. As late as 1905 there was not a mile of rural paved road in the whole nation; the first stretch of concrete highway outside a city’s limits- concrete was then the only surface that could stand up under automobile traffic—was not built until 1908, when the pavement on Woodward Avenue in automobile-minded Detroit was extended for a mile beyond the end of town. In 1910 a speaker at a roadbuilding conference in Billings, Montana, complained that the back-to-the-farm movement in the West was facing ruin because the country roads were so bad that nobody would want to leave a city to struggle back to a farm.

In many rural areas in 1912 there were no roads at all except short ones extending out like spider webs from railroad stations and market centers to surrounding farms and then abruptly disappearing. Highways leading from one state to another were scarce because long-distance travellers and freight shippers used railroads or steamships. At that time Henry B. Joy, president of the Packard Motor Car Company, who later headed the Fisher-organized Lincoln Highway Association, wrote of his trouble trying to drive his Packard west from Omaha. When Joy asked the Packard dealer in Omaha how to go westward from that city, he was told that there was no such road.

“Follow me and I’ll show you,” the dealer said.

Joy was led toward the west from the city until he reached a wire fence. “Take down this fence,” he was told, “and drive on and when you come to the next fence, take that down and go on again.” “A little further,” said Joy, “and there were no fences, no fields, nothing but two ruts across the prairie.”

The hardships of automobile travel in the early years of the century were compounded by the lack of roadside directional signs and route markers, which Fisher proposed to put along the route of the transcontinental highway. Fisher sometimes used a well-known early auto anecdote to help in fighting for marked, as well as paved, country roads. Driving one evening in his open touring car with two companions nine miles outside Indianapolis, he was caught by nightfall and a downpour of rain—or so he told the story.

“We guessed our way along … until we came to a place where the road forked three ways,” Fisher said. “None of us could remember which of the three roads we had followed in driving out.” There was a pole nearby with a sign on the top of it, but “it was black as the inside of your pocket, [and the sign] was too high to read… . I [climbed] up to the sign … scratched a match and … read [it]. It said, ‘Chew Battle-Ax Plug.’”

Fisher had no trouble getting immediate support for his “Coast-to-Coast Rock Highway” from the automobile industry when he unveiled his plan for the road before a group of leading car manufacturers and automotive suppliers at a dinner on September 1, 1912, in the famed old Deutsches Haus in Indianapolis, his hometown. A colorful and persuasive salesman, always full of big, dramatic ideas, he was well respected in the automobile world as a former record-breaking racing driver, the builder of the Indianapolis Speedway, and the wealthy manufacturer of Prest-O-Lites, the compressed carbide-gas headlights used on most early motorcars. “A road across the United States!” Fisher shouted to the crowd at the Deutsches Haus dinner. “Let’s build it before we’re too old to enjoy it!” He went on to predict to his excited audience that such a road would make it possible for twenty-five thousand automobiles to drive across the country to the San Francisco Exposition in 1915.

The big problem in getting the road built, of course, was raising money. There were no federal funds for roads at that time, and most of the money in the small and inadequate road appropriations of states and counties in 1912 was said to be going into the pockets of politicians and their contractor friends. (Twenty states that year spent no money on road construction.) “The highways of America,” Fisher wrote to his friend Elbert Hubbard, “are built chiefly of politics whereas the proper material is crushed rock or concrete.”