Historic Auto Trails



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In a rare instance of dual registration, the Iowa Highway Commission (IHC) Registration of Routes application form for the Lincoln Highway also served as a registration form for the Iowa Official Transcontinental Route. The Lincoln Highway and Transcontinental Route covered the same ground across Iowa from Clinton to Council Bluffs. According to the Central Iowa Genealogical Society’s Web site, 1 the Lincoln Highway in Iowa was in fact “informally known” as the Transcontinental Route, an auto trail which would never be officially registered with the IHC.

The registration process for these two routes began Aug. 12, 1914, when the registration fee of $5 was marked paid at the bottom of the registration application. 2 A handwritten note in the left margin of the application form reads: "This is to certify that on the 2nd day of Nov. 1914 W.F. Coan, President, in my presence signed this officiation for the registering of the Transcontinental Route and the Lincoln Highway.--W.C. Rollins, Justice of the Peace." Rollins, of Denison, Iowa, also served as the secretary of the Lincoln Highway/Transcontinental Route. There is a later date of July 31, 1915, on which Rollins, as a notary public in Crawford County, signed the application form. The IHC stamped the form "received" with two different dates: Oct. 31, 1914, and Aug. 1, 1915.

It remains a mystery as to precisely when the Lincoln Highway was officially registered with the IHC. A 1986 Iowa Department of Transportation map of Registered Highway Routes 1914-1925 gives the Iowa registration date for the Lincoln Highway as Dec. 2, 1916, 3 yet correspondence between Rollins and the IHC seems to indicate an earlier registration date. On Dec. 15, 1915, Rollins sent a letter to T.H. MacDonald of the IHC saying that he had received the route’s registration certificate, but no exact date of registration is revealed in their letters. 4

Lincoln Highway Association (LHA) President W.F. Coan was a banker and prominent community member in Clinton, 5 and first person to be named state consul of the LHA in Iowa. (Each individual county also had its own consul.) In 1914, Coan was made honorary vice president of the national LHA. In the 1920s, a monument in honor of Coan was erected in Clinton County at the intersection with U.S. 67. Its inscription reads, "In appreciation of the efforts of W.F. Coan in promoting and establishing the Lincoln Highway." 6

Formidable years

The condition of the roads in the United States in 1912 could generally be rated as poor, especially in rural areas where few roads were graded and maintenance fell to those who lived along them. At the time, paved roadways and a system that connected them did not exist. Less than 9 percent of the roadways in the country had “improved” surfaces: gravel, stone, sand-clay, brick, shells, oiled earth, planks, etc.

Travel was greatly affected by the weather; in the dry weather it was a dusty, bumpy trip. In the wet weather the roads became impassable. During the winter months, roads could be blocked for weeks. At the same time, the automobile was gaining popularity and Americans were growing frustrated by the conditions that prevented them from moving freely and easily to and from their desired destinations.

Carl Graham FisherWho better to foresee the automobile’s impact on the American way of life and envision a solution to improve mobility than Carl Graham Fisher (Jan. 12, 1874-July 15, 1939). Fisher, an Indiana native, was a bicycle enthusiast and successful business entrepreneur, and is believed to have operated the first automobile dealership in the United States. Until the company was sold in 1909, his manufacturing firm supplied nearly every headlamp used on automobiles in the United States. He was also involved in bicycle and auto racing, and joined a group of Indianapolis businessmen that invested in what became the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Fisher was a tireless promoter of the automobile industry. At a Sept. 12, 1912, dinner meeting with industry friends in Indianapolis, he called for a highway that spanned the continent, from coast to coast, stretching nearly 3,400 miles.

He called his idea the Coast-to-Coast Rock Highway, a graveled road that would cost about $10 million to build using a unique development scheme where communities along the route would provide the equipment to build the road; and in return they would receive free materials and a place along the transcontinental highway. To fund the scheme, Fisher asked for donations from automobile manufacturers and parts companies equal to 1 percent of their revenues. Additional revenue was to be generated through the issuance of membership certificates, which could be purchased for $5 a head.

Fisher’s goal was to finish the highway by the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition, and the highway’s path would run from the exposition’s host city of San Francisco to New York.

Fisher received pledges totaling $300,000 the day the fund was announced, including a personal donation of $1,000, and within a month his friends had pledged $1 million. Former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt and Thomas A. Edison, both friends of Fisher, contributed to the fund.

President Woodrow Wilson was officially the first member of the Lincoln Highway Association. On Sept. 19, 1913, President Wilson was issued the No. 1 membership card or “contributor’s ticket” by the national headquarters based in Detroit, Michigan. The card and envelope in which it was received are part of the Smithsonian Collection.

Frank A. Seiberling Two other men who pledged money to Fisher’s idea would later play major roles in the highway’s development: Frank A. Seiberling (Oct. 6, 1859-August 1955), founder and president of the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, who donated $300,000; and Henry B. Joy (Nov. 23, 1864-Nov. 6, 1936), president of the Packard Motor Car Company.

Fisher’s plan hit a major roadblock when Henry Ford failed to support the project. Ford believed that the future of road construction and maintenance was dependent upon public support and that the government should build America’s roads. If the private sector paid for this roadway, government officials would be less likely to consider funding future development through taxpayer resources.

Although Fisher realized that the roadway would not be finished in time for the expo, he refused to give up on the idea because it had already spurred so much interest.

Joy came up with the idea of naming the highway after Abraham Lincoln. He encouraged Fisher to write a letter to Congress protesting a plan to spend $1.7 million on a marble memorial to Lincoln. Joy felt that a good road across the country was a better tribute to the president. As a keen promoter, Fisher thought the name “Lincoln” offered great marketing appeal to patriotic Americans. On July 1, 1913, the association named the coast-to-coast highway the Lincoln Highway. 7

Henry Bourne JoyThe Lincoln Highway Association was also established July 1, 1913, “to procure the establishment of a continuous improved highway from the Atlantic to the Pacific, open to lawful traffic of all descriptions without toll charges.” Henry Joy was elected president of the association and Carl Fisher named vice-president, which allowed Fisher to remain a driving force in furthering the goals of the association, yet it would not appear as a one-man crusade.

In addition to their goal of building the rock highway from New York to California, the association wanted the Lincoln Highway to serve as an example to, in Fisher’s words, “stimulate as nothing else could the building of enduring highways everywhere that will not only be a credit to the American people but that will also mean much to American agriculture and American commerce.“ 8

Route selection

As part of his promotional plan, which involved garnering support from as many people as possible from throughout the county, Fisher decided to withhold, for as long as possible, the precise route of the Lincoln Highway and the states it would pass. He arranged tours involving influential individuals who explored a number of possible routes. Inspired by the notion that a state or community could be included on the route was all that many people needed to get behind the plan.

For the project to move forward, it was eventually necessary to select a route. And Joy was probably most influential in that decision. His aim was to select the quickest and most direct route, and not deviate in order to go through scenic areas, national parks or larger cities. The highway would start in Times Square in New York City, pass through New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California, end in Lincoln Park in San Francisco.

The Lincoln Highway Association set up a system of “consuls” or state delegations along the highway to represent the national association in local affairs, assist visitors and keep the corporate headquarters informed. Additionally, the local groups played a role in defining the precise highway alignment in each state.

East of the Mississippi River, route selection was eased by the relatively dense road network. Regarding highway alignment west of the river, Iowa, because of its topography, clearly had an advantage over other states whose alignments were tightly constrained or defined by their mountainous areas and other natural land formations.

While establishing the most direct route was the association’s primary objective, state and local politics obviously played a significant part in final route selection. Many Iowans believed that inclusion or exclusion from the route would either make or break their town; and they were destined to use whatever influence necessary to make insure that their town was included. In his book The Lincoln Highway: Main Street across America, photographer and author Drake Hokanson wrote, “[the] ink was barely dry on the map when towns and citizens began scheming ways to get the route changed to include them.” 9

The Lincoln Highway Association officially dedicated the route on Oct. 31, 1913. All types of celebrations were held in hundreds of cities in the 13 states along the route. During a dedication ceremony in Iowa, Chief Engineer Thomas H. MacDonald said he felt it was, “…the first outlet for the road building energies of this community.” He went on to advocate the creation of a system of transcontinental highways. In 1919, MacDonald became Commissioner of the Bureau of Public Roads, a post he held until 1953, when he oversaw the early stages of the Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways.

The route traversed 13 counties in Iowa, extending from Clinton to Council Bluffs and through the communities identified below. The 1924 Lincoln Highway Association’s Official Road Guide maps depict the route from State Center to Omaha, 191 miles, and Clinton to State Center, 167 miles.

Seedling miles

The first section of the Lincoln Highway to be completed and dedicated was the Essex and Hudson Lincoln Highway, running along the former Newark Plank Road from Newark, New Jersey, to Jersey City, New York. It was dedicated Dec. 13, 1913.

By 1914, there was not much for the local consuls to report to the Lincoln Highway Association regarding progress on the route. No significant improvements had been made to the route and the $10 million fund Fisher set up for acquiring materials had stalled at $5 million after Ford refused to contribute and communities left off the route became disinterested.

Joy decided to abandon the fund and move the association toward a new goal of educating the public about the need for good roads made of durable concrete and to rally public support for government-backed construction, using the Lincoln Highway as the model. To achieve this goal, the Lincoln Highway Association decided to sponsor “Seedling Mile” demonstration projects. The association convinced the Portland Cement Association of their self-interest in the future of road construction and was able to arrange donations of materials from their members.

The seedling miles were to be constructed at strategic places along the Lincoln Highway, located in the countryside and reasonable distances from the nearest towns. “One would have to fight the [mud] to get to them and, once on them, revel in the contrast between hub-deep mud and smooth, white concrete.” 10 The association’s strategic objective was to encourage local communities to fund additional paving projects that would reach the seedling miles from either the west or east. 11 The first seedling mile was completed in October 1914 west of Malta, Ill.

Iowa’s seedling mile was constructed in 1918-19 in Linn County between Cedar Rapids and Mount Vernon. This seedling mile turned out to be more than an object lesson about the benefits of a paved road, it served as something of a battleground between cities of Marion and Cedar Rapids in their struggle over the county seat and their place on the Lincoln Highway. Iowa’s seedling mile eventually became part of a continuously paved section of the Lincoln Highway between Chicago, Ill. and Cedar Rapids, Iowa. In 2002, Linn County reconstructed Mount Vernon Road from the city of Mount Vernon to the west end of the Iowa Seedling Mile, impacting the historic road section. An agreement between concerned government agencies resulted in the publication of The Lincoln Highway Association’s “Object Lesson:” The Seedling Mile in Linn County, Iowa, in partial mitigation of the impact to this historic road section under the guidelines of the National Historic Preservation Act.

The section is also currently marked with a stone monument, displaying the Lincoln Highway route marker and a metal plaque.

The inspirational Lincoln Highway

Lincoln Highway marker with plaqueThe Lincoln Highway, which became affectionately known as “The Main Street Across America,” inspired other local road associations and roadways, as well as construction of the National Interstate and Defense Highway Act of 1956, championed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

One of the great contributions to highway development was the well-publicized and promoted U.S. Army Transcontinental Motor Convoy in 1919 that traveled the Lincoln Highway across the United States. The convoy left Washington, D.C. on July 7, 1919, and reached San Francisco, Calif., Sept. 6, 1919. One of the participants in the convoy was Lt. Col. Eisenhower. The difficult trek left a lasting impression on Eisenhower.

By the mid 1920s, there were approximately 250 national auto trails. Some were major routes, such as the Lincoln Highway, and others were much shorter. In Iowa, scores of road associations were formed during this period, some to fill the gaps the Lincoln Highway left unfilled. In fact, simply being excluded from the route was itself a catalyst that helped unite communities around a common cause - “Good-roads fever was taking hold.” 12

By 1925, state and federal governmental officials had joined the road building movement and were beginning to assert control over road design, development, numbering, and safety, lessening the role of the road associations. Under the Federal Highway Numbering System of 1925 all federal highways would be identified by a federal shield including the highway number, and route markers and signs for named highways removed. The Lincoln Highway became U.S. 30.

The entire Lincoln Highway in Iowa was paved by the 1930s.

Concrete markers and metal signs

The last major promotional effort of the Lincoln Highway Association occurred in 1928 when groups of Boy Scouts placed approximately 2,400 concrete markers at sites along the route to officially mark and dedicate it to the memory of Abraham Lincoln. In addition, 4,000 metal signs for urban areas were erected, placed on the outer edge of the right of way at major and minor crossroads. Each concrete post carried the Lincoln Highway insignia and directional arrow, and a bronze medallion with Lincoln’s bust and the words “This Highway Dedicated to Abraham Lincoln.”

The Lincoln Highway was not yet the imagined coast-to-coast rock roadway when the Lincoln Highway Association ceased operating Dec. 31, 1927, as there were many segments still not paved. However, construction was underway on the final unpaved 42-mile segment by the 25th anniversary of the Lincoln Highway in 1938.

Carl Fisher died July 15, 1939, shortly after the highway’s 25th anniversary, having lost his fortune during the Crash of 1929 and in various real estate ventures. Yet, his legacy as a pioneer in road building will not be forgotten. Fisher was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 1971.

In the decades since his death, the Lincoln Highway has remained a persistent memory. A few of the Boy Scout markers can be found along the route and some segments of the route still carry the name. Some city streets on which the Lincoln Highway was routed still carry the street name “Lincoln Way” or “Lincolnway,” including one in Ames, Iowa. Restaurants, motels and gas stations in many locations still carry Lincoln-related names. The Lincoln Highway Association’s successes are in large part attributed to their founding principles. The group “was working solely and wholeheartedly for the public interest; because it had no private axes to grind, and because none of its directors, founders or other officers, profited from its activities. 13

Lincoln Highway Association reformed

On Oct. 31, 1992, 42 people from seven states met in Ogden, Iowa, to reform the Lincoln Highway Association with the mission “…to identify, preserve and improve access to the remaining portions of the Lincoln Highway and its associated history sites.

Henry Bourne Joy IV, great-grandson of Henry Joy and a film maker, is a life member of the revived Lincoln Highway Association.

There are now chapters in 13 states; however, Iowa’s membership in the Lincoln Highway Association continues to exceed that of other states. The Iowa Lincoln Highway Association is active in preservation, education and promotional efforts. The entire length of Iowa’s Lincoln Highway was designated the first Iowa Heritage Byway under the Iowa’s Scenic and Heritage Byways program.

2 HA2.57, Box 3, folder one of two
3 Iowa Registered Highway Routes 1914-1925 map, Iowa Department of Transportation, 1986.
4 HA2.47, Box 3, folder one of two
6 The Lincoln Highway: Iowa, Volume 1 by Gregory M. Franzwa
7 Dodd, Mead and Company (1935). The Lincoln Highway: The Story of a Crusade That Made Transportation History.d Binghamton, N.Y.: The Vail-Ballon Press, Inc.; page 24
8 The Lincoln Highway, American Heritage Magazine, June 1974
9 Hokanson, Drake (1988). The Lincoln Highway. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press; page 16
10 Franzwa, Gregory M. (1995). The Lincoln Highway: Iowa. Tucson, Arizona: The Patrice Press; page 14
11 Franzwa, Gregory M. (1995). The Lincoln Highway: Iowa. Tucson, Arizona: The Patrice Press; page 14
12 Hokanson, Drake (1988). The Lincoln Highway. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press; page 20
13 Dodd, Mead and Company (1935). The Lincoln Highway: The Story of a Crusade That Made Transportation History. Binghamton, N.Y.: The Vail-Ballon Press, Inc.; page 2



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