Lincoln Highway history, the next generation

In recent years, the Lincoln Highway is returning to the mainstream. Wildly popular in the 1910s, it endured low name recognition through the 1960s-80s, but is again being embraced by an ever-wider audience. However, as the highway’s history is disseminated and simplified, it is also being generalized into fiction.

I read a blog stating “Interstate 80 derived from the old Lincoln Highway.” And a web site: “Lincoln Highway was the first major highway developed in 1915…. During the 30’s and the 40’s it became Highway 30 and then when Eisenhower promoted the interstate highway system it became Interstate 80.” Perhaps I-80 is descended from the LH in spirit or along its E-W corridor, but those looking for accuracy should disregard the above statements.

Another: “Because it would be built with private donations and not by the government, a friend suggested Fisher call the new road the Abraham Lincoln Highway, a name sure to open the pocketbooks of patriotic Americans.” Not exactly wrong but not necessarily correct.

And: “In the 1920s, the Lincoln Highway, the first transcontinental paved highway, opened to much fanfare…. The old Lincoln Highway was eventually replaced by US 40 and then by Interstate 80.” Nevermind the 40 and 80 missteps, the “first” claim can quickly polarize. Were other transcontinental paths named, marked, and promoted before the LH? Yes. Did they sustain that attention and improvement? No. Choose your side but don’t ignore or dismiss the other.

From a video: “See America First was a new concept in 1920.” Perhaps gaining steam then among motorists, the concept dates to the late 1800s and the phrase itself to at least 1906 when a railroad used it; in fact, The New York Times wrote about the rising trend in 1906.

I thought I recognized some phrasing when a reporter recently wrote, “drivers could find small local diners, quaint cozy cabins, prosperous mom-and-pop shops, Art Deco gas stations and colorful roadside attractions.” Yep, she got her history from a line for my Greetings book press release which you can find on Amazon: “diners, neon movie palaces, Art Deco gas stations, ice cream stands, tourist cabins, and colorful roadside attractions.”

Chambers of commerce and tourism agencies are likewise discovering the Lincoln. That’s good for economic growth and preservation, but the story of the highway becomes a bit more generalized, and inaccurate, with each retelling. A recent news article paraphrased a tourism bureau chief: “Historically, Lincoln Highway has been used as a commercial transportation highway, while Route 66 was created for travel and leisure.” This statement takes some narrow modern preconceptions, puts them in a blender, and projects backwards a history that just isn’t true.

There is debate in Illinois whether towns within the LH’s corridor of influence should be included in economic promotions. How specific should we be in defining the LH’s corridor? Only the marked road? Or within a block or business district? Is Chicago “on” the route? Just how literally do we interpret the Proclamation Route? Do we count LH routes that were only promoted locally, but seriously? How about the Feeder Routes? Are those who take sides aware of the larger picture, where a desire for strict interpretation is more a modern focus than a historical truth?

There were many motivating factors behind the Lincoln Highway, but one of them was certainly scenic tourism. In fact, recreational travel promoted as a patriotic duty was probably more fervent in the teens than the 1920s, when Route 66 was established as one of the many numbered federal highways. Regardless, advocates of any of these highways promoted roads for economic advancement, no matter the source. Perhaps the main difference between the two was the LH and other c. 1913 trails were blazing a path of promoting hard-surfaced roads, while by 1926, the benefits of good roads were a much easier sale.

The Lincoln Highway was the most famous road of its day, and remained a popular name and destination decades later, but 66 finally overshadowed it for many reasons. Bobby Troup wrote an enormously popular song about it in 1946. US 66 became a well-traveled route to the West Coast for those looking for hi-tech jobs after WWII. Todd and Buzz rode to fame on the Route 66 TV show in the 1960s, thereby associating the road with potent imagery and mythology. And then there’s that seductive alliteration of the two numbers.

While the LH has come to embody early travel with images of mud, cabin camps, and Model Ts, the later birth of 66 and its postwar popularity finds it associated more with concrete ribbons, neon signs, and tail-finned cars. The LH had those too — probably more since it’s a third longer — but that imagery was first and wisely latched onto by 66 boosters in the 1980s. Route 66 became the embodiment of simpler, happier times, a symbol for adventure, and it soon became the setting for any ad, commercial, or clothing line that wanted to be retro chic. Places along 66 sometimes embrace the 1950s/Marilyn/car hop nostalgic marketing to the point of overload, but many tourists enjoy exactly that special sense of place, especially strung out over a couple thousand miles.

The Lincoln Highway’s resurgence similarly began in the 1980s, sparked by Drake Hokanson’s book and spread by the national LHA in the 1990s, then entering public forums in recent years as books and magazines have spread the word. While recent restoration efforts on 66 have focused on gas stations and roadside attractions, LH folks are just reaching that point, having first concentrated on saving the infrastructure itself (such as the tiny concrete bridges in Iowa). A quick glance back might give the impression that the LH had a more serious genesis, while 66 was built for fun, but that’s just not the case. The same goes for the other above statements.

For a solid overview of Lincoln Highway history, check out Hokanson’s beautiful The Lincoln Highway: Main Street Across America.

For a recent in-depth look at 66, try Arthur Krim’s Route 66: Iconography of the American Highway.

For those who like to do their own research, visit the Special Collections Library at the University of Michigan, which houses the original LHA’s archival materials and photos like the one at top [“New road between Donner Lake and Summit, California” (lhc0135)].

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3 thoughts on “Lincoln Highway history, the next generation

  1. Brian, I usually just peruse some of your posts as I am usually in a hurry but this one just grabbed me totally. The arguments use raise as to myths versus truths (or rewritten history) can be associated with any roadside topic, diners included. Kudos again on some well written commentary!

  2. Thanks Larry. Just spotted this in a blog: “We learned that I-80 was named the Lincoln Highway on the centennial of his birth.” How many things are wrong with that? Supposedly learned from the Summit Rest Area near Laramie, Wyoming, famed for the the Lincoln bust.

  3. thank you for the info. I am writing a semi-autobio traveling from oregon to st louis mo. the name lincoln evokes quite a bit of emotion as my character Monkey boy leaves kansas city, odessa, mo then toward st. louis.

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