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OMAHA, Neb. — Some stretches of the historic coast-to-coast Lincoln Highway over the next week could look like a scene straight out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel.
Two processions of Model Ts, Model As and other cars are setting out this weekend, making their way from New York and San Francisco to the midpoint of Kearney, Neb., to celebrate the 100th year of the Lincoln Highway, considered to be the nation’s first transcontinental highway.
“The Lincoln Highway started it all for the automobile,” said Paul Gilger, president of the California chapter of The Lincoln Highway Association, who is leading the tour from San Francisco. “Before that, people traveling outside of their town did so on a train.”
The highway was the precursor to America’s highway and interstate system and in a sense marked the birth of trucking. Before its creation, people primarily ate only what was grown or raised near them, he said.
“No one in Ohio had ever seen an avocado,” Gilger said. “It changed the way we ate. It created a whole culture.”
History buffs, road-trippers and auto-lovers alike are marking the anniversary. The two-day Centennial Celebration in Kearney begins June 30 with the arrival of the antique cars in the city’s downtown, brick-cobbled streets. On July 1 — the 100th birthday of the highway— the celebration moves to the Great Platte River Road Archway at Kearney that spans Interstate 80.
Both events will feature period music and food, as well as re-enactors portraying Teddy Roosevelt and other well-known figures of the day.
Organizers are expecting some 300 cars and more than 5,000 people — some from Russia, Germany and England — for the celebration, Lincoln Highway Centennial co-chairwoman Sarah Focke said.
The historic highway “is the mother of all roads,” fellow co-chairwoman Ronnie O’Brien said. “The Lincoln Highway really proved that the automobile was here to stay.”
Predating America’s highway system created in 1926, the Lincoln Highway system was a private venture proposed in 1912 by Carl Fisher — an early automobile entrepreneur and a founder of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway — and several other entrepreneurs tied to the fledgling automobile industry.
First pitched as the Coast-to-Coast Rock Highway, the group soon decided to name the highway for former president Abraham Lincoln, said Brian Butko, a Lincoln Highway historian who has written several books about the iconic route.
“They really meant it as a memorial to Lincoln,” Butko said. “Many of their fathers knew Lincoln, and he was their boyhood hero.”
It was no accident, Butko said, that those men incorporated the highway on July 1, 1913 — 50 years to the day of the beginning of the Battle of Gettysburg, a turning point in the Civil War.
The highway was cobbled together over years from existing trails and beside easy terrain, such as along rivers and rail lines. It was not, however, what most think of as a highway today. Many parts of the route remained unpaved, and even improved sections often were paved with bricks.
While the highway made transcontinental travel by automobile possible, it didn’t make it easy. The Lincoln Highway was built before drive-up gas stations. Gasoline was bought at hardware stores, and poured from barrels into tanks under the driver’s seat.
Many stretches of the road still remain in parts of Nebraska, Iowa and other states. A few areas remain much as they did 100 years ago, such as unpaved stretches in the Utah desert, Gilger said.
“There’s no telephone poles; there’s no cellphone service; there are no signs,” he said. “You really feel what it must have been like to come across the country in 1913.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever sat for a very long time in a Model A Ford ... but they’re not ergonomically designed.”
The tour from New York left today for Nebraska. The tour from San Francisco will leave Sunday.