Delving into the history of Lincoln Highway

By Tom Wharton

The Salt Lake Tribune

Published: July 12, 2012 12:02PM
Updated: October 30, 2012 11:31PM
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Tom Wharton

The distinctive red, white and blue Lincoln Highway sign on a lonely back road near the town of South Weber caught my attention.

I know a little bit about the Lincoln Highway, a privately organized effort that was started in 1912 by Carl Fisher to mark and the United States’ first transcontinental highway. But I never realized that it went through Weber and Davis counties before coming into Salt Lake and Tooele counties.

Fisher, who also was the founder of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – where the Indy 500 is raced — and the developer who largely built Miami Beach, came up with the idea for the highway that would be privately funded.

According to Lincoln Highway historian James Lin, there were few good roads to speak of in the United States in 1912. A road was designated “improved” if it was graded and most were lucky to have gravel or bricks. Most U.S. roads at the time were bumpy and dusty dirt roads in dry weather that became impassable in wet weather. Lin said most of the 2.5-million miles didn’t lead anywhere, often not connecting cities or towns in any logical way.

What’s more, the federal government would not get into the road building and designation business until 1928, the year when the Lincoln Highway Association officially disbanded.

So, what was the story behind the Lincoln Highway route through Utah?

Jesse Petersen, a Tooele resident who has written all or parts of three books on the Utah and Nevada portions of the Lincoln Highway, said the road’s route through Utah is a complicated story.

“When the road was first established in 1913, the governor of the state of Utah, William Spry, was insistent in taking it through Weber Canyon and then south through Kaysville, Farmington and Bountiful,” he said. “The state just built a concrete road that followed that route.”

So, when the Lincoln Highway was first dedicated, that’s the route it took. But, about 18 months later, the Lincoln Highway Association decided they didn’t care what the governor thought. The private group changed the route to come down through Evanston, Wyo., through Echo, Coalville, Wanship and Parleys Canyon.

There also would be similar changes to the route in western Utah, including a major shortening of the remote route that roughly followed parts of the old Pony Express route through Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge that opened in 1919.

That original route, which is graded but mostly unpaved, remains Petersen’s favorite part of the entire historic road.

“People who would like to get a feeling for what the Lincoln Highway was like in the old days need to drive across western Utah,” he said.

When Utah built a road to Wendover, the Lincoln Highway followed that route and still exists in some form next to the railroad south of present-day Interstate 80. It would become old U.S. 40 before the Interstate.

A traditional cement Lincoln Highway marker in front of the Montego Bay resort in Wendover marks the route. So does a historical interpretive sign near the City Hall in West Wendover, Nev. The Victory Highway, another privately built transcontinental highway that, for the most part followed old U.S. 40 slightly south of the Lincoln Highway, also came through Wendover.

Thus, in a week where the July Fourth holiday is celebrated and many will be hitting the highways for vacations and fun, it seems hard to believe that just less than 100 years ago, the U.S. Government was not in the highway-building business. Instead, it was up to a private group led by a dreamer and auto tire and parts executives to see the first transcontinental road constructed.

wharton@sltrib.com

Twitter @tribtomwharton