Celebrating the road that got Americans moving - Omaha.com
Published Sunday, June 23, 2013 at 12:30 am / Updated at 9:29 am
Lincoln Highway turns 100
Celebrating the road that got Americans moving

CENTRAL CITY, Neb. — The crops looked “splendid” as Lolly Severance and her family pulled out of their dairy farm on July 8, 1921, for a cross-country drive to visit elderly relatives in Los Angeles.

Luggage, food and a toolbox were lashed to the sides of their 1919 REO touring car.

They'd also packed a tent. There were no Holiday Inns or Motel 6s in those days, just roadside tourist camps, littered with tin cans.

Ahead lay more than 1,700 miles of dusty, bumpy, zigzagging roads. Most consisted of graded dirt that turned to soup when it rained. If they were lucky, some stretches had been “improved” with gravel.

Ahead in Wyoming were rocky mountain passes so steep and narrow that they would take your breath away.

This was the state of cross-country travel in 1921 on the Lincoln Highway, a two-lane hunk of history that traversed Nebraska and Iowa like a belt across the midsection.

The Lincoln Highway, the nation's first transcontinental thoroughfare, turns 100 this year. Celebrations are planned in Nebraska and Iowa, and stories such as the Severance family's six-week-long trip in 1921 are being recalled.

The family's adventure is preserved in three journals that were kept by Lolly Severance.

“We are dusty & tired & dirty but are doing nicely,” Lolly Severance wrote as the open-sided car neared Lexington. “See no signs of rain. Got a drink at Elm Creek ... got into Lexington at 3:20.”

“Doing nicely” in those days meant no breakdowns and steady progress of 15 to 18 mph. The REO covered the first 108 miles in seven hours and 20 minutes — a trip that today would take about 90 minutes.

There were no road maps or GPS systems to guide the way, only landmarks such as churches and barns, and red, white and blue bands painted on telephone poles along the road.

Getting lost and fixing flat tires were part of the adventure.

The highway, unlike the transcontinental railroad, was developed and initially built by volunteers and town boosters, often with horse-drawn drags and wagons.

It linked Times Square in New York City with San Francisco, and helped launch the era of the automobile road trip. The Lincoln Highway also influenced President Dwight Eisenhower — who was part of an Army convoy that traveled the highway in 1919 — to propose the modern Interstate highway system.

The road was revolutionary, coming at a time when automobiles were still rare, and cross-country trips in them were even rarer.

Nebraska, for instance, had only 25,617 registered vehicles in 1913. There are 2.28 million today.

“The Lincoln Highway was a novel idea at the time. We're going to connect all the best roads across the country and give it a name, we're going to make sure that the roads stay good,” said highway authority Ronnie O'Brien.

“It was, like, 'Wow, maybe the automobile is really here to stay,'” she said.

Did you know?

The Lincoln Highway was the first route to cross the U.S.

3,389: length in miles
13: states originally crossed
1913: year dedicated
Eastern end: Times Square, New York City
Western end: Lincoln Park, San Francisco

In the late 1920s, the Lincoln Highway became U.S. Highway 30, but remnants of the original highway remain, including some of the white signposts with red and blue stripes framing the letter “L.”

In Omaha, an original brick section is visible in the Elkhorn area, north of West Dodge Road between 180th and 192nd Streets.

A short stretch of the original Lincoln Highway — the “model mile” — still exists through Central City, Neb.; it's a gravel road that parallels the Union Pacific Railroad tracks.

In Iowa, the Old Lincoln Highway runs north of Council Bluffs through Crescent. As much as 85 percent of the original highway is still drivable, according to the Lincoln Highway Association, although some of it is gravel.

O'Brien is in the midst of the planning for the elaborate centennial celebration. She is the Nebraska director of the Lincoln Highway Association and the director of cultural education at the Great Platte River Road Archway Monument in Kearney, two entities devoted to keeping the history of the roadway alive. The Lincoln Highway was spawned out of the “good roads movement” in the early 20th century, which sought to improve the nation's patchwork of rural roads into maintained thoroughfares to link country customers with urban merchants.

It brought prosperity to towns along the route and became known as “The Main Street Across America.”

The highway was the brainchild of Carl G. Fisher, an Indiana entrepreneur who also founded the Indianapolis 500. He formed a national Lincoln Highway Association of local volunteers and community boosters to promote the idea of a transcontinental highway. Fisher named the project after President Abraham Lincoln, a personal hero.

The original route covered 3,389 miles and followed existing roads around farm sections, and paralleled railroad tracks.

The result was a route that had more turns than a bumper-car ride at an amusement park. More than half of the initial route was unimproved dirt roadway that turned to mud in winter and produced clouds of dust in summer.

“The road for many miles was nothing more than twin wagon ruts,” H.B. Joy, the then-president of the Lincoln Highway Association, wrote of a 1913 trip down the road through Nebraska. “The traveler was compelled to pick his way with great caution. ... All he could do was to trust to luck and divine providence — and head west.”

But by 1915, Joy noted “tremendous” progress. He said he was particularly impressed that Nebraska farmers dragged the road after every rain — rain that could make the mostly dirt highway “impassable.”

Over the years the route was straightened and shortened. That led to protests in Omaha in 1930 after the Lincoln Highway route was changed to go through Blair, following completion of the Lincoln Memorial Bridge over the Missouri River.

Omaha had trumpeted the opening of the Lincoln Highway on Oct. 31, 1913, with a huge bonfire of old streetcar ties and burning oil, and a “spectacular” fireworks display that reportedly cost $100 for 10,000 onlookers.

In 1930, W. Dale Clark, the chairman of the Omaha Chamber of Commerce's executive committee, complained loudly that Omaha and Council Bluffs had received no warning of the route change.

Road crews “moved stealthily” one July night to remove the concrete Lincoln Highway markers, then place them on the new route, author Gregory Franzwa wrote in the 1996 book “The Lincoln Highway — Nebraska.”

A Blair newspaper “tut-tutted” the howls of protest from Omaha.

“Come on Omaha, if you are going to be a suburb of Blair, take it gracefully,” the Blair editors wrote.

Unlike the transcontinental railroad or nterstate system, the federal government was not involved in the route selection or initial development of the Lincoln Highway.

Bob Puschendorf, assistant state preservation officer of the Nebraska State Historical Society, said that work was done by the Detroit-based Lincoln Highway Association, which included not only associations formed along the highway but also automobile manufacturers seeking better roads.

There wasn't a Federal Highway Administration in 1913, he said, though some minor federal funding for roads came from the Department of Agriculture.

But state and federal governments eventually got involved. In 1916 Nebraska launched a plan to develop a state highway system of 5,000 miles. In 1921 states were asked to designate their most important highways for federal funding. Puschendorf said that led to designation of about 7 percent of a state's roadways, which included routes such as the Lincoln Highway.

Federal highways didn't get numbered until later, in 1926. The Lincoln Highway became U.S. 30 through Nebraska.

Central City played a key role in the promotion and development of the Lincoln Highway. A key booster was H.E. Glatfelter, a local doctor-dentist who headed the Platte Valley Transcontinental Good Roads Association, a predecessor of the Lincoln Highway Association.

In May 1913 the Lincoln Highway group held a meeting in Central City, said to be the only such meeting of that group held outside of Detroit.

According to the Central City Republican-Nonpareil, an engineer stayed behind to supervise the construction of a “model mile” north of town. It was built by local farmers out of a mixture of sand and clay, smoothed out by teams of horses dragging split logs.

On Oct. 8, 1913, Central City hosted a big meeting in which Glatfelter and 200 other road proponents ratified the proposed route — even though there was no need to ratify it.

A short stretch of the original Lincoln Highway still exists through town. It's a gravel road that parallels the Union Pacific Railroad tracks. Across Nebraska there are still plenty of remnants — including a preserved brick segment in west Omaha, between 180th and 192nd Streets north of West Dodge Road.

In Central City, Lolly Severance and her husband, Ralph, might have participated in that 1913 meeting, the construction of the model mile, or been swept up by the idea of traveling the new Lincoln Highway.

Her great-grandson Dave Ferris and his wife, Ruth, said they aren't exactly sure what inspired their relatives to set out across country. They didn't discover Lolly's handwritten journals until after her death, at age 97, in 1981. She never talked about the trip, they said.

Perhaps, they said, the trip, with four children, was taken because of the advancing age of Ralph Severance's parents, who had recently moved to Los Angeles.

It would have been a once-in-a-lifetime experience, according to O'Brien, the Lincoln Highway authority.

Few people then could afford the expense of such a trip, she said, and for the Severance family, it would have been difficult to get away from the daily chores of running a dairy farm.

Lolly Severance faithfully documented the six-week trip. Her family preserved her journals and created a booklet for the black-and-white photos taken during the trip.

On day one she wrote about the weather getting “dryer and dryer; hotter and hotter” as they drove down the Platte Valley west of Grand Island. “Threshing is all the excitement thro here ...,” Severance wrote.

On the first night the family camped at a “tourist camping grounds” at North Platte with about 30 families. .

On the second day the family stopped at the “Lincoln Highway Cafe” in Potter, Neb., according to a photograph.

That same day Severance noted what a lot of modern travelers observe: “Children keep asking if we are nearly there.”

She wrote of the “pine-tipped bluffs” on the border at Pine Bluff, Wyo., of seeing their first mountains, and of camping in Cheyenne next to “the N.Y. boys” who were also driving west.

“Climbing, climbing,” she wrote upon leaving Cheyenne on day three. “Air makes us feel lightheaded. You take a full breath and don't get anything.”

The condition of the “highway” varied, from rocky, steep and “the skeeriest we've seen” to “great” gravel roads across the Laramie plain, and a bumpy, “awful road” near Hanna, Wyo.

“I caught (son) Phil in midair, by the stomach once ... there is no highway here, only rocky trail,” Severance wrote. “We wonder how anyone could lay a road thro here — so many winds in and out and up and down and round & round.”

The Severances were lucky — they had some minor engine trouble near the Wyoming line, and didn't have their first flat tire until 1,150 miles into their trip, near Cedar City, Utah. By then, the family had turned off the Lincoln Highway en route to Los Angeles. They took a southerly route back to Nebraska to see the Grand Canyon and Cliff Dwellings.

During the 4,251-mile round trip the family dodged herds of sheep, bargained with an Indian woman for a beaded hat, hunted for arrowheads and hit a top speed of 22 mph.

Dave Ferris said the journal written by his grandmother points out how much automobile travel has improved since the early days of the Lincoln Highway.

“We've got it plumb simple now,” he said.

Celebrating 100 years

A number of celebrations are planned on the route of the Lincoln Highway to mark its centennial this summer. But the most prominent is in Kearney, Neb., said Ronnie O'Brien, Nebraska state director of the Lincoln Highway Association

“Kearney is known as the Midway City, in the middle of the country,” said O'Brien, who is also the director of cultural education at the Great Platte River Road Archway. “We are 50 miles away from the actual center of the Lincoln Highway route.”

The official celebration is June 30 and July 1. According to the Kearney Visitor's Bureau:

Sunday, June 30: Downtown Kearney

Noon to 5 p.m. — Food, historical characters and period music.
1 p.m. — Kearney Area Community Band leads the Grand Parade.
7 p.m. — Sons & Brothers with Mike Adams Concert at Robert M. Merryman Performing Arts Center.

Monday, July 1: Great Platte River Road Archway
9 a.m. to 5 p.m. — Education tent, tourist camp, food and book vendors.
12:45 p.m. — Parade of Packards
1 p.m. — Official centennial program

Cross country

Saturday: Two separate tours, each starting from either end of the Lincoln Highway, are driving the original route to Kearney for the celebration. One from New York will have stops in Woodbine, Iowa, and Grand Island, Neb., on Saturday and a return stop in Omaha.

The tour that begins in San Francisco will stop in North Platte and Lexington in Nebraska on Saturday and in North Platte again on the way back.

Also in Kearney will be the 21st Annual Lincoln Highway Conference. The event at the Holiday Inn Convention Center will be July 2 through 5.

Commemorations are not limited to Kearney. A sampling of other events in Nebraska:

Sutherland, Neb.

Volunteers have painted the Lincoln Highway blue, white and red “L” symbol on utility poles along U.S. Highway 30 and the original route. Also, they are restoring a 1920s-era filling station and its Frontier gas sign.

“When the Lincoln Highway came through, there were over a dozen gas stations here in town,” said Samantha Boggs, Sutherland's treasurer and village clerk. “This town probably wouldn't exist (now) without the Lincoln Highway coming through.”

North Bend, Neb.

The Public Library is displaying old photographs of the Lincoln Highway.


Owners of vintage cars will gather on the old brick stretch of the highway southeast of Elkhorn, at 1 p.m. June 29. A historical marker for that part of the highway will be unveiled.

Andrew J. Nelson

Contact the writer: Paul Hammel

paul.hammel@owh.com    |   402-473-9584    |  

Paul covers state government and affiliated issues and helps coordinate the same.

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