Leaving Angel Creek National Forest Campground, which was high above Wells, Nevada at 8500 feet, we drove south along Highway 93, a long lonely highway much like Highway 50. Up a rise, down a valley, two lanes, cruise control pegged at 60, speed limit 70, and semis and impatient drivers passing by just feet away from our 50-foot rig; keeping alert was paramount. To keep sharp and combat the mind-numbing recurring horizontal planes, we turned on Sirius XM and one of the stations was playing all road travel songs to celebrate the anniversary of the first interstate highway in 1953. You may remember that President Eisenhower mandated that such highways be constructed for the national defense, making it possible to travel coast to coast without a stoplight.
Here is an opening to a fascinating article from the US Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration about the spark that set off Eisenhower’s inspiration to create the interstate system:
Vice President Harry S. Truman became President after President Roosevelt died in April 1945, just before the war ended. President Truman definitely understood why roads are important. He loved driving his whole life and once headed a road organization called the National Old Trails Road Association that promoted a road across the country on famous roads of the past. When he was an official in Jackson County, Missouri, he built a network of concrete roads and was a member of the American Road Builders Association. After he became a United States Senator in 1935, he used to drive to and from Washington on the two-lane U.S. 40, which was part of the National Old Trails Road he had once promoted.
The problem was that after the war, President Truman couldn’t get to the Interstate System. First, the country had to convert from building products for war to building products for peace. That caused a lot of problems in the economy at first, but soon it started to boom, and so did families. So many babies were born that this period is known as the start of the Baby Boom. Chances are your parents or grandparents were born during the Baby Boom, which lasted until around 1964. The new families needed someplace to live, so the government concentrated on promoting housing programs. Construction companies that could have built roads were instead needed to build the new houses. And then, in 1950, just as things were calming down and President Truman finally could have done something about the Interstate System, the United States joined the United Nations in a military action in Korea, and so the country had to shift again to wartime.
The Interstate System just couldn’t catch a break!
Click this link to read the unfoldment of this saga, which sets us traveling on the Lincoln Highway.
We pulled into a desolate Highway 50 rest area with information boards hallmarking the passage of the Pony Express. The future Lincoln Highway followed much of this route, with one very telling recruitment advertisement for those early daring riders: “Wanted! Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over 18. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.”
During the Pony Express’s 19 months of operation it grossed $90,000 — and lost $200,000. News of the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter which began the Civil War was carried by Pony Express riders with pride to serve their country. The inception of the telegraph supplanted the need for a speedy mail news service.
The famous William Cody, aka Buffalo Bill, rode the Pony Express for a time and made the longest ride of 322 miles over one of the most dangerous sections of the route, taking 21 hours and 41 minutes, and using 21 horses to complete his journey.
There was one more small concrete post close by a larger-than-life metal sculpture of a Pony Express rider. It had the name, Lincoln Highway, imprinted on it. This was an “Aha!” moment.
The Lincoln Highway never was an interstate in the mid-twentieth century definition, but it was the very first transcontinental highway inaugurated in 1913. The highway was 3,389 miles in length but in the late 20s was broken up into numbered segments as America organized its highways. Travel on this early highway was no easy feat, often easily taking a month or more and drawing on strong technical and navigational savvy. Lodging and fuel were sparse, initiating the advent of auto camps and a growing support infrastructure for the new, ever-wandering populace. Designers of the Lincoln Highway knew that the cost to construct such a project was monumental so they went from town to town and pitched the “seedling mile” concept. Local chambers of commerce and the well-to-do community saw an advantage to having a major highway serve their town that had only dirt roads, so the highway builders built a smooth, mile-long concrete ribbon close to their homes along the highway route. At this point, when their cars climbed up out of the muddy gumbo or winter frozen tracks, and the engine picked up speed, the car came alive and left horse-drawn power behind forever.
The interstates took over the role of bi-coastal connectors and the closest we have to the grand old Lincoln is Interstate 80 from New York to San Francisco, though portions of the Lincoln Highway still exist in sections and linked with other interstate routes. Click here for a detailed history, points of interest, and section by section map, presented by the Lincoln Highway Association.
Today’s ubiquitous interstates and toll roads that speed our way across and around municipal bottlenecks, tend to pull us away from the roots upon which our country was founded, unique way points of culture are often are lost in time, though there remain hidden treasure awaiting our discovery.