Monday, August 26, 2013

Lessons Learned from America's First Coast-to-Coast Highway in Building the NBG


America's First Coast-to-Coast Highway,
The Lincoln Highway




The Greatest Memorial
The Lincoln Highway
"It is a name to conjure by. It calls to the heroic. It enrolls a mighty panorama of fields and woodlands; of humble cabins and triumphant farm homes and cattle on a thousand hills; burrowing mines and smoking factories; winding brooks, commerce-laden rivers and horizon lost oceans. 
And because it binds together all these wonders and sweeps forward till it touches the end of the earth and the beginning of the sea it is to be named the "Lincoln Highway". 
It brings back to us the lank figure of the growing boy walking the country roadway with borrowed books; the dreaming out, surveying and building of his highway of the soul, that should stretch from that mysterious ocean of the past, whence he came, to the mysterious ocean of the eternal, to which he would go; 
A highway along whose everyday travel he had a gentle word for the sorrowing, a hand for the one in trouble, a sharp prod for the indifferent, a word of council for the perplexed, an inspiration for the doubtful, and love for all; the highway of the soul of the "Great American". 
Therefore, Be it Resolved, That The Lincoln Highway Now Is And Henceforth Shall Be An Existing Memorial In Tribute To, That Great Martyred Patriot - ABRAHAM LINCOLN 
Rev. Frank G. Brainard First Congregational Church Ogden, Utah September 21, 1913



No more than ruts in the grass or a "red line on a map connecting all the worst mudholes in the Country" as it was referred to by many when it began, the Lincoln Hwy was formed by those who dared to think big. This as the courage of its early users was equally as large. And yet it would go on to impact how people lived on this continent in many ways similar to how the Tran Siberia Railroad across Russia as well as the Silk Road across Asia affected the lives of eastern Europeans. In the end, even though it was never one road but made use of many, it still changed our geography, enlarged the scope for what was possible and ushered in a plethora of new highways and all the automobiles that come with them.

On July 1, 1913, 17 cars and 2 trucks left Indianapolis in search of a route to California for the newly formed Lincoln Highway Association (LHA). The LHA wanted to see a road built that would connect the east coast with the west. While the route from the Atlantic Ocean to Indianapolis was known, getting to the Golden State by car was a mystery for most. 

After a journey filled with breakdowns and often-impassable roads, 34 days later the LHA caravan made it to San Francisco. Several weeks later a route was announced. It would cross the 13 states of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California. Spanning 3389 miles, it would travel from Times Square in New York City to Lincoln Park in San Francisco.  

In order to better understand what the LHA people were up against when they began their “road”, we need to see their challenge in its context.  Their “highway” across America was conceived at a time when only 10 years before Dr. Nelson Jackson had proven it was even possible to travel cross-country in a car. In 1903, he rode shotgun as a former bike racer drove his auto from New York City to San Francisco. It took them 65 days!

In the first 15 years of the 20th Century, most Americans just did not travel very far beyond their own towns. And if they did so, it was not in an automobile, as only the wealthy owned them. In fact, many people thought of roads that went anywhere out of the cities as “peacock alleys” that the rich just used to prance about on as they explored the countryside.

Before Henry Ford introduced the assembly line in 1913, the price of a car rivaled that of a home. For that matter, the cost of one tire, of which many were needed on longer trips, could be measured in the form of several weeks’ worth of the workingman’s wages. Nor did the majority of America even live in cities where they could get a regular paycheck.  In 1910, 54% of the population did not get a wage, relying instead on the produce of their land for barter and food.  For this reason, the LHA had to convince America, that the Lincoln Highway they envisioned was desirable in a Nation that was still largely driven by the needs of the farm.

When the Lincoln began, the country had approximately 2,199,600 miles of rural roads. Also at the time, in the entire United States, there were only 190,476 miles worth of roads with improved surfaces. An improved surface was defined by the US Bureau of Public Roads (established with the U.S. Forest Service in 1905 to make America’s National Parks more accessible) as dirt that had been covered by gravel, stone, sand-clay, brick, shells or oil.  

Like the airplane and the car that preceded it, the forerunner of the US Interstate system, the Lincoln Highway, was also brought to us by a bicycle mechanic. Few people know that Carl Fisher, the man who fomented the Lincoln Highway, and earlier the Indianapolis Speedway, and later the Dixie Highway and also Miami Beach, used to run a bicycle repair shop,

Car Fisher was such a huge part of automobile transportation history, we have devoted an entire chapter to him. Wanting to increase the need for the new automobiles, concocted the bold vision of a car road from New York  City to San Francisco. In 1912, Fisher convened a meeting at the German Haus, a now historic building called the Athenaeum,  that is still active serving the community today. There his vision was greeted with enthusiastic support as he raised several million dollars to begin. Soon, he assembled the Lincoln Highway Association (LHA) to make his vision real.

However when a small number of the early car makers, such as Henry Ford, did not buy into his new group’s dream, they soon realized they would not be able to raise enough money to construct one road from ocean to ocean. Instead, they decided to make use of the roads east of the Mississippi. West of it, they would use the pats they knew to exist until they could collect the resources they would need to put the earth movers of the day to work. To help build a larger war chest, they turned to promotion. 

While there are many parallels between our organization and theirs, it is important to see more of how the LHA mind worked from their offices in what is now referred to as the Crossroads of America. From the 5-story Fisher Automobile Company still standing strong as the One America bank building  at the corner of Michigan and Capitol, in downtown Indianapolis, the LHA had to get very creative. They had to get early 20th Century man to accept the notion of loud, foul smelling vehicles rumbling over the land he lived off of. Toward this end, late in 1914, when their "highway" was formally announced, after almost two years of teasing the public with the adventure calling to them from California, they came up with a way to make it seem un-American to not support what they had envisioned. 

They called their offer to drive the collection of roads they had assembled an “Appeal to Patriots”. Having already credentialized it with the name ‘Lincoln’, Fisher and his friends had devised a way to make a person look like a better citizen if he or she motored on the course they selected. Working every angle in order to sell their vision, the LHA even referred to the roads they had chosen, most of them dirt, as  "The Main Street Across America."

With regard to marking the route they had chosen, wherever it was needed, the LHA tried to place directional signs on the dirt paths that were being used. Ultimately this evolved into what at one time were concrete posts topped off  with universally familiar red, white and blue markings.  Here at the NBG, on the roads we foresee ourselves retrofitting, we have long envisioned handsome, green and black road signs inscribed with the words, ‘NBG’.

Just as the LHA had developed a set of specifications for its roads, we have had such a spec for our network of roads and paths on the books almost from our inception. If you think of all the dirt roads and paths that had to be improved back when the LHA began in order for them to be worthy for cars, the NBG is employing the same strategy. In our case, the road as we know it today, can be thought of as an early American dirt surface that just needs to be upgraded to fit the needs of cyclists.

Where what the LHA referred to as “seedling miles” is concerned, the work has already been done for the NBG. According to the LHA's 1924 guide, its seedling miles were intended "to demonstrate the desirability of this permanent type of road construction and crystallize public sentiment for further construction of the same character”. We can think of the occasional concrete surface the early motorist was able to luxuriate on as being comparable to the the many exemplary rail trails, bike boulevards and protected bike lane arterials that have cropped up all over America. They communicate what can be once America realizes the genuine need we have for the National Bicycle Greenway.

From their Fisher Automobile Company headquarters,  from 1940 to 1942, the Lincoln Highway people ran a radio show. Brought to a halt by the second World War, it had worked to even further impregnate the American consciousness with what it saw as the need for more roads. We are endeavoring to change the way our fellow countrymen think with radio as well. Our podcast show, the NBG Mountain Mover series, has been busy daring people to visualize a two-wheel bicycle heaven since 2005.

Besides some of the indifference that the LHA faced for its road scheme, their 1913 car tour across America faced a whole different set of obstacles. Fisher left on the 1,700 mile Hoosier Tour (also called the Indiana–Pacific Indiana Automobile Manufacturers Association tour) at a time when filling stations were rare in America and none existed anywhere between Indianapolis and San Francisco. Nor did the road map that we take for granted today even exist. Gulf Oil would not issue America’s first ever road map, a map that would only cover the area in and around Pittsburgh, PA, until the end of 1913, a number of months after the Fisher group had completed their journey to San Francisco. 

The early car adventurers were in many ways similar to the long distance cyclists of today. Consider the equipment that was required of all vehicles on the 1913 Hoosier Tour:

- A pick or mattock
- A pair of tackle blocks
- Six hundred feet of three-quarter-inch rope
- A barn lantern to be hung on the rear tire carrier in case the car’s regular lights failed
- A steel stake three feet long to use as an anchor to pull the car out of sand or mud
- Twelve mudhooks
- A full set of chains
- A sledge
- Chocolate bars in cans
- Beans and other canned food
- A 4’x6’ tent
West of Salt Lake City:
Four African water bags filled at all times


When you think about the difficulty level facing those long distance car travelers of the early 1900’s, one can’t help but know that such journeys built character in the same way that a coast-to-coast bicycle ride does today. Without tow trucks, phone lines or any of the safety valves the modern motorist has at his or her disposal today, car voyagers back then, like the long distance bike trekkers of today, often had to go inside for answers. There are many other ways that the original automobile adventurer was like the present day cycle tourist.

In many ways, the treks early car excursionists took were a waking meditation. Without radio, billboards or road signs to distract them, they also had to go inside for information and entertainment as they also bonded with their machines. Just as the transcontinental cyclist can get to know himself pretty well on the open road and is attuned to any new sound his bicycle may happen to make, early motorcar adventurers faced the same set of challenges. At a time when a car trip to the Pacific Ocean lasted one to two months, those hearty souls who undertook such a trip were forced to become not only their own best friend but they also knew that as uninvited guests to an unfamiliar land they always had to be on the lookout for those who could help.

Entering a frontier where no services for either their vehicles or themselves existed, they could not afford to alienate anyone in the event there was any kind of breakdown. From directions to health matters and broken parts, the smarter car pioneers knew they needed each other out there. Unlike car drivers of today, this awareness forced them to be friendly with other motorists. Since travel was bidirectional, they never passed up a chance to exchange information about the condition of the road itself as they moved into new turf.

In addition to one another, just like the NBG assists its scouts today, from 1913 to 1928, Lincoln HIghway travelers were assisted by the home offices of the Lincoln Highway Association. The LHA helped its travelers get on their way with routing and gearing recommendations. Though the actual “road” assistance the LHA provided could hardly be described as timely, especially by today’s standards, once word did get to them that someone was stuck, they still were able to get help out to stranded motorists.

Because of the bold vision Fisher put forth in every way possible with the highway he envisioned, a shift began to take place in the way Americans thought about travel. In fact, by the time Fisher’s much-publicized journey across the West was complete in 1913, car production had exceeded the manufacture of carriages and wagons in the United States for the first time in history. 

He had captured the interest of whole cities. As the LHA took the data Fisher’s 1913  caravan had collected and continued their work of configuring an official route, for example, a great number of population centers all across the country had already set up committees to try to lure the Lincoln Highway to come their way. And even after the roads that would be used were announced, some of those that had been bypassed continued lobbying efforts that would ultimately become futile. And yet as they continued to petition for the Lincoln, they added to the voice that clamored for roads.

Some of those that had been ignored, Denver, CO, for example, even went on to establish connections to other highway systems that had begun to rush in to fill the void. One such route was called the Midland Trail. Transcontinental, it ran from Washington DC to Los Angles. Other shorter connections such as the Dixie, Des Moines, Fort Dodge, Spirit Lake and Sioux Fall Highways began to form at this time as well.

Much of this was put on hold as America fought in World War I. However, when the war ended in 1919, the LHA rallied a sense of patriotism for their road once again. It sold the US Army on the fact that they needed to use its "highway" to test the reliability of their travel machines. As such, a convoy of 72 vehicles, most of them heavy military trucks, and 297 men, paraded across America for two months that summer. Everywhere their machines went, sometimes with great difficulty, their drivers were worshipped as heroes. 

One of the officers who traveled on this tour was Dwight D Eisenhower, the same man who in 1956, 37 years later would usher the Interstate Highway system into law under the pretext of defense preparedness. And as he did so, the policy he set forth would officially swallow up the numbered US Highways that had already replaced the Lincoln with what is known today as I-80. 

The road building frenzy that had been blessed by the Army Transcontinental Motor Convoy gave cars more and more places to go. Soon, creating more automobiles and places for them to drive became America’s preoccupation.

And yet maybe if Fisher’s original dream of connecting communities to one another hadn’t been obviated by Henry Joy’s engrossment with the most direct route, later road builders would have had more respect for people, the buildings that housed them and the land itself. As the president of both the Packard Motor Car Company and the Lincoln Hwy Association, because he was based in Detroit, Joy also made sure the Lincoln ran closer to his city with a connecting spot instead of through Indianapolis itself. 

As Joy’s mindset won over Fisher’s, it was technology that then enabled construction engineers to more and more conquer the country as they mowed through whatever was in the way. This psychology continued unabated into the 50’s and 60’s. It was not until Jane Jacobs led a movement to stop Robert Moses, who had already displaced nearly three quarters of a million people in New York City with his insatiable thirst for roads, that road building in the interest of progress was finally called into question.

And yet there again, the early transportation pioneers of the last century could not have foreseen the downward spiral that the automobile would ultimately take us down. The health and social costs and the cost to the planet are only now forcing us to rethink the once unchallenged sacredness of the car and all the space it needs to do its work. From roads to parking places and the orientation of buildings, etc, we are only just now beginning to call any of the automobile’s insatiable appetite into question.

Just as the father of the Lincoln Highway, Carl Fisher, began life as a bicycle mechanic and racer, indeed we have come back to the very point where modern transportation all began. As we reverse engineer our cities so that people and not just cars can move about, free also of noise and smell, it will be the bicycle that will make our population centers more livable once again. Besides getting us out of gridlock and helping to solve the long list of environmental woes caused by the automobile, the bicycle will also speak to the overweight epidemic that is gripping America today.

If there ever was a war that could justify the expenditure of federal dollars here in the US, it needs to be fought right now. For those who cannot see how we can make it cost effective to fight for the planet, we can at least engage in battle against the direct cause of skyrocketing health costs - obesity. Investment in safe infrastructure for walkers, joggers and cyclists can drive this expense down as it makes all of America healthy and virile once again. So from a profit and loss standpoint alone, the numbers for just trying to slim this country’s waist line could easily justify a new "Appeal to Patriots", the building of the National Bicycle Greenway!


1 comment:

  1. And I think a National Bicycle Greenway would also be a strong economic structure for small businesses catering to the bike recreational trade (hostels, B&B's, snack bars, pubs, repair shops, etc.).

    ReplyDelete