Carl Graham Fisher was a shrewd businessman.
He envisioned big projects, took risks and cleverly marketed his ideas.
The Indiana resident made his fortune as owner of Prest-O-Lite, a company that manufactured acetylene headlights for automobiles. He was co-founder and first president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
In the early 1910s, Fisher decided he wanted to create a coast-to-coast rock highway. He pitched the idea to some influential friends – former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, world-renowned inventor Thomas Edison, then-current President Woodrow Wilson and automobile manufacturers – who supported his plan. And, at the suggestion of Packard Motor Car Co. President Henry Joy, Fisher immediately endeared the proposed road to many citizens by naming it after one of the most beloved people in American history, President Abraham Lincoln.
Then, 100 years ago today, on Oct. 31, 1913, his vision was realized with the dedication of the Lincoln Highway, an occasion celebrated in municipalities all along the route.
“Fisher was flamboyant and kind of the picture of what a promoter should be ... slick,” said Peter T. Harstad, former director of the Indiana Historical Society.
The Lincoln Highway Association determined what roads to include in the system, selecting some anonymous stretches of dirt paths along with well-known routes, including the Lancaster Pike Road, Mormon Trail, Pony Express Trail, Cherokee Trail, Overland Trail and Donner Pass. Much of the distance was unimproved roadway.
From Times Square to San Francisco, through metropolitan areas and small towns, passing mountains and plains, the Lincoln Highway linked the United States. It was originally 3,389 miles long. The current Lincoln Highway covers 3,142 miles and passes through 13 states, including Pennsylvania.
Counting all of the different routes throughout the years, such as the Colorado Loop, there are more than 5,800 miles of road that can lay claim to at least once being considered part of the historic road.
Fisher’s vision gave birth to the idea of national auto trails and inspired President Dwight D. Eisenhower to champion development of the Interstate Highway System.
“It is people like Carl Fisher, who were not afraid to dream big, that helped make this country great,” said Kay Shelton, president of the LHA.
Over the century since its creation, the highway has ingrained itself into American culture.
Automobile enthusiasts have used it to explore the country. Homes, businesses, hotels and farms line its wayside.
Musicians, artists, photographers, movie makers and writers have found inspiration on its path.
“I just love it,” said WQED television producer Rick Sebak, who created the documentary “A Ride Along The Lincoln Highway” for PBS. “I love the idea that you can go coast to coast, dip your toes in the Atlantic or Pacific and drive the whole way across the country.”
Nowadays, groups such as the modern version of the Lincoln Highway Association work to educate citizens about its historic importance.
“Public awareness is a major component of preservation,” said Shelton. “More states have the entire route designated statewide with a special status, such as a scenic byway, and signed.
“For example, last year, the Iowa Department of Transportation signed the Lincoln Highway’s route across the state. In New Jersey, one county signed the Lincoln Highway.
“State and local governments will not just take on major projects like that unless there is public awareness and public support first.”
Dave Sutor is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/Dave_Sutor.