The Great Automobile Race of 1908

A Transcontinental Highway Route

The Lincoln Highway was a dream of many forward looking people several years before the concept actually was acted upon.

Start of 1908 New York to Paris Auto Race

In the year 1908 there were a few automobile dealerships in New York City that actually sprang up along Broadway just a short distance north of Times Square. Of course during this early time of automobile history the car was really thought of as a plaything for the wealthy. First of all they were expensive for the era and secondly roads were rough to say the least. In 1908 you could call the automobile a status symbol for the well to do.

The Great Race

In the year 1908 the world was treated to an amazing event, the 22,000 mile new York City to Paris France Automobile Race. The seeds of this concept were probably influenced by a race one year earlier from Peking China to Paris. This 9,700 mile race came about by a challenge from a Paris newspaper. What’s interesting was that a total of forty teams entered the Peking event but only five actually went ahead and shipped cars and equipment to China. The race committee went ahead and canceled the event but the five teams that went to China decided to race anyway. The race was run without assistance except for fuel laden camels. The race was won by Italian Prince Scipione Borghese. Second was Charles Goddard who had to borrow fuel along the way for his borrowed car.

The 1908 New York to Paris race was really an attempt to put on a race that was even bolder. There were a total of six contestants. Countries represented were the United States, Germany, Italy and France.

At 11:15 AM a pistol shot signaled the start of an around-the-world race, with this very new form of transportation. Ahead of the competitors were very few paved roads, and in many parts of the world no roads at all.

The Thompson Flyer

Often, the teams resorted to straddling the train tracks with their cars riding on balloon tires for hundreds of miles when roads could not be located.The Thomas Flyer, the American entry, led during the continental crossing of the U.S. The thomas Flyer reached San Francisco in 41 days, 8 hours and 15 minutes.

The race route then required ship travel. The cars were shipped to Seattle Washington and then were to drive north to Alaska. It probably goes without saying that the roads, when there were actual roads, were primitive at best. From Alaska the plan was to make a crossing at the Bearing Straits to Siberia. Needless to say the going was rough and some contestants had to make route changes. Some took a ship to Japan and then crossed the Sea of Japan to reache continental Asia. The trip across Asia presented a whole new set of challenges. Even in the continental United States there were likely to have been no gas stations, service garages or paved roadways. Only three contestants managed to finish the race with the American taking first place with his Thompson Flyer. He made the New York to Paris journey in 170 days.

The Public Wants to Travel

The real result of this historic contest was that the American public’s imagination was aroused. People were talking about taking to the open road. The other significant result was that Times Square, the races starting point, would be the catalyst for the organization of the future Lincoln Highway. Times Square would eventually become the official starting point for the Lincoln Highway route. Many people of course would begin travel on the new Lincoln Highway at point other than Times Square but the New York landmark would serve as the official starting point just as it had for the 1908 race. Since New York City is an island, the beginning drive from Times Square would indeed be a short one with the next leg being a ferry boat to the shore of New Jersey across the Hudson River.

There was a specific event which can be said to be the beginning of what was to become America’s Lincoln Hwy. In the year 1912, a man named Carl G. Fisher, an Indiana business leader and founder of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, came up with the idea of constructing a paved highway across the continent from new York to California. Fisher believed that the popularity of automobiles was dependent on good roads. He hoped that he could line up financial support for this great undertaking.

Lincoln Highway in Pennsylvania

That was critical. Naturally he first sought financing from early automobile industrialists. Who would have more benefit from this project than them? As it turned out, several prominent Americans such as Thomas Edison and Theodore Roosevelt donated funds during the early days. Another contribution of note, not from wealthy Americans but from schoolchildren from Alaska was a donation of fourteen cents. While certainly not a large donation it had important symbolic value and the Lincoln Highway Association publicized it widely. Later in the same year the president of the Packard Motor Car Company proposed that such a highway be named after America’s beloved Abraham Lincoln. As a result, on July 1, 1913, the Lincoln Highway Association came into being. The route was announced to the public on September 14, 1913. Some referred to the Lincoln Highway as “The Main Street Across America”.

To fully understand this undertaking you have to examine the transportation means of the era. In 1912, railroads dominated America’s interstate transportation. Ever since the Golden Spike was driven into the ground at Promitory Point, Utah in 1869, the railroads held all the real influence in interstate transportation. What roadways there were were primarily of local use. Outside cities, “market roads” and in many areas referred to as “farm to market roads” were typically maintained by counties or townships. In the case of rural roads the maintenance was essentially the responsibility of those residing along them. Things such as official road projects and federal road funding didn’t appear until quite later in 1921.

Finding the Route

The newly established Lincoln Highway Association had the task of finding the best and most direct route from New York City to San Francisco. This wasn’t too difficult east of the Mississippi River since there was already a relatively large network of roadways. In the effort to find suitable routes west of the Mississippi the Lincoln Highway Association set out from Indiana with seventeen cars and two trucks with the goal of eventually establishing a Lincoln Highway map.

Lincoln Highway marker

In case you’re wondering where in the world the expedition would begin west of the Mississippi, remember that there were numerous routes carved out during the nineteenth century emigration west. From Missouri, routes included the Oxbow Trail, the Platte Road, the Oregon Trail, Wyomings South Pass, the Morman Trail and the California Trail which led directly to Sacramento. In addition to this the railroads also had established routes. There were no paved roads and some were not even connected but there were plenty of trails. After thirty-four days on the road, the expedition arrived in San Francisco to cheering crowds. That in itself was quite a feat when considering that settlers traveling the Oregon Trail by wagon train often endured a six month or more journey. The expedition returned to Indiana by railroad and just a few weeks later announced the route chosen. Another interesting historical note is that it wasn’t until the late 1920’s that Route 66 was established. Although Route 66 went from Chicago to Santa Monica California, not totally transcontinental, it’s establishment was aided immensely by government funding and engineering.

Less than half of the designated route was improved roadway. The initial route was actually shortened by about 250 miles as road improvements took place. Several segments of the Lincoln Highway route followed historic roads such as the Donner Crossing in the Sierra Nevada Mountains between California and Nevada. On October 13, 1913 the route was officially dedicated as the Lincoln Highway. This was truly America’s first long distance scenic byway. The Chamber of Commerce of any city or town which the route traversed was of course quite happy. The route meant travelers and travelers meant money for local businesses. In fact, the Lincoln Highway was responsible for creating new businesses just as Route 66 did years later. The Lincoln Highway Association put out a “Road Guide”, probably an excellent idea considering the relative road conditions. It was like a AAA Guide in the very early 1900’s. The guide claimed that the cross country trip could be made in about 30 days or somewhat less. Today, there are many of us who consider a drive through the state of Texas on Interstate-10 as being a dreadfully long trip. Consider thirty days on the road (not Interstates) without a reliable network of fuel and repair facilities. You might be able to find a few similarities to early pioneer days albeit without the threat of Indian attack. The Association further claimed at the time that the trip should cost about five dollars per day excluding any unexpected auto breakdowns. They also suggested adequate camping equipment and food supplies for the segment west of Omaha Nebraska. The route was anything but a straight line. It was basically cobbled together from existing roadways. The route went through cities and towns along the way such as Pittsburgh, Canton and Mansfield Ohio, South Bend Indiana and Joliet Illinois, Clinton iowa, Omaha and Kearney Nebraska, . Cheyenne and Fort Bridger Wyoming, south to Salt Lake City and Ely Nevada, Fallon Nevada and Truckee California, then over Donner Summit to Auburn, Sacramento and san Francisco California. The end point was officially the old Cliff House on the Pacific Ocean. A magnificent accomplishment in a relatively very short time. This new highway would pass some of the most historical places in the United States.

Federal Highway Changes

Just like the rapid changes in the railroad industry from 1860 to the end of the 1800’s, there were major changes to come with America’s growing highway system. With government involvement really starting in the 1920’s, all highways were to be designated with a new number system by the end of the decade. Major north–south routes have odd ending numbers like 1,3,5. Major east–west routes have numbers ending in even digits such as 2,4,6.This change really marked the end of the Lincoln Highway Association’s promoting of the highway. Their last promotions occurred in 1928. Just prior to the number system taking effect, a group of Boy Scouts put up some 2,400 Lincoln Highway markers along the route to help keep the Lincoln Highway in the public memory. When the new federal system did take effect the Lincoln Highway association disbanded. The route from Missouri to California which was cobbled together much the same way as the Lincoln Highway,was designated Route 66 all along it’s path. Route 66 received more overall publicity than the Lincoln Highway. The reasons most likely were that the Route 66 came into being after automobile ownership increased which means that more people traveled. Another reason perhaps is that from Missouri to Santa Fe Route 66 followed the general direction, but not exactly, of the famous Santa Fe Trail and all the legends that went with it.

Crossing the Sierras

Certainly there are a great many very historic and scenic vistas along the Lincoln Highway. One of the more spectacular involves the road’s crossing over the beautiful Sierra Nevada Mountains separating Nevada from California. When the highway reaches Reno Nevada the motorist has the opportunity of taking two different routes west, both of which are considered the Lincoln Highway. The first one travels over Donner Pass through Truckee California. This is the railroad route and the route of present day Interstate-80. The other takes the motorist south from Reno to Carson City Nevada, the state capital, and then westward up to lake Tahoe and around it’s south shore. This was the route of the old Pony Express. The great thing is that both routes have spectacular scenery. The south route obviously takes much longer to drive than the Interstate but it makes for a leisurely trip and passes many historic landmarks. One is the old Pony Express station on Tahoe’s south shore, Fridays Station. Taking the Interstate over the mountains to the north let’s you stop and visit historic Truckee. Truckee California is just east of Donner Summit and is the site of many historic buildings of this late 1800’s railroad and lumber town. The Amtrak train, the California Zephyr, takes the north route and stops in Truckee on it’s way from Chicago to the San Francisco bay Area. The Truckee Hotel is a good stop to add to your California vacation planner. The hotel, built in the 1870’s, is still in operation and is convenient to many fine Truckee restaurants if you choose to stay the night. The Truckee and Lake Tahoe area are year round vacation and weekend trip destinations. The summer is quite beautiful in the Sierras with hiking boating, river rafting and mild temperatures. The area during winter is one of the west coast’s more popular ski areas. Both old Lincoln Highway routes come out westbound to Sacramento. After that it’s a short trip on Interstate-80 to the Bay Area.

The Reemergence of the Lincoln Highway Association

In 1992 the Lincoln Highway Association re-formed itself. The Association basically picked up where it left off in 1928. The reemergence seemed to have a lot to do with the nostalgic interest of the early days of travel. Many people say that a tourist takes the Interstates and the the true traveler explores the back roads. Today’s Interstate highway system, while being a major accomplishment, can become too routine for many people. The chain restaurants and hotels are everywhere as are the service stations. What i think many people are looking for is adventure. When you headed out on the Lincoln Hwy in 1914 you undoubtedly had adventure. Many today want to explore the byways and feel what it might have been like to travel the countryside years ago. New books, songs and documentaries have been produced that all help to promote the Lincoln Highway legacy. The new Lincoln Highway Association now publishes a quarterly magazine, “The Lincoln Highway Forum”. If you ask the question today..where is the Lincoln Highway?…The new Association publishes a well researched map showing the modern day history minded motorist a Lincoln Hwy route to follow.

The new Lincoln Highway Association in 2003 sponsored a tour of the entire road, all the way from Times Square to San Francisco. The group who set out from New York attempted to cover as much of the old highway as possible. Much of the original road disappeared similar to Route 66 due to the Interstate highway system.

For a very fun, historic, adventurous and educational experience, there aren’t many better road trips to take in the continental United States than on the old Lincoln Highway. It’s one of our true old scenic byway