By Bernie Schmitt
When vacationers take to the smoothly paved roads and highways of America this summer, they owe a great deal of gratitude to Indiana native Carl Fisher, a man who had a revolutionary idea that profoundly changed transportation in the United States.
At the start of the 20th Century there was not an organized network of highways, and in some rural states, not one paved road. Fisher, founder of the Indianapolis 500 and Miami Beach, Fla., and an avid automobile enthusiast, wanted to change that. He envisioned a smooth, hard-surfaced road for drivers that stretched from one coast to the other.
“A road across the United States,” Fisher proclaimed in 1912. “Let’s build it before we’re too old to enjoy it.”
One year later, the Lincoln Highway, the first transcontinental highway in the U.S., was born.
Well, sort of. A dedication ceremony and a mapped route of 3,389 miles did not mean the highway was complete. Far from it. Only 1,598 miles of the original Lincoln Highway were “improved” (more than a wide dirt path), and most of it was in the eastern part of the country.
One hundred years ago, Dwight D. Eisenhower, then a young U.S. Army officer, took part in an extraordinary adventure at the dawn of the automobile age, a cross-country trip on the Lincoln Highway. World War I had stalled new construction and improvements to the highway, so the road was still woefully incomplete by 1919.
Nonetheless, the First Transcontinental Motor Train, a military convoy comprised of trucks, cars, motorcycles, ambulances, mobile kitchens and more, left Washington, D.C. in early July, bound for San Francisco. It was a project for the U.S. Army Motor Transport Corps, an opportunity to test equipment and to see how motorized vehicles could be effective for the military.
It was an incredible journey for the times, a combination military exercise, public relations stunt, circus, and adventure. There were 81 vehicles and nearly 300 men, most of them soldiers, who suffered and sweat over a two-month period, wrestling with dirt, mud, rock, and sand. Not to mention bad weather, equipment breakdowns, and a raw, unforgiving landscape.
The improved sections of the road — real pavement — gave way to dirt roads in Illinois, followed by muddy trails in Nebraska, and not much more than tracks in the sand in Wyoming and Utah. The motor convoy experienced 230 “incidents,” which included everything from flat tires, breaking bridges (88 of them), equipment failure, or vehicles careering off the roadway into ditches and ravines. The worst was getting mired up to the axle in mud.
But the Army was prepared. One of its most valuable assets was what it called “The Militor,” a huge, custom-built “wrecker winch,” or what some called an “artillery wheeled tractor,” which was able to extricate, and pull, a lot of stalled vehicles. The convoy had its own machine shop, too, frequently repairing and replacing parts for vehicles along the way.
Regardless of the difficulty, Lt. Col. Eisenhower reported that from the standpoint of publicity (the “truck train” was warmly welcomed in nearly every city, town and village), “it seemed there was a great deal of sentiment for the improving of highway and, from the standpoint of promoting this sentiment, the trip was an undoubted success.”
Even with an economy struggling to recover from World War I, and a number of other issues facing the country, it was clear that people wanted good roads for the thousands of vehicles automaker Henry Ford and others were selling to average Americans. The Transcontinental Motor Train convinced the government that a consistent and well-maintained series of roads and highways was needed. The 1920s led to a highway numbering system, as well as an increase in new construction and rapid road improvement.
Eisenhower’s experience on the Lincoln Highway, as well as his exposure to Germany’s Autobahn during World War II, led him to push for an Interstate highway system in the U.S. when he was president. This resulted in the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. Eisenhower appreciated good roads and knew how valuable good highways would be for military and civilian use.
The Lincoln Highway traverses 12 different states, including northern Indiana. It is known today as U.S. 30, with occasional historical markers and ubiquitous red, white, and blue posts with a large “L” on them signifying the Lincoln Highway route.
In the early 1920s, an “ideal section” of the Lincoln Highway was built in western Indiana, between Dyer and Schererville. It was 40 feet wide (big for a road back them), had a concrete surface 10 inches thick packed with reinforced steel, and had wide shoulders, a median divide, good drainage, and even lighting. Today it’s a busy four-lane highway, with nowhere to stop to admire what once was.
Fisher’s Lincoln Highway Association, the private organization that built the original road was disbanded in the 1920s, when citizens and elected officials realized that it was in the country’s best interest for government to build its roads and highways. A modern Lincoln Highway Association exists today. Founded in 1992 in Iowa, it includes state chapters and individuals who wish to preserve and promote the legacy of the Lincoln Highway.
This summer, Lincoln Highway enthusiasts will have a 2019 Military Convoy Centennial Tour that will begin in Washington, D.C. on Aug. 31 and arrive in San Francisco on Sept. 16, a trip that will take a little more than two weeks (and that’s only due to various stops along the way). In 1919 it took a lot longer.
The fabled Route 66 might be known as “The Mother Road,” but it was Hoosier Carl Fisher and the Lincoln Highway that paved the way for it and hundreds of other highways to connect us.
For more information, see www.lincolnhighwayassoc.org.