Friday, October 24, 2014
The Lincoln Highway and Road Construction Before 1921
A Transcontinental Link: The Lincoln Highway
With the increasing numbers of vehicles on the road, the level of talk concerning improved interstate roadways intensified. In 1911, Carl Graham Fischer, an Indianapolis businessman, promoter of the Indianapolis Speedway, and founder of Presto-Lite Company, first proposed building a hard-surfaced, coast-to-coast highway that he named the Lincoln Highway. The Lincoln Highway Association was organized in 1913, and its importance both in the short- and long-run was significant. Travel literature concerning the Lincoln Highway appeared long before the highway was completed and certainly became influential in terms of encouraging the general pubic to hit the road and find adventure.
Effie Price Gladding’s Across the Continent by the Lincoln Highway certainly was an early example of this genre of writing, and provides a colorful travel account that curiously focuses on California while largely omitting much of the Midwest. For Price, the road trip had little danger and much romance. Price concluded that as a result of her trip, “We have a new conception of our great country; her vastness, her varied scenery, her prosperity, her happiness, her boundless resources, her immense possibilities, her kindness and hopefulness. We are bound to her by a thousand new ties of acquaintance, of association, and of pride.”12 And while automobile touring temporarily declined during World War I, it returned to Americans in 1919 who now had a “fever” to get back on the road. In fiction, Sinclair Lewis wrote of the adventures of Claire Boltwood in Free Air. Proper Ms. Boltwood escaped from her respectable life in Brooklyn by taking a cross-country road trip in a 70 horsepower Gomez-Dep roadster. Similar to Lewis’s fictional account, Beatrice Larner Massey penned an account of her 1919 tour with the title It Might Have Been Worse: A Motor Trip from Coast to Coast. Massey and her husband leased their home, put family business affairs in order, and left New York City in a Twin-Six Packard. A total of 4,154 miles and about $1,000 later, Mrs. Massey concluded, “This trip can be taken in perfect comfort by two people for thirteen dollars a day, including everything, which means that you are traveling as well as living. Not bad, considering the “H. C. of L. today!”13
In a sense, the Lincoln Highway Association marked the emergence of the “road-gang,” an effective lobby group that for remainder of the twentieth century that shaped federal highway legislation through political and economic influence. In addition to Fischer, who later made a fortune in Florida real estate while promoting the Dixie Highway, other leaders with automobile industry connections included Roy D. Chapin, John N. Willys, Henry B. Joy, and Frank Sieberling. With substantial funding from General Motors, the Lincoln Highway Association was a precursor to the efforts of Alfred Sloan’s Highway Users’ Conference of the 1930s. Its relationship with the U.S. military during World War I and then with the First Transcontinental Army Convoy in 1919 ensured that its arguments for federal road funding in Western states were duly heard. Between 1913 and 1920, more than 2,000 miles of Lincoln Highway links would be built (U.S. 30 later on), but the cost and difficulties of local and state government jurisdictions led to the disbanding of the association once the landmark Federal Aid Roadway Act of 1921 was passed.14
Federal Legislation and the Gas Tax
This act had been preceded by the Good Roads Act of 1916, legislation that finally involved the federal government in road building. It remained an open question in 1916 whether efforts should be directed toward a system of arterial routes connecting major cities, or whether the farm population should be provided with better connections to surrounding communities. In the end, $75 million was appropriated for rural roads, only available if matched by the states. Since states like New York had previously raised $100 million through the sale of bonds, one can only conclude that this first piece of federal legislation was hardly adequate given the task at hand.15
A year later the U.S. was at war, and it quickly became recognized that roads were necessary for national welfare. The rail system became gridlocked in the Northeast because of the shipping of war materials, and as a result it became increasingly clear that a coherent network of trunk highways was necessary. Truck convoys carrying war material to shipping points quickly damaged the roads that had been built, and thus new approaches were critical, not only to meet future national defense needs, but for the burgeoning number of automobiles that were increasingly on the road.
Further measures were needed after WWI, since the 2 million vehicles of 1915 had exploded to 10 million by 1920. Federal action was forthcoming with the passage of the Federal Highway Act of 1921, which granted aid for the construction of both interstate and inter-county highways.16 Matching funds were allocated to the states according to population, area, and mileage of rural and mail routes. State highway departments became responsible for much of the maintenance of these new roads, but benefited from federal monies that supported construction at $15,000 per mile.