Heartland tour: Lincoln Highway group hits the road

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This bridge at Tama is famous for its side rails; there’s no other like it anywhere.

By George L. Hamlin

The Iowa Lincoln Highway Association has been conducting coast-to-coast tours since 2008 — river to river, not ocean to ocean. Iowa, the only state whose eastern and western borders are defined entirely by rivers, is also one of the states traversed by the Lincoln Highway, which passes through 13 Iowa counties and covers 330 miles within the state.

The Lincoln Highway, which was an outgrowth of the “good roads movement” of the early 1900s, was conceived around 1912 and originally promoted by Carl Fisher of Prest-O-Lite, who enlisted Henry Joy of Packard to assist him. The Lincoln Highway Association was founded on July 1, 1913, and began promoting the road tirelessly. Naming it after a beloved president dead less than 50 years (and a personal hero of Fisher’s) helped the promotion, as did numerous local groups along the way. The idea was aided by “seedling” paved miles to give the citizens a feel for what a real road would be like. Eventually, the dream was realized and the 3,140-mile road was completed from New York to San Francisco, ushering in a new age for the automobile.

Several concrete markers are still in place along the Lincoln Highway.

The Lincoln Highway lost its official name between 1926-’28 when highways were numbered, but the modern highway (U.S. 30) retains a great deal of the Lincoln history.

Today’s Lincoln Highway Association continues this legacy through publications, promotions, activities and local groups. Iowa’s chapter, one of the strongest and most active, planned this year’s outing from west to east over the four-day stretch from Aug. 25-28. The tour was originally set to start at the Missouri River in Pottawattamie County near Council Bluffs, but flooding in that area caused the organizers, led by Jeff LaFollette, to move the start some 50 miles east to Denison.

Participating were more than 50 cars of all descriptions — antique, classic, sports, SUV and modern. The guidelines were simple: drive what you like, join where you like and drop out when you like. Most cars made the entire journey, which took three-plus days from Denison in the west to DeWitt in the east. The route generally followed the original Lincoln Highway route, with some footnotes: the original route has moved a few times over the years, some of the “official” route is relatively unimproved and some of it is simply gone now.

Iowa — and some of the other states along the Lincoln Highway — has marked the historic route with colorful and unmistakable signs, bearing the highway’s traditional red, white and blue “L logo” and designating it a Heritage Byway. The Iowa Lincoln Highway Association had been promoting the idea for some time, with help from the Iowa State Historic Society, the Iowa Department of Transportation, several resource conservation offices and more than three dozen communities along the route.

This year’s tour incorporated the towns of Denison (original home of Donna Reed), Carroll (site of several original route markers), Jefferson (home of a restored Milwaukee Road depot) and Boone (original home of Mamie Eisenhower and site of the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad, where the group rode the dinner train).

The following day saw stops at the Farmers Market in Ames, Reed/Niland Corner at Colo (intersection of the Lincoln and Jefferson Highways, and therefore the nation’s main intersection for several years), Pioneer Days at LeGrand and the famous bridge at Tama, with its side rails spelling out “Lincoln Highway.” The day ended at Cedar Rapids.

The tour’s final day had the group stopping at the History Center in Lisbon. a major Lincoln Highway historical center, as well as Clarence, an abandoned section at Lowden and the Pony Truss Bridge in Clinton County before ending in DeWitt.

More information on the association, and the planned centennial transcontinental event being planned for 2013, can be found at www.lincolnhighwayassoc.org and on the Iowa chapter at www.lincolnhighwayassoc.org/iowa.

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