The Lincoln Highway spans the U.S. from San Francisco to New York City.
Early auto travel led to the tourist cabin business.
(Photo: Alex Bellotti, Commonwealth Media Services)
New murals along the Lincoln Highway depict travel history.
The Coffee Pot is a restored lunch stand built near the Lincoln Highway in 1927 – one
of the new examples of programmatic architecture in the U.S.
Those who took to the roads in the early part of the 20th century were not just exercising their automobiles. They wanted to see the country, take in its sights, connect with history and be entertained – all the while creating family memories. Stopping for food and entertainment balanced out the hard work of traveling.
In the early days of the automobile, owning a car was considered a novelty. It was also a major expense. People bought cars outright with cash, and it wasn’t surprising that owners wanted to protect their investments by parking their cars in garages. Garages and gas stations evolved to the point of offering repair services.
During the Lincoln Highway’s first years, gas and snacks were not as easy to find as they are today. Gas pumps were often placed on sidewalks in front of stores. Early travelers were warned to fill their tanks every time they stopped because availability was unpredictable.
By 1923, motor camping was the number-one national pastime. Affordable automobiles provided average Americans a new type of freedom and a way to escape their daily routines by touring the countryside on short weekend trips or cross-country treks. Those travelers required more conveniences, influencing the birth of tourist cabins. Individual cabins offered security, hot showers and radios. Eventually, national chain hotels and motels dominated the highways, replacing most of the tourist cabins.
Other roadside businesses sprang up as well. Most communities with major hotels had associated garages. The 1924 Official Road Guide to the Lincoln Highway lists 40 garages in the communities along the 200-mile museum corridor. (Today, these large garages make attractive conversions into stores and offices.) As automobile traffic increased in the 1920s and 1930s, so did the number of service stations.
The boom in the automobile industry led to an explosion in the restaurant industry. Americans were experiencing two new forces – the urge to ride in the car and the urge to eat out.