Westward On The Old Lincoln Highway

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Near Grand Island we cruised Seedling Mile Road. In the Midwest the Lincoln Highway Association had sponsored seedling miles, stretches of road that would be graded and paved for a short distance, in the hope that governments would recognize their value and pave much longer sections. When I recounted the history of the seedling miles for a native of Grand Island, he beamed; he hadn’t realized, until that moment, how the local Seedling Mile acquired its peculiar name.

 
 
 
 

For Hurst, whose parents operated a motel and café, the route stirs old emotions. “I grew up on the Lincoln Highway,” he recalled. “We would drive from Sidney [Nebraska] to Cedar Rapids [Iowa]. My father would get off work at five or six o’clock, and we would drive all night. I would see the dark sides of the Lincoln Highway—the marquees with the names of the movie that was playing at the time. I wanted to stop for a movie. My dad would stop only for gas or for six hamburgers for a dollar.” Hurst paused and thought some more about the marathon road trips. “He used to take a cooler of beer along. I’d feel this cold rush of air, and I knew it was going to be followed by a clanging sound as he threw out a can. So many things from your childhood, they really burn into your mind.” Hurst and Ahlgren accompanied me halfway across the Cornhusker State. When I left them, they were planning an oldcar tour of Nebraska on the Lincoln for a group of car and road enthusiasts. “I’m going to throw one out just for Dad,” Hurst said.

 

He may have been serious.

In Wyoming the population and the sights grow sparse, making any monuments stand out all the more. A huge bust of Abraham Lincoln, twelve feet high on a thirty-foot native stone base, was erected in 1959 at the highest point on the old Lincoln Highway—by then U.S. 30—at the summit of Sherman Hill between Cheyenne and Laramie. Said to be the world’s largest bronze head, it now stands about a half-mile away, in a rest area of Interstate 80. Farther on, at Creston, is a small memorial to Henry Joy, commemorating this father of crosscountry travel.

Utah was another difficult state to travel. Instead of towns, there were only ranches to turn to in the desert west of Salt Lake City. In March 1994 a caravan of Lincoln Highway Association members retraced much of the Utah route, visiting Orr’s Ranch, where, in Woodrow Wilson’s day, barrels of gasoline were kept available for travelers. Motorists could pitch tents on the flat land for fifty cents a night. Mrs. Orr served dinners in the family’s log cabin, still standing, for seventy-five cents each. “The Lincoln Highway was a lifeline for the Orrs,” said Gregory M. Franzwa, the first president of the new association, “and the Orrs were a lifeline for the Lincoln Highway.”

Farther on was John Thomas’s ranch at Fish Springs, home of innocentlooking but notorious salt flats that motorists would start to cross only to bog down in mud to their running boards. Thomas left a pile of sagebrush for the stranded travelers and a sign telling them, IF IN NEED OF A TOW, LIGHT FIRE . Seeing the smoke, the sixfoot-four-inch Thomas would arrive with two draft horses and “announce his price to pull the errant car back to the road, usually a dollar a foot,” recounts Drake Hokanson. “He’d silently listen to the driver argue a few minutes, then raise the price to two dollars. … the longer one argued, the higher the price.” Local lore has it that Thomas had water diverted from Fish Springs to keep the mudhole fresh.

There are still isolated areas where services are scarce. In Nevada the Lincoln mainly follows U.S. 50, which east of Fallon is called “The Loneliest Road in America.” A pay phone stands along the shoulder in the vicinity of Sand Mountain; a sign identifies it as “The Loneliest Phone.” The Lincoln followed either Carson or Donner Pass through the Sierra Nevada of California as it continued west toward Sacramento, Oakland, and San Francisco. The terminus of the Lincoln Highway was Lincoln Park, in the northwest corner of San Francisco, above the pounding of the Pacific. In truth, the drama dissipates before the traveler reaches the conclusion. In the big city where it ended and the bigger city where it began, the Lincoln Highway always struck most people as just another street: California Street in San Francisco, Fortysecond Street in New York. The road made its real contribution outside the cities.