Donner Pass in California
Photo courtesy of: Lincoln Highway Association
One key feature of the Lincoln Highway’s early days was the construction of seedling miles. Few roads were paved 100 years ago, so not everyone outside large cities had firsthand knowledge of the benefits of driving on concrete rather than dirt.
Paving more than 3,300 miles of road could not be done overnight. It would take too much labor and funding. The seedling miles were intended to provide examples of how pleasant driving an automobile could be. The association chose particularly muddy mile-long sections to pave. In turn, these sample sections were meant to inspire public support for paving the entire Lincoln Highway.
One early traveler on the Lincoln Highway was U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Dwight Eisenhower, who participated in the First Transcontinental Army Convoy in 1919. The purpose of the convoy was to test the durability of Army vehicles and how fast the vehicles could travel on the roads. The Army Convoy tested the quality of roads and bridges, too.
The trip was miserable. It took almost twice as long as planned to complete. The heavy trucks sometimes damaged bridges, especially wooden bridges, and the convoy had to stop to repair the bridges before moving on to the next destination.
Between his bad experiences with mud and broken bridges and seeing the Autobahn in Germany during World War II, Eisenhower understood the importance of good roads. While president, he signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, which created a gasoline tax that the federal government used to pay for the creation of the interstate highway system.
Read more about the history and information about the interstate system.
Campground at Dixon, Illinois
Photo courtesy of: University of Michigan Transportation History Collection Lincoln Highway Digital Image Collection
Along with road improvements, the services available for those traveling by automobile changed. Without easy access to restaurants or motels, the first generation of automobile travelers took along their own cooking equipment, set up a tent on any unused spot of land they could find along a road, built a campfire, and slept outdoors overnight.
As automobile travel increased, some cities began setting aside open parcels of land that they advertised as auto tourist camps. Early travelers could stop overnight in designated tourist camps rather than risk trespassing.
Municipalities with auto camps helped entice the tourists to stop in their cities, which would benefit from tourist dollars spent on food, supplies, and gasoline.
Some auto tourist camp locations remain today, but they were transformed into public parks decades ago – a living legacy of the automobile’s early days.