Lincoln Highway Dedicated (1913)

Most historians consider the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 to be the end of the frontier era in America.  The country had become tied together coast-to-coast, with citizens able to travel in relative ease and safety across the nation in a short time.  A similar event—the dedication of the Lincoln Highway—occurred on October 31, 1913, paving the way for reliable automobile travel and ushering in the American love affair with cars.

The automobile was gaining popularity and reliability in the early 1900s, but travel was restricted primarily to local use.  The cause?  Bad roads, or no roads, extending for long distances.  Carl G. Fisher, an Indianapolis entrepreneur and car enthusiast, understood the problem:  “The automobile won’t get anywhere until it has good roads to run on.”  And he had a solution:  Establish a roadway from New York City to San Francisco that would be paved from end to end.  And to give it an All-American flavor, name that road the “Lincoln Highway” after the nation’s most popular president.

Fisher formed the Lincoln Highway Association and began the work of raising friends and funds.  His idea was to build the road with private money, but that soon gave way to using private funds for marketing and encouraging local and state governments and civic groups to pay the construction costs.  The next task was to pick a route.  Fisher and his friends set out on a “Trail-Blazer” tour in the summer of 1913, crisscrossing the country for 34 days.  They were greeted everywhere as celebrities by local dignitaries hoping the road would pass through their communities.

The chosen route was 3,389 miles long, following a hodge-podge of historical pathways once used by Native Americans, westward pioneers, the Pony Express and others.  When the route was announced and the highway dedicated on October 31, 1913, cities along the route held celebrations with bonfires, fireworks, parades and speeches.

Gradually—very gradually—the goal of paving the entire length of the route gained ground and a “highway” emerged.  By the time of the road’s formal opening in 1928, all but 42 miles of the route had been paved, and that section was under construction.  Eventually, the highway received the designation as U.S. Route 30 along most of its length, and the name Lincoln Highway fell out of use.  For those of us who grew up in and around Chicago, the radio ads for “the beautiful U.S. 30 Dragstrip” were a constant reminder of the importance of the route.

As a symbol and, perhaps, driver of American car culture, the Lincoln Highway’s start provides a useful milepost.  When the project began, the U.S. had 190,000 miles of paved roads (that is, covered with something other than dirt); today, the country has 2.7 million paved miles, a 14-fold increase.  In 1913, the U.S. had 13 vehicles per 1000 people; today, the country has 830 vehicles per 1000 people, a 64-fold increase.  The U.S. has more vehicles per capita than any country in the world, except Monaco (go figure…).  With 4.5% of the world’s population, the U.S. consumes 20.7% of the world’s petroleum, a rate nearly 5 times the average for the rest of the world.  We do love our cars!

 

When my wife and I visit her hometown in central Illinois, we sometimes drive the back roads along what is known as the “Lincoln Heritage Trail.”  Signs resembling the Lincoln penny mark the routes that Lincoln traversed through Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois.  I wonder what Lincoln would think about our addiction to cars and travel today.

Two of Lincoln’s quotes seem apropos.  First, he said, “I walk slowly, but I never walk backward.”  Undoubtedly, Lincoln would envy our ability to get around efficiently, comfortably and quickly.  He would probably also encourage us sometimes to move a little more slowly, to smell those roses, to take the back roads.

Second, he said, “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”  Undoubtedly, Lincoln would also admire the ingenuity and capability of the American people to invent a transportation system so remarkable.  But, he would also drive us not to rest on our past accomplishments, but aim for a better future.  He’d worry over issues of climate change caused by gas-burning vehicles, habitat losses to road building and the stresses and inefficiency of traffic congestion.

Today, I’m sure, he would tell us that the future we should be creating is a future of sustainable, carbon-neutral transportation.

References:

Oak Ridge National Laboratory.  2016.  Transportation Energy Data Book.  35th Edition, Oak Ridge National Laboratory.  Available at:  http://cta.ornl.gov/data/index.shtml.  Accessed October 30, 2017.

U.S. Department of Transportation.  2017.  National Transportation Statistics.  Bureau of Transportation Statistics.  Available at:  https://www.rita.dot.gov/bts/sites/rita.dot.gov.bts/files/publications/national_transportation_statistics/index.html#chapter_1.  Accessed October 30, 2017.

Weingroff, Richard F.  2017.  The Lincoln Highway.  U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration, Highway History.  Available at:  https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/infrastructure/lincoln.cfm.  Accessed October 30, 2017.

This Month in Conservation

February 1
Afobaka Dam and Operation Gwamba (1964)
February 2
Groundhog Day
February 3
George Adamson, African Lion Rehabilitator, Born (1906)
February 4
Congress Overrides President Reagan’s Veto of Clean Water Act (1987)
February 5
National Wildlife Federation Created (1936)
February 6
Colin Murdoch, Inventor of the Tranquilizer Gun, Born (1929)
February 7
Karl August Mobius, Ecology Pioneer, Born (1825)
February 8
President Johnson Addresses Congress about Conservation (1965)
February 8
Lisa Perez Jackson, Environmental Leader, Born (1982)
February 9
U.S. Fish Commission Created (1871)
February 10
Frances Moore Lappe, author of Diet for a Small Planet, born (1944)
February 11
International Day of Women and Girls in Science
February 12
Judge Boldt Affirms Native American Fishing Rights (1974)
February 13
Thomas Malthus Born (1766)
February 14
Nature’s Faithful Lovers
February 15
Complete Human Genome Published (2001)
February 16
Kyoto Protocol, Controlling Greenhouse-Gas Emissions, Begins (2005)
February 16
Alvaro Uglade, Father of Costa Rica’s National Parks, Born (1946)
February 17
Sombath Somphone, Laotian Environmentalist, Born (1952)
February 17
R. A. Fischer, Statistician, Born (1890)
February 18
Julia Butterfly Hill, Tree-Sitter, Born (1974)
February 18
World Pangolin Day
February 19
Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial Established (1962)
February 20
Ansel Adams, Nature Photographer, Born (1902)
February 21
Carolina Parakeet Goes Extinct (1918)
February 22
Nile Day
February 23
Italy’s Largest Inland Oil Spill (2010)
February 24
Joseph Banks, British Botanist, Born (1743)
February 25
First Federal Timber Act Passed (1799)
February 26
Four National Parks Established (1917-1929)
February 27
International Polar Bear Day
February 28
Watson and Crick Discover The Double Helix (1953)
February 29
Nature’s Famous Leapers
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