Westward On The Old Lincoln Highway

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The closest major route across the Hudson today is the Lincoln Tunnel, which departs New York four blocks south of the old ferry landing and emerges in a busy tangle of roads on the New Jersey side. Accompanying me on the run across New Jersey was Doue Pappas, a young lawyer from Hartsdale, New York, who has a hobby of driving old national highways from end to end. We carried with us A Complete Official Road Guide of the Lincoln Highway, Fifth Edition , published in 1924 by the Lincoln Highway Association and reprinted in 1993 by the Patrice Press of Tucson. This 566-page paperback, augmented by road descriptions that Pappas had collected from the 1910s, helped correct our trajectory whenever we strayed from the old Lincoln—and we strayed often, for the roads and cities of northeastern New Jersey have been so thoroughly altered that it’s impossible to follow a 1920s route exactly. Through blue-collar urban neighborhoods, past moribund factories in a landscape without illusions, we turned this way and that until we found ourselves on State Route 27, an easy-tofollow road that carried the Lincoln Highway in the twenties and that was called the King’s Highway in the eighteenth century, when horse-drawn coaches used it to hurry between New York and Philadelphia. In Edison Township we detoured a couple of hundred yards to the north to see the Edison Tower, erected in 1937 on the site where Thomas Edison invented the first successful incandescent lamp. The 131-foot concrete tower, topped by an oversize replica of an early bulb, needs repair and is closed to visitors, but not far from its base we discovered a diminutive amateur-operated Edison museum, packed with interesting objects. When we got back on the highway, Route 27 led us through the well-preserved old towns of Kingston and Princeton, leafy and luxuriant, and then into dilapidated Trenton.

 
 

The highway crosses the Delaware River on the narrow, antique Calhoun Street bridge, a succession of light green iron trusses built in just sixty days in 1884 and so delicate, after being shaken by traffic for 111 years, that officers are stationed at each end to turn away heavy trucks. The young bridge-commission officer we met on its western side proved to be a zealous guardian, protecting his bridge span not only from eighteen-wheelers but also from unauthorized picture-takers.

Beyond the Delaware I traveled westward by myself into Pennsylvania, where the early highway builders met their first momentous challenge. In the center of the state looms a series of ridges running generally southwest to northeast. The highway, like the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Pennsylvania Canal before it, squeezed through gaps in the ridges. By the time it reached Bedford, however, the gaps had disappeared. There was no choice but to climb the steep slopes.

From the 1910s until 1928, when it disbanded, the Lincoln Highway Association strove to build, promote, and improve its road. In 1992 a new association was founded, using the same name, and took as its purpose the preservation and commemoration of surviving segments of the highway and sites along its path. It was at Bedford in 1993, during the association’s first national conference, that I met several dozen of its members—among them classic-car owners, historic preservationists, fans of roadside architecture, and individuals who have spent their lives in towns the Lincoln touched. The disparate assemblage climbed into a tour bus and traveled most of the state, led by Brian Butko, a Pittsburgher who is compiling a guide to the Lincoln in Pennsylvania, and Kevin Patrick, a teacher at Indiana University of Pennsylvania who is writing a doctoral dissertation about it.

“People took great pride in being on the highway, as you can see in their propensity for naming their businesses after it,” said Patrick, a quick-witted geographer who had first become acquainted with the Lincoln during six-hour childhood car trips he took with his family from their home in New Jersey to relatives in Houtzdale, in central Pennsylvania’s coal country. The busload of Lincoln Highway devotees admired the “Lincoln Highway Farm”—the name painted in white letters on a red wooden barn. They inspected a 1926 Rickenbacker automobile at the Lincoln Highway Garage in York. They lingered at the Lincoln Motor Court. They stopped at a diner, a produce stand, an amusement park, a dispenser of shoofly pie—old roadside enterprises of every description.