- Historic Sites
Westward on the Old Lincoln Highway
The nation’s first transcontinental motor route can still be experienced in all its obsolescent charm.
April 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 2
The peak period for naming roadside enterprises in honor of the martyred President was the 1920s, an era when people were proud to be the neighbors of a big-name national highway. In the 1910s and 1920s boosters established the Jefferson Highway, the Dixie Highway, the Midland Trail, the Pikes Peak Ocean to Ocean Highway, and numerous others, emblazoning each route with its own symbols and colors. The mark of the Lincoln was a big blue L on a white background, with a red stripe above and a blue stripe below. In 1925 federal and state highway officials, unhappy with the confusing patchwork of named highways, introduced a system that numbered national routes—even numbers generally running east-west, odd numbers running north-south. Much of the Lincoln Highway became U.S. 30 in the East and the Midwest and U.S. 40 or 50 in Nevada and California. Other parts wound up as county roads and local streets. But the Lincoln name never entirely disappeared, and in recent years it has enjoyed a resurgence. Patrick pointed out that in newly suburbanizing areas such as the outskirts of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, Route 30 is being designated by the locals as Lincolnway or Lincoln Highway. “You see the Lincoln Highway name on these buildings much more now than you ever did,” Patrick observed. Merchants like it; the name provides a more distinctive address than, say, 12080 U.S. 30.
Old businesses, too, are capitalizing on the memory of the Lincoln Highway. After Bob and Debbie Altizer bought the Lincoln Motor Court in 1983, they renamed it the Country Comfort Motel and even installed a whirlpool bath in one of the cabins. “We tried to make it modern, and then we ran out of money,” said Debbie. “We read about the highway, and we decided, Why not make it as it was?” In April 1993 they resurrected the Lincoln name, figuring that the appeal of history was their best drawing card.
Here and there the observant traveler will notice a four-foot-high concrete marker displaying a profile of Lincoln.
A sometimes conflicting amalgam of preservationists, tourism promoters, and government economic-development agencies has lately seized upon the Lincoln as a tool for reviving the stagnant economy in rural areas. Pennsylvania has organized a Lincoln Highway Heritage Corridor, intended to spotlight the history of transportation and commerce in five counties in the southcentral and southwestern part of the state. Making it a popular success may not be simple. In some places those intent on seeing the sights share the road with coal trucks chugging uphill or racing down and tractor-trailers out to beat the turnpike tolls. Complicating matters, highway engineers have to be reined in. “The highway departments still want to widen portions of the road and bring it up to today’s safety standards,” Patrick said, “but it’s the old two-lane sections that appeal to tourists.”
Be that as it may, there’s plenty to explore. East of York stands the Haines Shoe House, which the owner of a chain of shoe stores built in the shape of a shoe in 1946; it’s in good condition, though not generally open for touring. The Coffee Pot, a café built to look like its name in the 1920s, still stands, while several miles to the west the Ship Hotel, built to resemble an ocean liner, rides the crest of the Alleghenies. In the early days of motoring, it was common for eating and drinking places to be built on the tops of long hills, catering to people who would stop and let their overheated radiators cool down. Yesteryear’s pop commercial architecture has a short half-life. The Ship Hotel and the Coffee Pot are now closed and dilapidated. A tour of the Lincoln Highway is a journey into a world that may not hang on much longer.
As the Lincoln heads into the Midwest, it passes through scores of small towns that once fought tooth and nail to be on its path. In 1924 Ohio laws allowed vehicles to travel at thirty-five miles per hour in rural areas, fifteen in towns, and eight miles per hour in commercial or highly developed sections. Low speeds made it easy for businesses to appeal to the passing patron.
Here and there the observant traveler will notice a four-foot-high concrete marker displaying a profile of Abraham Lincoln. As a tribute to the highway’s organizers, Boy Scouts, compensating for the removal of the Lincoln name from official highway maps, installed some three thousand of these markers from coast to coast on September 1, 1928.
From the earliest days, leaders of the Lincoln Highway Association pressed for road-building improvements that would allow faster travel. In western Indiana between Schererville and the town of Dyer, progressive forces in 1922 built the Ideal Section, a stretch of highway that was an astounding feat for its time and place: a four-lane, fortyfoot-wide road of reinforced concrete, well lighted, well drained, with a pedestrian path along its shoulder and with advertising signs prohibited. The Ideal Section, one and a third miles long, was hailed at the time, according to Hokanson, as the “finest section of road in the world.” The association called it an “object lesson” for communities throughout the United States.