People have been traveling across America since Lewis and Clark. First pioneer trails and then muddy roads, followed by the initial paving and now super highways.
The Lincoln Highway, now U.S. 30 wandered through 14 states and stretched from Times Square to Lincoln Park in San Francisco — more than 3,300 miles. It is now 100 years since Carl Fisher first envisioned this wonderful thought of joining all of America by automobile.
The first seedling mile of many was built in Malta, Ill., in 1914 and it was these little samples portending what was to come that impressed a young, handsome, Army Officer, Dwight Eisenhower, the most. Much of his life revolved around logistics and moving trucks, and men around for war.
He was also impressed by the German autobahns in Europe which he saw during World War I.
WWI was another catalyst in the development of highways. Dwight Eisenhower was a young officer who worked on the highway concept as one of his duties which, undoubtedly, kept him thinking about highways.
In the 1950s, President Eisenhower was instrumental in building the newer, more modern system — the Interstate Highway System — and our own Interstate 80 is part of it. Ironically, Interstate 80 took much traffic from the Lincoln Highway, AKA U.S. 30.
The Lincoln Highway helped open up America in many ways. Average people joined the wealthy and toured the country. It was relatively easy. It even helped civil rights.
Blacks moved from the South and they too wanted to travel. “The Negro Traveler’s Green Book” showed where minority motorists could stay.
Twin Oaks, 4 miles east of Fulton, was one of those motor courts, like the one in the classic 1935 movie, “It Happened One Night” with Claudette Colbert and Clark Garble. These were the precursors of motels and American Blacks often stayed in these, even before the 1964 Civil Rights law.
Eisenhower’s convoy traveled America in 1919, and later In 1920, there was a huge celebration — at which local attorney Frank Ellis spoke, and a large permanent marker was dedicated at the corner of highways 30 and 67. The elegant man in the white Panama suit pictured in the last chapter was Frank Ellis, notable Clinton attorney who built two beautiful mansions in Clinton (one survives at 960 N. Fourth St.) and he built his invalid daughter a gorgeous, full-sized play house next to the mansion on Sixth Avenue South and he also brought the first set of golf clubs to Clinton in 1898. He was still a vibrant leader giving the speech in that 1920 picture.
By Sept. 1, 1928, much of the highway was completed and there was a grand opening and on that day Boy Scouts erected nearly all of the 3,000 cement markers. Founder Carl Fisher’s crazy idea had reached fruition in just a dozen years. Iowa and the Midwest’s gumbo dirt roads had been conquered in what many had called an “impossible dream.”
Everyone got behind this concept. Roads were imperative for the great new invention of the 20th Century — the automoblle. People wanted to see America, which was almost a finished product of geography at that time.
In addition, tire companies, cement factories, businessmen and every American wanted this project to succeed. Local governments had to contribute by preparing the roadbed while the government paid for the highway itself. A Mason City company donated 3,000 barrels of cement worth $6,800.
In 1919, Henry Ostermann, a Lincoln Highway promoter, liked to travel the unpaved Lincoln Highway in his Packard touring car and traversed it some 30 times. The speed limit for trucks was 18 mph at that time. He was a 43-year-old man of adventure who married in 1920 and was killed that year while driving 50 mph on a good section of road.
In 1920, there was a big celebration all along the Lincoln Highway and some 15,000 people came out in Clinton to see the monument dedication at which Frank Ellis spoke. Planes flew overhead and the people were greatly excited.
At the event there were many slightly ill soldiers who had just received their typhoid inoculation. They knew the importance of vaccine, because just a year earlier thousands of them died at the end of WWI in an influenza pandemic at Camp Dodge in Des Moines.
The 1920 tour took 62 days to drive from New York to San Francisco. Each of these trips came to the same conclusions that Eisenhower did before and after WW , i.e. this highway was tremendously needed and that the route was the correct one, which overruled bureaucrats who wanted it to run through the capital of Des Moines.
All of the cities in Iowa voted in the affirmative to fund the Lincoln Highway and Clinton passed the referendum by 2,176 votes. This was an overwhelmingly important event in American history and practically no one mounted a counter movement. Our powerful country willed this good idea to go forward and it generated much commercial wealth, jobs, entertainment and the opening of the entire country.
Barb Mask of the Fulton Historical society is looking for the woman with the “Green Book” who was in the audience at the last program at the Martin House.
Gary Herrity is the Clinton Herald’s historical columnist. His columns appear on Fridays in the Clinton Herald.
Sources Barbara Mask of the Fulton Historical Society; the Clinton County Historical Society Museum archives; "The Merry War" newspaper of Friday, March 25, 1927; archives of the Clinton Herald; Tony Vorsten of the Highway 30 Association annual meeting 1974; Barbara Mask article, Clinton Herald, Oct. 4; John Clark; the Iowa State Historical Society magazine, The Palimpsest.