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.

Kissing the bricks

One thing that you cannot escape in Indiana is its automotive history and love of racing, particularly in central Indiana, which is home to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Over the last several years, I have made the rounds of automobile museums throughout the state and seen umpteen early cars in various venues. I’ve heard the tales of titans in the US automotive industry and often walk by “Crazy” Carl Fisher‘s mausoleum in Crown Hill Cemetery. While I haven’t been to a running of the Indianapolis 500, I have enjoyed some events such as practice and the legendary Carb Day at the track.

Before The Greatest Month in Racing commenced this year, I decided to take a behind the scenes tour of the track and peruse their museum. The tour and the museum were well worth it.

The tour is quite a production. I made a reservation but lots of people just showed up and clamored on one of two buses. (On scheduled days, the ninety-minute tour runs several times a day. They seem to expand or contract the number of buses based on how many people show up.)

We started by being driven around the track, listening to a tour guide and a tape by Derek Daley. It was super cool to really feel the effect of the 9-degree banking of the corners as we slowly puttered around the track. To the race car drivers, this banking has the effect of 3 Gs on their bodies.

We stopped midway through what feels like a “canyon”. This is where the race starts and ends, with the media center, control tower, corporate suites, and victory podium consolidated in one area. As race car drivers approach this area, they are greeted by stands on either side of the track; they are kind of encapsulated by fans as they race through.

In contrast, we came to a slow halt and tumbled out of the bus at the famous Yard of Bricks, where the race starts and ends. The track was the brainchild of Carl Fisher, along with a few other automotive industry bigwigs. When the IMS opened in 1909, the track was composed of crushed stone sprayed with tar. It did not work out well. The third race (and first auto race) at the track had to be cut short due to fatalities and wrecks resulting from the road conditions. Fisher immediately had the track repaved with bricks. In 1961, the track was repaved again and all the bricks but a yard at the start/finish line were buried underneath the track as it exists today.

We had the opportunity to see the Yard of Bricks up close and personal—and to participate in the newish tradition of kissing them. (NASCAR winner Dale Jarrett initiated this tradition in 1996, which winners since have emulated.) It was a bit surreal to be standing on the track, in the canyon, looking over at victory podium. (I was struck by how compact the space was. Victory podium seems so large and the area so spacious on TV.)

After a few minutes of taking in the sites, snapping some photos, and, er, kissing the bricks, we got back in the bus and continued on around the track to access the media center and the control tower from the back.

The media center was built in 2000. As we waited for the elevator to take us up to the fourth floor, I poked my head inside an open doorway right off of the lobby. And I found myself looking into the room where press conferences are held—the surrealness of seeing places in person that I had only seen on TV continued.

No time to dally as we were going to the fourth floor where the media hangs out. And I do not mean a few media personnel but several hundred. The room is the size of a football field, the guide said, as I turned to look. The room, with rows of chairs and tables, can hold more than 300 people. A cafeteria in the same building feeds them all several meals a day.

Our next stop was to walk out the doors to the victory podium. Now I was seeing the canyon from the perspective of a Grand Prix winner. (Grand Prix winners gather at the top of the podium, Indianapolis 500 winners below.)

We sauntered into the adjacent building, the control tower. On the second floor, we visited where timing and scoring occurs. Special cameras monitor the cars as they zoom across the Yard of Bricks with each lap. We learned how special transponders on the cars (that’s what those antenna on the cars are for!) communicate with instruments in this room.

One corner is where broadcasts from IMS take place—another location seen on TV. A special inner room with glass windows is where three people responsible for monitoring and calling the scores hole up for the race.

In the control tower, we also saw corporate suites, where the lucky few can shell out money to watch the race in enclosed rooms overlooking the track. The suites go for $75,000 for 80 people for 15 days of festivities. A real bargain when you think about it, we were told. One hundred and twenty suites exist, but they had to create extra ones in 2016 for the 100th running of the race.

I was stuck on the idea that $75,000 is a bargain and then stunned by the realization that 75,000 x 120 is a heck of a lot of money when our guide relayed a story about Andrew Luck, the QB of the Indianapolis Colts. Apparently in 2016 Luck called to reserve a suite, but as luck would have it—sorry, I couldn’t resist—all suites had already been reserved. That was how the IMS came to construct additional corporate suites. It wouldn’t do to NOT have a corporate suite for Andrew Luck. (Of course, there was also a lot of money to be made.)

We meandered up to the tenth floor of the control tower to a different viewing suite—one for the sponsors of the race. With money, it seems, come benefits…and creature comforts.

We then rejoined the bus to putter through Gasoline Alley and the garage area. Many manufacturers and suppliers already had their names above the single garages in anticipation of the month of May. Special drivers (like four-time winners of the Indianapolis 500 Al Unser and A.J. Foyt) have their own offices with their names etched in the glass windows.

Afterwards we were let out at the front of the museum. The ninety minutes went by quickly. All through the tour, the guide outside of the bus and the recording of Derek Daley inside the bus gave us lots of interesting tidbits. In 1935 warning lights around the track were installed. In 2002, protective walling (SAFER barriers), developed at the University of Nebraska, was installed. A golf course—which I met by chance as I was looking for the IMS entrance—was built in 1929. Currently four holes exist inside the track (!) and 14 holes outside. The IMS fits 400,000 spectators (in the stands, suites, and infield). It is the largest sporting venue in the world.

I am glad that I ventured out on a cold—and what was ultimately rainy—day to tour the historic IMS—it’s on the Nation Register of Historic Places. I learned a lot of interesting facts, saw things I hadn’t before (or only on TV), and experienced bits of the IMS such as the Yard of Bricks that mere mortals normally do not. Right in time before the madness that is May in central Indiana…and before my next trip to watch the cars practice for the next Indianapolis 500.

Walking among the dead: 200 Years of Fascinating Hoosiers

Perhaps touring cemeteries is not everyone’s cup of tea, but you can glean bits of history about your community and state from the silent tombstones in cemeteries. Especially in larger cemeteries, like Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis.

Crown Hill was incorporated in 1863 and had its first burial in June 1864 (Lucy Ann Seaton). The 555-acre cemetery is the third largest non-government cemetery in the US. The cemetery grounds are open to the public for walking, biking, and yes, even picnicking. (A family plot near the Crown has a stone picnic bench to encourage this pastime that was historically done at the Crown before the cemetery existed.)

I often visit the cemetery to look for tombstones and family plots of famous people who I have encountered in my explorations around Indianapolis and the state. Sometimes I go out simply for a leisurely, prolonged walk among the peaceful roads and under the trees. I recently went on my first official tour of the cemetery: Two Hundred Years of Fascinating Hoosiers.

Understandably, the tour could not hit even a fraction of famous Hoosiers. (And what is famous for one person may not be for others. I am still on my quest to find two early important African American doctors in the huge African American section of the cemetery.) This tour focused on about a dozen people mostly concentrated in a particular section of the cemetery.

Some I knew. Some I didn’t. (Oooh. New people to research and learn about!) Some stories I knew. Some I had never heard (and wondered if they were apocraphyal…like Carl Fisher promoting his car dealership—the first—by floating a car sans engine overhead suspended from a hot-air balloon).

The Crown Hill Heritage Foundation, formed in 1984 to preserve the cemetery and its history, provides tours for a small fee ($5). The docent for my tour, Tom Davis, was quite knowledgeable about the cemetery and Indiana history.

Although we only stopped by a dozen or so graves, Tom peppered conversation about others buried in the cemetery as we walked from grave to grave. After seeing Paul Hadley’s grave with the newly installed flagpole flying the Indiana state flag (Hadley designed the state flag), Tom pointed out that many members of the Hoosier Group are buried in the cemetery. (Mental note: I’ll need to come back to see their gravesites.)

Two revolutionary soldiers are buried in the cemetery. (Another mental note to self.) Eleven Indiana governors, one Kentucky governor, and one Vermont governor are buried here. (Another mental note to self.) David Letterman’s dad is buried here; he comes to visit, but sporadically enough that he doesn’t always remember exactly where the gravesite is (and wanders around the section where his dad is buried calling out “Dad!”).

So whose burial sites did we see?

Paul Hadley (1880-1971)
Hadley created the state flag that was adopted in 1916. He was a resident of Mooresville and an artist (stained glass, watercolor painting).

Robert Hanna (1786-1858)
Hanna was a delegate to the 1816 Corydon convention (that led to the creation of Indiana) and a signer of the first Indiana constitution. He was originally buried elsewhere and then reburied in Crown Hill without a headstone. Recently a headstone was created and three elm trees planted around his burial site. (The Indiana constitution was signed under an elm tree, which inauspiciously died in 1925.)

Tom relayed the story of Hanna being the first and only person ever to take a steamboat up the White River, a river that was presumed to be unnavigable. He got the steamboat up the river (during high water levels) but then it proceeded to get stuck up river until the water levels rose again.

The numerous waterways in the state were replaced as the mode of transportation with the arrival of the railroad. Ironically, Hanna, the man who navigated the unnavigable White River, died after being hit by a train.

Eliza Blaker (1854-1926)
Blaker was an advocate of early childhood education, setting up kindergartens and then schools for teachers. Her school at 23rd and Alabama became what is now Butler University.

Tom shared how Eliza’s husband, who worked downtown, would walk her to and from the school every day, carrying her schoolbooks.

Jacob Dunn (1855-1924)
Dunn was a historian, author, and reformer. He was responsible for the secret ballot that we use in voting. And he was involved in the Indiana State Library and public libraries.

Booth Tarkington (1869-1946)
Technically named Newton Booth, Tarkington won Pulitzer prizes for two books that he wrote. He also was well-known for the numerous Broadway plays that he wrote, some of which ran simultaneously.

Benjamin Harrison (1833-1901)
President. Harrison is the only US President buried in the cemetery. He lies with his first wife, son, daughter, and second wife (who was the niece of his first wife).

Oscar McCulloch (1843-1891)
McCulloch was a pastor who originally believed in social Darwinism and that people were poor by genetics (!). (The latter belief is what led to the eugenics movement. Not a good period in Indiana or American history.) He later believed that it was possible to help the poor.

The McCulloch plot is shared with the Reynolds family. According to cemetery records, two of their dogs are buried in unmarked graves (Don and Rab). This was against cemetery rules but Reynolds was on the board, illustrating the age-old truth: if you are in power, the rules don’t apply to you.

Carl Fisher (1874-1939)
Crazy Carl Fisher is best known as the man who started the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as a proving ground for testing cars. He began selling bikes with crazy promotional tactics and then moved on to selling cars (at the first car dealership) with crazy promotional tactics.

One tactic he used was suspending a car sans engine from a hot air balloon. As the story goes, Jane Watts saw him floating overhead and said, “I am going to marry that man!” (Jane was the first of several wives.)

Fisher was instrumental behind the trans-US Lincoln Highway, which ran from NYC to the West Coast. Fisher was also responsible for developing what is now Miami Beach and getting a highway built from Chicago to Miami Beach.

May Wright Sewall (1844-1920)
Sewall was a well-known reformer in education, women’s rights, and the suffrage movement. Interestingly, she and her husband were not religious but during her later years she became involved in spiritualism and wrote Neither Dead Nor Sleeping. Before her husband died, he told her that if he discovered that Jesus was real, he would find a way to tell her from the grave. A medium did repeat his words back to May and May became involved with communicating with the dead.

Eli Lilly (1838-1898)
The Lilly mausoleum houses a number of the Lilly family with others in nearby plots. Eli himself was a colonel in the Union Army and the founder of present-day Eli Lilly and Company. His mausoleum is a bit unusual as you can see into it and read the engravings on each slot where a casket lays.

James Whitcomb Riley (1849-1916)
Riley, the beloved Hoosier poet of the late 19th century/early 20th century was laid to rest on the Crown, the highest spot in the original city limits (842 feet above sea level). He passed away July 22, but his remains were kept in the Gothic Chapel on the grounds until his final spot on the Crown was ready in October the following year.

We actually visited his site the day after the anniversary of his burial. His resting place was adorned with wreathes from a school group that visited on the anniversary of his burial. Of course, his headstone was covered with coins, a tradition started after his death by children who collected coins to help pay for his burial. These days any coins left on his tomb are gathered and given to the children’s hospital that boasts his name.

The view from his tomb overlooks the city. As our tour ended, we watched the sun set over the tree line.

The tour whetted my appetite to spend more hours wondering the cemetery grounds. I had picked up lists of famous people buried there, lists of the different trees growing on the grounds, and maps for both. I will be back. If not for more tours, then for self-guided wanderings among the dead.