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Lincoln Highway: From Sea-to-Shining Sea

Jeffrey Syken

“Nothing retards civilization like inaccessibility”

Henry B. Joy

It was an idea whose time had come. Not that the idea of a transcontinental highway had never been part of the national conversation prior to 1912. That’s the year Carl G. Fisher – the “P.T. Barnum of the Auto Industry,” made a proposal that a continuous coast-to-coast highway be built, starting from New York City’s Time Square, in time for motorists to travel across country to the Panama-Pacific Exposition, which was to be held in San Francisco, in 1915. After all, in 1902, the American Automobile Association (AAA) had proposed a “Transcontinental Highway” and in 1906, then Congressman William Randolph Hearst proposed a transcontinental highway be built by the Federal Government. However, in those early years of the 20th century, the motor car was viewed as a plaything of the wealthy, with interstate roads deridingly referred to as “Peacock Alleys.” However, by 1908, General Motors was formed and Henry Ford had introduced the Model T – the car that would put America on wheels. Attitudes about road building were changing and master entrepreneur C.G. Fisher was determined to exploit the sea-change in public sentiment.

Fisher’s claim-to-fame was that he was the first person to devise an actual plan for building a trans-continental highway and financing it. Fisher – a former race-car driver and president of the Prest-O-Lite Co., manufacturer of automobile headlights, called for raising $10 million in donations from those who manufactured automobiles and auto accessories (like him) and from selling memberships in an organization which would come to be known as the Lincoln Highway Association (LHA). In September 1912, Fisher invited leaders from the Indianapolis automotive industry to a dinner party. There, he presented his captive audience with his grand plan. When Frank A. Seiberling - president of the Goodyear Tire Co., pledged $300K toward the plan on-the-spot, Fisher’s “Big Idea” was given credibility and the donations began to roll in. Automobile and construction industry executives would form the nucleus of the LHA, bringing their knowledge and experience to-the-fore in this patriotic effort. The goal of completing what would be, in reality, a combination of new, improved and/or existing roads into a distinguishable “route” by 1915; in time for the Panama-Pacific Exposition, would provide the motivation.

To add to this patriotic spirit, the highway would be dedicated to Abraham Lincoln – the martyred POTUS who had freed the slaves and saved the Union. Lincoln was a childhood hero of Fisher’s and for those who had served in the Grand Army of the Republic – from farmers to executives, such a road would serve as a “Living Memorial” to their former Commander-in-Chief, whom they and the general public held in high regard. Fisher gathered together a group of men who were leaders in the automotive and highway construction industries that were dedicated to: “The Establishment of a continuous improved highway from the Atlantic to the Pacific, open to lawful traffic of all description without toll charges . . . in memory of Abraham Lincoln.” Men like H.B. Joy – president of the Packard Motor Co., who would serve as first president of the LHA, understood the direct relationship between good roads and the advancement of civilization. Before the Lincoln Highway and the “Good Roads Movement” it encouraged, you could tell the weather in the Midwest by the price of food since impassable dirt roads turned to mud in Iowa meant the price of corn was going up. The Lincoln Highway would change that and be the catalyst for building proper roads for the motoring public to use for business and/or pleasure. Thank you Mr. Fisher.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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