Re-Discovering America’s First Coast-to-Coast Road
What could be more fun than learning about an amazing national attraction for the first time? If you already knew about it, there may be more to the story that you didn’t know.
The Lincoln Highway was the first coast-to-coast road in America. It predates Route 66 by about twelve years. And while the “Mother Road” ran from Chicago to Los Angeles in 1926, the Lincoln Highway, then known as the “Father Road” or “Main Street Across America”, crossed the entire country in 1913.
At the turn of the 20th century, there were virtually no paved roads outside city limits, and by 1910 automobiles were good only for a short drive as long as you didn’t stray too far. Autos were simply a toy for the upper class. There were no gas stations or repair shops. Because there was no commercial manufacturing yet, gasoline was sold at the back of drugstores and farmers feed stores.
Auto manufacturers and tycoons soon recognized that America needed a network of good roads if they were to sell more automobiles. They reasoned that if a single, paved road were to connect the Atlantic to the Pacific, communities close by would build connecting roads. Eventually more distant communities would add roads, and soon a national network would be built, making the automobile a practical form of transportation for everybody.
The Lincoln Highway officially began September 14, 1913, with an announcement of the proposed route by founders and industry leaders Henry B. Joy of Packard Motor Company, Frank A. Seiberling of Goodyear Rubber, and Carl Fisher, founder of Prest-O-Lite Company; maker of carbide car headlamps. Their intention was to boost auto travel as a way of life, and also to commemorate President Lincoln, to whom no national monument had yet been established.
This first coast-to-coast route began at Times Square in New York City, and ended 3,389 miles westward in Lincoln Park, San Francisco, passing through a corridor of the United States somewhat similar to the route of today’s Interstate Route 80. Originally this path was typically marked with a large “L” and red and blue colored stripes – sometimes painted on utility poles. Named roads proliferated soon after the naming of the Lincoln Highway, but by the 1920s the state and federal governments began road building, and symbols and stripes of all the named roads started coming down. A new system was established for marking routes, and much of the Lincoln Highway was designated U.S. Route 30.
Founders of the road, the Lincoln Highway Association with its prestigious offices in Detroit, ceased its operations in 1928 with a final tribute to Abraham Lincoln. Nearly 2,500 concrete directional posts were set by the Boy Scouts of America in cities and towns along the highway, with 200 set in Ohio, some of which can be found yet today. This era of history changed America significantly. It helped give rise to the American vacation, and changed how and where we live today.
The Lincoln Highway route passed through the north-central part of Ohio by connecting the best available roads at that time. Driving the original Lincoln through Ohio from east to west will take you through East Liverpool, Lisbon, Canton, Massillon, Dalton, Wooster, Ashland, Mansfield, Bucyrus, Upper Sandusky, Ada, Beaverdam, Lima, Delphos and Van Wert. But the smaller communities that complete the thirty-nine Lincoln Highway communities in our state are the best gems to re-discover the fading remnants of the early auto era.
Because small communities avoided real estate redevelopment boom times, original buildings and streets remained the same or were minimally re-purposed, allowing the faded “ghost” signs on buildings to remain. In these small burgs you can still spot the old gas station, the Boy Scout post with the Lincoln medallion and a directional arrow showing the path of the original road, and if you are lucky and insightful, you will discern a new business in an old building intended for early tourists. If traveling with kids, get a game going to spot “Lincoln” in many business names and places.
And then, there is “pie.” That is to say, look for mom n’ pop restaurants and retails along the way that will welcome you with a smile. Remember that piece of pie you haven’t had since Grandma used to bake! Think antiques, old time hardware stores, five and dimes, community general stores and lots more to discover along the way.
Half the fun is re-discovering the history of this road. Watch for the half-hidden history along the way. Then, imagine traveling this road at a blazing speed of twenty miles per hour, when “paved road” meant a dusty, gravely, hot and pot-holed experience in a bumpy car with open sides and no air conditioning!
Take time to experience this important part of America’s past!