TV movie review: The Lincoln Highway

Having grown up near Highway 30, which nominally was the Lincoln Highway, I was excited to see a documentary about the highway, which spanned from New York City to San Francisco.

I was a bit disappointed.

The documentary focuses on Wyoming. (To be fair, the documentary is located in a section of the PBS website about Wyoming.)

The Lincoln Highway begins by discusses the history of the highway, why and how it came to be. Carl Fisher, a businessman in the early automotive industry and a founder of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, appears as the impetus behind the first national highway.

In 1912, Fisher proposed a Coast-to-Coast Rock Highway and sought to get the leaders of the auto industry to join him in creating the national road. All but Ford joined in the endeavor. (Ford thought that the government, not private industry, should be responsible for building roads for the increasingly popular cars. He was apparently a little bit ahead of his time.)

Up until this point, roads consisted of muddy tracks that led to markets and towns. Nothing really connected towns to towns or states to states. The Lincoln Highway, conceived in 1912, was dedicated on October 31, 1913.

Highway might be too generous a word. From the clips in the documentary, the highway looked like a collection of hard dirt roads, not much of an improvement for cars, which continued to get stuck when the roads turned muddy.

The route of the highway constantly evolved. Bits were bypassed with better or more direct routes. Businessmen in small towns in Wyoming battled to have the highway pass through their town. The highway meant the economic prosperity or the ruin of small towns. The documentary shows many small towns with abandoned buildings, long dead after the route of the highway changed.

Interestingly, in 1919 a military convoy traveled from one end of the Lincoln Highway to the other to test the roads, proving that roads like this one were essential for national defense. This test of a military convoy directly led to the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1921, which granted federal matching funds. The Act marked, ironically, the beginning of the end of the Lincoln Highway.

One of those in the convoy was Eisenhower, who decades later as President of the US, would sign the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. Thanks to this Act, federal highways, such as I-80, replaced the Lincoln Highway.

Now only bits and pieces of the Lincoln Highway remain. In 1992, a new Lincoln Highway Association formed (the original association ceased operation in 1927), and in 1913, historic car and Lincoln Highway enthusiasts drove what remains of the Lincoln Highway in celebration of its 100th anniversary.

In 1928, the Boy Scouts placed 3,000 markers along the route of the highway to help those trying to traverse it. Few of these concrete markers with colored arrows, the colored letter L, or medallions of President Lincoln’s profile exist. What a hoot it would be to discover one of those during back roads wanderings.

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