The Lincoln Highway Celebrates 100 Years

Owners of automobiles in Laramie dreamed about driving coast-to-coast in the early 1900s.

But driving to San Francisco or New York was a challenge. Most roads near Laramie were rutted and often muddy two-track trails. Drivers had to be prepared to make their own car repairs without benefit of tow trucks, and had to stop frequently to open rancher’s gates crossing the road.

 But the dream of a marked, improved transcontinental road became a reality thanks to auto pioneers Carl G. Fisher (1874-1939) of Indianapolis and Henry B. Joy (1864-1936) of Detroit. Joy was the president of the Packard Motor Company; Fisher founded the Indianapolis Speedway. 

 In 1912 they began soliciting $10 million in private funds to get a coast-to-coast highway started.  Joy chose the name “Lincoln” to honor the president. Henry Ford refused to donate, believing that the Federal government should fund it all.  Undaunted, new Lincoln Highway Association officials drove a portion of the chosen route, taking 34 days to get to San Francisco from Indianapolis.

 Lincoln Highway start-up funding was intended to demonstrate how borrow pits, culverts, bridges, guard rails, tunnels and surface gravel could improve auto travel. Roads were still mostly unpaved, following existing wagon roads outside towns.

Lincoln Highway founders began promoting the route in 1913.  In Albany County, it followed an abandoned railroad grade from Lone Tree to Ames Monument; then on a grade that is now Monument Road to Tie Siding.  From there, the route followed a dirt road (it later became Highway 287), into Laramie on 2nd Street.  The highway turned onto 3rd Street at Custer.  The route was moved in 1916 to go down Telephone Canyon onto what became Grand Avenue, and then north on 3rd Street to Rock River and beyond.

The Federal Aid Road Act of 1916 was the first Federal expenditure on roads in US history.  But the War in Europe limited implementation.  Wyoming began to fund state highways in 1917, though most maintenance was still left to county engineering departments.

After WWI, an Army convoy drove the Lincoln Highway in 1919 to prove it could be done. They built or rebuilt many bridges out of necessity, including 14 in Wyoming on the 62-day trip.  Lt. Col. Dwight Eisenhower was part of that convoy, which camped overnight in Laramie.

The 1916 act allowed states to spend the limited construction funds as they saw fit, no emphasis was given to building or improving the Lincoln Highway. Federal legislation finally came in 1921 to improve the coast-to-coast route.

The Federal Highway Act of 1921 provided $75 million to be matched by state funds. Federal funds could be used only on seven percent of a state’s roads that were designated as “primary”. The 1921 Act required that efforts be concentrated upon “such projects as will expedite the completion of an adequate and connected system of highways, interstate in character.”

In 1928, Boy Scout troops across the US installed three thousand concrete posts with a Lincoln medallion to mark the route.  About that time, the route between Philadelphia and Granger, Wyoming was renamed US 30, though traces and references to the original Lincoln Highway remain (“Lincolnway” in Cheyenne, for instance).

The Lincoln Highway Association, which still exists, celebrates its 100th anniversary this summer. Two tours will start simultaneously the last week of June, one from New York City and one from San Francisco.  One will pass through Laramie on June 28. They will reach the midpoint of the Lincoln Highway in Kearney, Nebraska, where the celebration will be hosted at the Great Platte River Road Museum on July 1.

By Jerry Hansen

Caption: Adjacent to the Lincoln Monument nine miles east of Laramie, this monument at the Summit Rest Stop on Interstate 80 reads:  “In memory of Henry B. Joy, the first president of the Lincoln Highway Association, who saw realized the dream of a continuous improved highway from the Atlantic to the Pacific.”  Henry Joy did live to see the Lincoln Highway completed and nearly all paved from coast-to-coast.  The monument was erected by Joy’s family in 1939 at a spot he loved along the Lincoln Highway (now near I-80 exit 184 in the Continental Divide Basin).  It was where he had asked to be buried, with a 20 mile view in all directions.  Joy was not buried there by his Detroit family when he died in 1936, but his wishes were honored with the monument at that site.  Much later, the Wyoming Department of Transportation moved it to this site, and surrounded it with a fence and four concrete posts replicating the original Lincoln Highway markers.  Photo courtesy of Judy Knight