Lincoln Highway in Nebraska
100 Years
A century ago, on a chilly Halloween night in 1913, cities across
the country were set ablaze in the biggest celebration the United
States of America had ever seen.Ten thousand Omaha citizens flocked
to the corner of 18th and Farnam streets outside Omaha’s City Hall
to hear Lincoln Highway Association State Consul H.E. Frederickson
speak. Frederickson delivered a sensational message that the nation’s
first transcontinental highway would route right through their city.
The road was to be called the Lincoln Highway in honor of President
Abraham Lincoln and was created to expandAmerican tourism and
economic growth.An excited crowd listened to a lively band play in
the autumn air and watched a brilliant, $100 fireworks display
explode in the night sky. Union Pacific Railroad donated eight
wagonloads of old railroad ties for the occasion.They were stacked
and ignited for a huge bonfire.
October 31, 1913, was the dedication day for this first coast-to-
coast road.The Lincoln Highway Association called for simultaneous
festivities in all the cities in the 13 states along the 3,300-mile route
from NewYork to San Francisco. Omaha did not disappoint.
The Lincoln Highway is Nebraska’s single most important road
ever. Imagine the anticipation of the monumental road crossing a
sparsely populated state such as Nebraska.The Cornhusker State
would never be the same. From treacherous stretches of shifting mud
in inclement weather to remarkable experiences of adventure, the
history of the Lincoln Highway brims with stories.
Humble beginnings
The early Lincoln Highway is a far cry
from today’s modern interstate highways.
“Highway” means nothing more than a
main public route for transportation.
Lincoln Highway historian Nils Anders
Erickson owns one of the Lincoln
Highway’s oldest buildings, John Sutter’s
Mill at Saddle Creek Road and Dodge
Street in Omaha. He paints a bleak picture
of what a traveler in the beginning years
would have seen.
“Dirt, dirt, dirt,” he said. “And when it
rained: Mud, mud, mud.”
For almost three decades after the
proclamation establishing the highway, the
road was unpaved. Some sections were
gravel, sand or dirt, and some parts simply
grass. However, several cities in Nebraska
pooled tax dollars to pave portions of the route
to make travel easier. Elkhorn paved a few miles
of the highway in 1920. Most of this brick sec-
tion of the Lincoln Highway, between 180th and
204th streets just south of Blondo Street, still
exists today. In 1935, the last section of Nebraska’s Lincoln Highway
was paved in North Platte.The entire route, from coast to coast, was
paved before the road’s 25th anniversary in 1938.
Travelers knew the
path the highway took
only by reading official
Lincoln Highway posts and
poles or, in smaller towns,
by looking for handwritten
signs.The road wound and
twisted through the state,
following the best roads in
each town. Over time, as
the road was incrementally
paved, the route
straightened.The Lincoln
Highway paralleled the
transcontinental Union
Pacific Railroad system for most
of the way. Speed limit laws were strictly enforced in the early years,
with a maximum speed of 25 mph and only 8 mph through towns.
Flat tires presented a frequent problem, and lives were lost at the
railroad grade crossings.
Nebraska in the highway’s heyday
Nebraska’s economy boomed with the institution of the Lincoln
Highway.At the center of the country, Nebraska saw some of the
highway’s highest levels of traffic through the peak years of the road
in the 1930s and ’40s. Ronnie O’Brien, director of cultural education
at the Great Platte River RoadArchway in Kearney, remembers
stories her father told about growing up along the Lincoln Highway.
His family drove into Central City to shop. Because of the volume of
traffic through town on the highway, they resorted to shopping on
whichever side of the road they parked on because it was almost
impossible to cross to the other side.
A new industry cropped up in Nebraska: tourism. Brave
travelers including Emily Post, the famous etiquette expert,
embraced the opportunity and drove cross-country onAmerica’s new
highway. Post made the trip for a feature story commissioned by
Collier’s magazine. “Omaha,” she wrote, “is an impressively
up-to-date city … the avenues are so splendidly wide that they can
afford chalked-off parking places in the center of the streets where
motors can stand indefinitely. If only NewYork and Boston had the
space to follow their example!”
Such prominent words encouraged more intrigued tourists to
visit Nebraska. Motor cabins, motels, filling stations, cafés, and shops
sprung up in towns across the state. Some citizens struck gold along
the Lincoln Highway.When travelers rode through with cattle to sell
at the market,Valley stockyards owner J.D.Whitmore watered and
6 •
~ S
Seedling Mile
of the
By Brett Barrington
Seedling Miles were implemented
between 1915 and 1917 and were
constructed to demonstrate the use of
concrete as a roadway surface.
Seedling Mile Historical Markers are
located in Grand Island and Kearney.
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