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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

April 30, 1999

Aside from big-rigs pilots, not too many people travel from New York to San Francisco by highway anymore. It's too convenient to fly.

And at the turn of the century, the only way to cross the country from New York to San Francisco was by rail, a long and arduous trek.

But if you were an auto enthusiast (and you had to be, to even own one back then), crossing the country by car was next to impossible. It was a task best left to daredevils. To promote the fledgling Packard Motor Company, in 1903, Tom Fletch and Marius Kraup drove a Packard Model F across the U.S. in the record-breaking time of exactly two months. The major problem was not so much the ancient technology of the Packard as it was the roads. For the most part, there weren't any.

In urban areas there were streets, of course, many of them paved or made of crushed rock or gravel, but between the towns around the country, there was only a hodge-podge of dirt roads or trails that were dusty in the summer and quagmires in the winter. Travel on these country roads was further complicated by the rural population that viewed the new four-wheeled contraption with suspicion, if not contempt.

Members of the burgeoning auto business world soon realized that if the automobile was to flourish and grow in popularity, they would have to leave the stratified world of plaything-of-the-rich and become a practical means of transportation. And this meant all-weather roads.

To rectify this situation, in 1913 entrepreneur Carl Fisher met with a group of automotive movers-and-shakers in Indianapolis to propose a program of upgrading interconnecting streets, roads and trails across the country to make transcontinental driving a reality. Fisher's idea was to educate the politicos across the country to upgrade the byways of their areas and make them connect with those of their neighboring municipalities. The rationale was that if outsiders could come through their towns as tourists, local economies would flourish.

The moguls involved included the presidents of half-a-dozen auto makers as well as the president of the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company who immediately pledged $300,000. He was well aware of the fact that if an increased number of drivers drove greater distances, they'd need more tires more often.

Hudson, Packard, Willys and several other manufacturers contributed to the fund but the company that was conspicuous by its absence was Ford. That year Ford built 170,000 vehicles but it was the autocratic decision of Henry Ford I that his business was to make cars and it was the business of the towns and cities to make the roads that they drove on. A few years later, his son Edsel embraced the project whole- heartedly, became an officer in the soon-to-be-incorporated Lincoln Highway Association and even put in a great deal of his own money.

The conglomerate settled on the name Lincoln for the proposed highway because of its patriotic connotation (it was only 40 years after the assassination of the venerated president) and it was felt that small-town America would respond. The ploy worked.

The route traversed the northern part of the country, thus avoiding states that had been members of the Confederacy.

But in those days, the federal government had no interest in providing funds for highway projects, so Fisher and his associates felt that the best method of getting the job done was to publicize it and educate the population. Funding came from private donations large and small. School children in towns along the proposed route donated coins and even then-President Woodrow Wilson put in his own check for seven dollars towards the project. Three years later Wilson signed the Federal Aid Road Act to improve roads used by the post office, the first such legislation undertaken by our government.

Renovation and upgrading of the existing linkable roads was undertaken by members of the local populations who took to the project with gusto. And the corporate proponents of the project were perhaps the most ardent enthusiasts of them all. Fisher, with several of his friends as well as co-members of the Lincoln Highway Association undertook an arduous but slow-paced cross-country trip using 17 open cars plus two trucks to carry supplies. The sojourn was a publicity coup and at its completion, the Lincoln Highway Association received more than 100 telegrams from city officials in a single day asking that their towns be part of the proposed route.

But possibly the turning point of the project came in 1919 when a convoy of Army trucks undertook the same route to test the feasibility of moving military material across the country via trucks. It proved that road transportation was feasible but only if the roads were up to the job. One of the officers in charge of that convoy was Dwight Eisenhower who, as president, would sign into law the Interstate Highway Act in 1956, a project that provided 90 percent federal funding of 91,000 miles of new roadways.

The Lincoln Highway is a faded memory now and its route has been given numbers. And driving coast-to-coast is no longer a herculean adventure filled with rivers of mud to traverse and raging streams to cross.

And of all his entrepreneurial achievements, which included the Indianapolis International Speedway and the city of Miami Beach among them, America's drivers have most benefited from Carl Fischer's least known accomplishment, the fostering of our interstate highway system.