Pursuing the Marvelous: Crossing America

During the postcard era we can see the progression of American transportation from horse and buggy to jet planes. But the early days of automobile transportation is the most fun to collect.

Identifying names of the vehicles, many of which are long obsolete, are sometimes a challenge. Looking at the road conditions, is a wonder that anyone was able to make the transcontinental route of more than 3,389 miles of bumpy, dusty, muddy and sometimes impassable roads.

In 1910, Henry Joy, president of the Packard Motor Car Company left Michigan to travel west. It was rather smooth sailing to Omaha, Neb. But Omaha was for most, the end destination not a beginning point west. When he asked about going further west, was told to take down the wire fences he came across, but it wouldn’t be too many miles before he was out of fences and could just drive. Indeed, Joy finally found two ruts leading west across the prairie.

After this arduous trip, Joy became the first president of the Lincoln Highway Association. He thoroughly understood that while advanced technology was leading to bigger and better automobiles it was going to mean nothing without a better road system. This Detroit based organization pledged themselves to promote and procure a better highway system across America. The goal was to have a continuous road for traffic of all kinds, without a charge, and to be concrete wherever possible. The highway was to be named after Abraham Lincoln and called the Lincoln Highway. The road now called U.S. 30 was the first transcontinental highway. This early beginning has been replaced with four lane freeways and toll roads, but many places across the Midwest are still accessible from Old Highway 30, or the Lincoln Highway.

Today’s roads are about getting there quickly and not about the journey itself. In the beginning, the Lincoln Highway gave many a road traveler an experience he would never forget. The association’s first map makers drew it as a black line across the middle of America, but in reality it was a group of poorly marked existing roads full of pitfalls. The official starting point was Time Square in  New York, through Philadelphia and Pittsburg, on across Ohio and Indiana to Chicago. The journey went on across Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska through Cheyenne, Wyo., and Salt Lake City, Utah. It wound its way around those states and into the Nevada desert to enter California through Donner’s Pass. It ended at the Pacific Ocean in San Francisco’s Lincoln Park.

In 1915, the Lincoln Highway was referred to as an imaginary line like the equator. The guidebooks said clearly that the journey from the Atlantic to the Pacific was a sporting event at best. But with this new highway, the idea of traveling the open road became a goal of many Americans. A record keeper in Utah recorded 52 automobiles going past his door in June of 1913; two years later, in June of 1915 he counted 225 cars.

These long journeys could be exciting experiences, and at 20 miles per hour, sightseeing was easy. They made many new acquaintences along the way, by asking strangers for directions, eating in local cafés or getting help being pulled from the mud.

The Lincoln Highway Association worked hard to improve the worst roads in the journey with a new paving material – concrete. Local laborers donated the concrete and the time to do some short stretches, as the national highway program had not yet been created. Over time the road was straightened and the time it took to make the trip became shorter and shorter. The condition of the Lincoln Highway improved, and by 1922 there were five true transcontinental routes. By 1925, Louis B. Miller drove from New York City to San Francisco in four days and seven hours, coming close to the speed of the fastest train traveling the same distance.

The automobile was a major attraction in American life in the 1920s and all efforts were finally under way to create a system of all-weather roads for the entire country. With so many travelers it became necessary to adopt a national numbering system for interstate travel, to alleviate confusion; it is still in effect today. East-west routes are given even numbers with major transcontinental routes becoming 10, 20, 30, 40 and so on; north-south routes were given odd numbers. This is when the Lincoln Highway became U.S. 30 between Philadelphia, Pa., and Utah.

In 1928 the Lincoln Highway association achieved its goal. As a parting publicity stunt, on Sep. 1, 1928, Boy Scouts all across America erected 3,000 concrete markers from coast to coast at prearranged locations. Placed about one mile apart those mile markers remained in place for several years; only a handful still remain in their original locations.

Today, we can travel the Lincoln Highway on postcards. Come join the fun, looking for highways and roadside Americana that developed from the needs of the first adventurous automobile travelers.