Sunday, January 15, 2017

(3) A Thumbnail History of American Highways

Carl Fisher, Founder Lincoln Highway
Chicago History Museum, Chicago Daily News
Deutches Haus (Athenaeum)
Indianapollis, Indiana
Birthplace of the Lincoln Highway
We enjoyed a delicious lunch at the Rathskeller, November 2016
 To understand the importance and significance of the Lincoln Highway and the Yellowstone Trail to America it is necessary to step back and to view the America of 1910. At that time there simply were no roads connecting the vast expanse of the United States. What roads existed, existed only in cities. When roads reached the city limits they simply disappeared or deteriorated to dust or sticky mud.

Travel between the East Coast and the West Coast was only by rail. Not only were there no roads, but there were no roadmaps or guides or directional signs that could be used by a motorist, or "autoist" as they were known then. The joke of the city slicker asking directions of a farmer on how to get to a certain town and being told: "You can't get there from here" was no joke. The grim reality was that it was a statement of fact. What roads might have existed outside the city limits went nowhere. They were simply unconnected spiderwebs radiating from towns or rail centers.

In Emily Post's 1916 book "By Motor to the Golden Gate" she recounts a story of asking the best route from New York to San Francisco. She was told the best route was "The Union Pacific". When Emily asked a woman experienced in travel across the country about driving a motorcar to the west coast, she was told that it couldn't be done. In fact while Emily successfully navigated from New York to San Francisco she spent very little time on the Lincoln Highway. Upon leaving New York City she traveled north and then west to Chicago. When she did travel on the Lincoln, she described it as being a vast sea of mud.

It's easy to get romantic about the named highways. Certainly it sounds more adventurous to talk about journeying on the Lincoln Highway or the Yellowstone Trail than it does to drive on Interstate 80 or even US 40, but the Lincoln and the Yellowstone had their shortcomings. They relied upon voluntary contributions from Association members, benefactors, corporate sponsors and cities and counties along the route in order to complete the transcontinental roads. This worked, but was not a permanent solution and even the founders of the Lincoln Highway and the Yellowstone Trail felt that
state and federal governments would have to step in.

Individuals and private organizations in fact stepped in to fill the breach before the creation of state highway departments and the federal Department of Transportation. While the Lincoln Highway Association and the Yellowstone Trail Association were alike in that they were private associations they were each unique from one another. The Lincoln Highway Association had the backing of most of America's automobile manufacturers as well as the companies which supplied the products used in the manufacture of roads and automobiles.

The Yellowstone Trail Association had little such support. It was more of a grassroots movement made up of farmers and businessmen of the towns lying along the Yellowstone Trail, more rural in approach. If the county assessed a road tax for the construction of a segment of the Yellowstone Trail, a citizen might just satisfy the obligation of that tax by contributing work on a designated workday. The problem with this was that real work was hard to come by. There are jokes about WPA workers resting on their shovels during the Great Depression 20 years later, but they had nothing on the disorganized workforces that at times turned out for a day of roadbuilding in 1913 or 1914. Oh the job got done, but after the initial enthusiasm less of the job would get done.

There is really nothing like these highway associations today. They coordinated road construction, acted as boosters for towns and tourist destinations along their route. They acted much like the AAA or oil companies which distributed maps and provided travel advice and they advocated for good roads and published best practices for road construction. The Lincoln Highway Association even funded demonstration projects, a practice followed up by the modern federal department of transportation. Unfortunately the named highways became victims of their own shortcomings as well as their own success and by the mid-1920s certain transportation corridors became confusing jumbles of competing signs and routes. This left telephone poles crowded with signs and motorist confused.

"Pole Markers" for the Transcontinental named Highways.

The creation of named highway associations and the work that they did were really the quintessential American response to getting the job done. If government was not going to step in, private citizens would step up. The named highway movement occupied only a brief time in our history. The US highways and subsequent interstate highways ultimately proved to be a much better response to America's transportation needs, but they built upon a foundation laid by the named highway associations. I can't help but get romantic when thinking about two-lane travel and the individuals behind the Lincoln Highway and the Yellowstone Trail. Great credit needs to go to the founders of these two American roads who got the ball rolling.

President Lincoln Highway Assoc.

J.W.Parmley Founder Yellowstone Trail Assoc.

1st Director Fed. Hwy Admin.
Fed. Hwy. Admin. Photo
The end of the line for named Highways

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