Carl Fisher thought Americans should be able to drive across their country, but it took a decade and a world war to finish his road
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.”
Fisher proposed to form an organization, later known as the Lincoln Highway Association, that would raise ten million dollars in contributions from the automobile companies and their suppliers and in hundred-dollar and five-dollar donations from private individuals. This fund would supply road materials, such as gravel and concrete, to state and county highway authorities along the route, who would in turn provide the labor and the machinery. Fisher received more than $300,000 in pledges from his guests at the Deutsches Haus as soon as he finished speaking. Frank A. Seiberling, president of the Goodyear tire company, was so taken by Fisher’s idea that he quickly added another $300,000 of Goodyear money without bothering to consult his directors. The fund soon swelled to more than four million dollars. President Woodrow Wilson sent in his personal check for five dollars. A man in Los Angeles said that if the highway passed through Illinois, as it later did, he would contribute seventeen drinking fountains along the route in that state as a memorial to his Illinois-born mother.
Fisher figured that Henry Ford would be good for a large contribution. In 1912 Ford had not yet developed the assembly line that made him a billionaire, but his Model T was the biggest-selling car on the market that year, and he was continually preaching in his company magazine, the Ford Times, about the need for better roads. Fisher worked on Ford through James Couzens, his business associate, and through Ford’s close friends, Indiana Senator Albert J. Beveridge, Thomas A. Edison, and Elbert Hubbard. Ford refused to bite. Fisher then went to Michigan himself and cornered Ford at the Detroit Fair, where he found the motor king looking at the pigs. Leaning on the fence of the pigpen, Fisher delivered a convincing sermon on the need for the Atlantic-Pacific highway. “Come to my office tomorrow and bring your papers,” Ford said. “I’ll sign up.”
That night, in a Detroit hotel, Fisher invited friends to celebrate with him at a victory dinner. The next morning, when he went to Henry Ford’s office, he was told that Ford had changed his mind about contributing to the highway fund and would not be able to see him. Curiously, neither the unpredictable Henry Ford nor the Ford Motor Company ever made a donation to the road, although Ford’s son Edsel later supported the project with personal gifts and public endorsements.
On July 1, 1913, when ten months of preliminary groundwork had been completed, the Lincoln Highway Association officially announced its formation as an organization “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.”
Fisher had wanted to name the highway after Abraham Lincoln all along—he always kept pictures of Lincoln and Napoleon in his bedroom for inspiration—but that name had been reserved previously by a group of Easterners who were trying to build a Lincoln Highway from Washington to Gettysburg on federal funds. Congress turned down their proposed appropriation, and when the project collapsed, Fisher and Henry Joy, who had been toying with “The Coast-to-Coast Rock Highway” and “The Ocean-to-Ocean Highway,” quickly grabbed its name. Joy, whom Fisher installed as president of the association because he did not want it to seem too much of a one-man crusade, was later advised to name the highway after Thomas Jefferson instead of Lincoln to get southern support in Congress if federal funds became available. Joy loyally stuck with Fisher’s hero and also turned down a suggestion from Elbert Hubbard, who wanted the highway called “The American Road.” Hubbard and Dr. Frank Crane, the popular inspirational writer of the day, gave the highway strong editorial support. Dr. Crane wrote in one essay, pleading for the highway as a living memorial to Lincoln, “It would liberate the farmer from the shackles of bad roads as the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves.”
On the same July 1 in 1913 when the Lincoln Highway Association announced its birth, a group of motorists, led by Carl Fisher himself and consisting mostly of members of Indiana’s Hoosier Motor Club and Indiana automobile manufacturers, started a drive from Indianapolis to San Francisco and Los Angeles in seventeen touring cars, followed by two trucks carrying spare tires and supplies, to dramatize the need for the highway. The tour to California, which took thirty-four days to complete, was hailed in the newspapers as a trailblazing expedition for the proposed highway. It stirred up wild excitement in the western states, where it was assumed that the route followed by the Hoosier Motor Club tourists would be the route eventually followed by the Lincoln Highway. Since almost every city and town wanted the highway to pass through its business district, Fisher and his Hoosier Trailblazers, as they called themselves, were deluged by urgent invitations from local politicians, civic leaders, and chambers of commerce. In one day before the tourists began their trip, their motor club received more than a hundred telegrams from communities begging to be placed on the itinerary.
One town—Price, in Utah—sent a delegation of citizens headed by its mayor to Indianapolis to plead its case. The secretary of the Hoosier Motor Club, W. S. Gilbreath, pointed out regretfully that there was no road leading into Price from the east. “We’ll build one,” the mayor said. The contractor hired to build the road was unable to get it finished before the day when the tour was expected to arrive. The mayor declared a legal holiday and called out every able-bodied man in town to hurry the job to completion before the automobiles appeared.
The state of Nevada, anxious to be on the route of the tour, rushed through a special $25,000 appropriation to improve the road from its Utah border to the California line. Colorado rebuilt sixty miles of roadway across Berthoud Pass. Bridges in several states were reconstructed ahead of schedule in order to be ready for Fisher’s approval.
Actually the 1913 tour from Indianapolis to California was no trailblazing expedition; several automobiles in previous years had crossed the country over much the same route, which generally followed the Overland Trail west of the Mississippi River. Two of the drivers in Fisher’s party, W. D. Edenburn and John Guy Monihan, had led a group of forty motorists in ten Premier cars from Atlantic City, New Jersey, to Venice, California, on an “ocean-to-ocean” drive in 1911. Four intrepid women, Alice Huyler Ramsey, Nettie R. Powell, Margaret Atwood, and Hermine Jahns, made a transcontinental trip in a Maxwell-Briscoe open touring car during the summer of 1909, leaving New York on June 9 and arriving at San Francisco on August 6. Other cross-country tours had been made by Tom Fetch of the Packard Motor Car Company and by drivers in two races over the rugged and often roadless western terrain, the famous New York-to-Paris journey sponsored by the New York Times and Paris Matin in 1908, and the 4,100-mile six-car race from New York to the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle in 1909.
The real trailblazer in transcontinental motoring was Dr. Horatio Nelson Jackson, a physician from Burlington, Vermont, who made the first trip from San Francisco to New York in 1903 in a two-cylinder Winton, accompanied by a mechanic, Sewell K. Crocker of Seattle, Washington, and a stray bulldog named Bud who joined them at Caldwell, Idaho, and enjoyed the rest of the drive to the East Coast. Dr. Jackson noticed that Bud’s eyes were reddened from the dust of the western plains and fitted the dog to a pair of motoring goggles. From then on Bud refused to start the day’s drive unless he was wearing his goggles. One day in Nebraska the motorists came upon a farmer driving a hay wagon. The farmer was so startled at seeing this apparition that he leaped from his wagon and hid underneath it. According to Dr. Jackson, Bud became such a seasoned automobile traveller that he would give a bark of warning and brace himself firmly on his four paws when he saw a rock or a hole on the road ahead.
Dr. Jackson completed the first automobile journey from coast to coast in sixty-three days, but that ineluded nearly three weeks of awaiting shipments of spare parts during breakdowns in towns along the route. Alexander Winton, the manufacturer of the Jackson automobile, was later so enraged by rumors, spread by his competitors, that Dr. Jackson and his car had made part of the trip in a freight train that he offered $10,000 to anybody who could prove such a charge. Nobody could, and there were still no takers when Winton afterward raised his offer to $25,000.
But although it was not unprecedented, driving an automobile to California in 1913 was still a rough ordeal. Mudholes and streams without bridges had to be crossed, and the cars had to be lifted from deep gullies with ropes and tackle blocks and dug out of desert sand. Edenburn, driving one of the two Apperson automobiles on the tour, balked when his employer, Elmer Apperson, insisted that he take with him two rolls of canvas, each seven and a half feet wide and a hundred yards long and weighing seven hundred fifty pounds. If he ran into sand, Apperson said, Edenburn could unroll one of the canvas strips and drive onto it. Then he could unroll the second canvas ahead of the first one, drive onto that one, go back and pick up the first canvas and carry it ahead of the car, and so on, until he was safely out of the sand.
“I didn’t take the canvas,” Edenburn said later. “When we got to Salt Lake City, I was notified that there were two packages awaiting me at the express office. Each package weighed 750 pounds. As far as I know that canvas is still there.”
All of the seventeen automobiles on the tour, bearing such now-for-gotten makers’ names as Marmon, Haynes, Henderson, Pathfinder, Premier, and McFarland, completed the trip to California, where they were escorted into Oakland by a parade of twelve hundred local motorcars. More strenuous than the days of driving were the dinners and receptions at every nightly stop, which made getting started the next morning difficult. As a groundbreaking, or ground-paving, exploitation for the Lincoln Highway, Fisher’s tour exceeded his optimistic hopes. The governors in Illinois, Kansas, Colorado, Utah, and Nevada travelled with the expedition and made flowery speeches promising full support to the highway. California’s Governor Hiram Johnson assured Fisher that his state would foot the whole bill for its end of the route with no financial aid from the Lincoln Highway Association. Returning to Indianapolis, Fisher heard more good news. The concrete industry promised to give the highway 1,500,000 barrels of concrete. Cash donations poured in from all over the country, particularly from the suffering automobile drivers in the rural Middle West. Contributors in Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, and Indiana far outnumbered those in New York and Pennsylvania.
In fact, the proposed coast-coast highway was strirring up too much enthusiasm in too many places where its planners didn’t want it. As the crusade for the building of the road gained widespread approval almost every city and town across the country wanted to be on the route. The highway association was also assailed by nature lovers and vacation-resort developers who demanded that the road avoid cities and go to places of scenic beauty, national parks, and historic sites. When Joy and Fisher announced the Lincoln Highway Association’s choice of a route at a conference of state governors at Colorado Springs on August 26, 1913, the wrangling only grew louder. The critics said that the highway was still only a red line of ink on a map that could be bent this way or that under political pressure, and they kept on battling for years afterward.
But the highway remained pretty much as the association originally planned it, the most direct possible route from New York to San Francisco through New Jersey, Pennsylvania, the Canton area of Ohio, northern Indiana, Chicago Heights to Fulton in northern Illinois, Cedar Rapids to Council Bluffs in Iowa, Omaha to North Platte in Nebraska, across southern Wyoming and northern Colorado to Salt Lake City and Reno, and then on to San Francisco by way of Sacramento, Stockton, and Oakland, covering a total of over thirty-three hundred miles. The highway association decided that this way of crossing the country took the most practical advantage of the topography and existing improved roads, and argued that such a route passed reasonably close to such tourist attractions as Washington, D.C., Gettysburg, Mammoth Cave, Glacier Park, the Grand Canyon, and Yosemite National Park. “A transcontinental highway, that wound from large city to large city, from one wonder of nature to another, would indeed be a devious and winding journey in this great America of ours,” the association declared.
After the route was established, getting its various state and local governments to work on surfacing their sections of the highway was a slow and frustrating chore. The association published a cheerful report on its first year’s activities in late 1914 in a pamphlet entitled “Following the Path of Progress” with the slogan “See America First” on its cover. But there was not much progress to report. The governors of Illinois and Nevada had called out citizens to put in some work on the highway. At Mooseheart, Illinois, national headquarters of the Loyal Order of Moose of the World, a mile of the road had been rebuilt in concrete at the fraternal order’s expense. Red, white, and blue Lincoln Highway route markers had been placed along “hundreds of miles.” That was about it.
West of Omaha, the report admitted, “the tourist must be prepared to put up with a few inconveniences. … At no point is the distance between ranches or towns greater than eighty miles or so. … No real hardships nor dangers which would make the trip disagreeable to women will be encountered.”
The next year, 1915, came and went without the predicted twenty-five thousand automobiles travelling over the Lincoln Highway to the San Francisco Exposition. But traffic increased. In 1914 the people at Ely, Nevada, counted 434 cars on the highway. Up to September in 1915 there had been 1,052 automobiles passing through the town. In the desert southwest of Salt Lake City the highway followed the old route of the pony-express riders. At intervals of ten miles along the road motorists could see the crumbled remains of small stone huts where the mail carriers changed horses. One of the pony-express huts had been kept in repair and used by its elderly occupant, J. J. Thomas, as a roadside eating place. “Here the modern tourist stops,” the 1915 Lincoln Highway report noted, “and sups from the same pine table from which many of the celebrities of 50 years ago partook of bacon and beans. Mark Twain, Horace Greeley and many others have stopped here on their way across the desert. The Lincoln Highway passes by the door. What has the Lincoln Highway done for Thomas? … Two items from his account book are enough: Cars passing in June, 1913, 52. Cars passing in June, 1915, 225.”
By 1916 the highway was sufficiently improved to allow Bobby Hammond, the racing driver, to make the trip from San Francisco to New York in the then-amazing time of six days, ten hours, and fifty-nine minutes. Later in the same year Hammond’s record was broken by a Hudson Super-Six roadster that covered the same distance in five days, three hours, and thirty-one minutes. Such performances were astonishing because at that time most of the highway west of the Mississippi was still a rough and often muddy dirt road. “Today in the rich state of Iowa,” Henry Joy wrote in a 1916 magazine article, “not a wheel turns outside the paved streets of her cities after heavy rain ceases.” Despite pleas and threats from the Lincoln Highway Association, Iowa never bothered to improve its rural roads for automobile travel until after the end of World War I.
To push the slow-moving state and county officials into finishing the coast-to-coast route the Lincoln Highway Association went into road building itself, sending out its own engineers to show local highway departments how to construct “seedling miles” of concrete road and financing expensive, difficult stretches of construction with grants from General Motors, Willys, and other automobile companies. But it took the United States Army to get the job finally done.
The Army in the summer of 1919 made its first real road test of motorized military transport by sending a convoy of seventy-nine vehicles, mostly heavy trucks, with thirty-five officers and two hundred and sixty enlisted men from Washington to San Francisco over the route of the Lincoln Highway. Rolling through the cities and small towns across the country, the big parade of the Army on wheels was a new and thrilling spectacle. Most of the people had never seen such huge motortrucks—tank trucks carrying water and gasoline, artillery tractors, an aerial-search-light truck, machine-shop trucks, troop carriers and weapon carriers, armed reconnaissance cars and ambulances and motorcycles. In the back-country America of 1919 it was a strange and exciting display of modern motor power that awakened the federal and state governments to the need for better and bigger highways.
Long before the Lincoln Highway was finally completed, Carl Fisher, who thought up the whole idea back in 1912, was deeply busy with other things. He had carried out a successful campaign to build the Dixie Highway, the first North-to-South motor road that brought vacation travellers to Fisher’s new winter-playground resort at Miami Beach. There he built another coast-to-coast highway where the two coastlines were more conveniently close together—a main shopping street extending only a few hundred yards across the beach from the shore of Biscayne Bay to the Atlantic Ocean. He named it, of course, Lincoln Road.