This past weekend, I had the opportunity to attend the quarterly meeting of the Iowa Lincoln Highway Association. As some of you who follow my blog know, I’ve written some about the Lincoln Highway in the past, mostly about a stretch of road that passes through Clinton County, Iowa. This length of road includes three bridges, two of which are now closed to through traffic due to severe structural issues.
But this isn’t about the bridges necessarily. This is about the people who want to preserve those bridges and the memory of the Lincoln Highway.
For those of you who may not know, the Lincoln Highway was a concept born from the mind of Carl Fisher, who was the inventor and developer of the Indianapolis 500. Way back in 1912, Fisher came up with the idea of a dependable road that ran all the way across the United States.
As he developed the project and strived to finish it, Fisher and his supporters overcame several emergent situations and issues to eventually establish the first transcontinental road across the U.S., running from San Francisco all the way to New York City. They also pioneered the Lincoln Highway as one of the first concrete paved roads, making it much more reliable than the standard dirt and gravel roads of the day.
Unfortunately, the United States government decided to do away with the named highways by the late 1920’s, replacing them with the numbered system that we all know and love today. But, partially due to the tremendous amount of publicity that the Lincoln Highway received over the years, the memory of that road lived on in the minds of many Americans, lasting even into the modern day.
The Lincoln Highway Association
The original association dates back to 1913, and was an organization that oversaw the planning, care, and development of the Lincoln Highway. Each individual county along the route through various states had its own consuls to oversee the affairs of that particular stretch of the road. After the numbered highway system was introduced, the association closed its doors and ceased activity by 1931.
In 1992, a group of concerned individuals across the county who were dedicated to the preservation of the route’s history, banded together and reformed the Lincoln Highway Association. They did not want this important part in the history of United States transportation to disappear altogether, and they have worked hard to preserve it ever since.
And that brings us back to this past weekend.
Through some of my writings about the Lincoln Highway, I was introduced to Cathie Nichols, the head of the Lincoln Highway Association in Clinton County, Iowa. She liked my work, and shared it with the rest of the Iowa clan. We communicated back and forth, and Cathie, nice lady that she is, invited me to the quarterly meeting in DeWitt this past weekend. I readily agreed and put it down on my schedule.
After several weeks, the day finally came and up the road I went.
Now, I’ve been to several meetings like this over the years, so I had a little bit of an idea of what to expect. That being said, I’m still nervous when I walk into those things. I suppose it’s some kind hold over from junior high school, where you always have that fear of rejection or being made to feel unwelcome. Setting doubts and fears aside, I mustered my courage and stepped into the room.
I am very pleased to say that my fears were unfounded. The group was very friendly and welcoming. There was another guest, a man from West Des Moines, who was very happy to sit and talk with me, sharing his knowledge of the highway with me, which, I have to admit, was a lot greater than my own.
As a matter of fact, everyone there had a greater knowledge of the Lincoln Highway than I did. I mean, you go to this kind of thing expecting that, and I was glad for it. But when you’ve written about their subject matter, and, worse yet, had it published, it’s a little intimidating to have it right there in front of them for their review and subsequent criticisms. Because, make no mistake, these guys are the experts.
Several counties across the state were represented there, and it became readily apparent that, like their predecessors during the early 20th century, these folks have their finger on everything that happens on that road. They know the trouble spots, and they know the strong points.
Over the years, the route of the Lincoln Highway shifted for various reasons. It may only be a street over as it passes through a town, or it may be a mile or two north or south. No matter, because these folks have abundant knowledge of all these routes. They’ve even made some really neat maps to show them as they cross through the state, which the association was very happy to share with me. Once again, these folks are the experts.
I suppose that anything that has to do with a historic highway has to involve a road trip somewhere. After the meeting was over, we took a short lunch break before meeting back at the DeWitt Community Center. It was time to cruise.
First, we went about five miles west to the town of Grand Mound. It’s a small town, clean and quiet. It is also home to the last wood-frame fire station in the state of Iowa.
We all swarmed into the medium-sized building like locusts, asking questions of our gracious hosts and snapping a lot of pictures. They were very indulgent of us, and a good time was had by all.
Next, it was back in the car and heading west again, this time out to see the endangered bridge. Just past the Wapsi Oaks Golf Course, we turned down a gravel road that leads to what was once the highway. Remember how I said that the road has changed and shifted over the years? This is a prime example.
We drove down the gravel then turned left again onto that old road. One of my strongest memories of being on it all those years ago was how narrow it was. It’s hard to imagine two modern semis passing each other at seventy miles an hour or better like on modern roadways. Our convoy drove until we reached the troubled span, which is now blocked off for through traffic, then turned off one last time into a boat ramp area.
I grew up in woods a lot like the ones that surrounded that graveled parking area, so for me it was a little bit like coming home again. It was a beautiful day that day – sunny and seventy – and it made for some truly great picture taking. I got some great shots of the Wapsipinicon River and the bridge.
Once we all got out and stretched our legs a bit, we gathered together and talked about the bridge, then walked down a steep embankment just to the south of it. Cathie and her husband had been kind enough to clear a path for us, and we were able to go back to see something that I didn’t ever think I would get excited about – some of the original concrete of the original stretch of the Lincoln Highway.
I never thought I’d really get into it because, well, it’s a concrete roadway buried in undergrowth. But when I got back there, and I was standing on it, my opinion changed. It was like standing on an old Roman road, forgotten to the passage of time, an archaeological gem hidden just off the beaten path. That old concrete showed through just enough in spots to tease the wary viewer of its existence.
When you looked down the stretch to the east, you could even see the curve of the road as it wound its way further through the woods. It was neat to imagine old Model A’s and Packard’s rolling down that stretch of concrete toward whatever destination they intended.
After we came out of the woods, we met at the bridge one last time before saying our goodbyes and heading off. As I drove out, trying to avoid a gigantic mud puddle, I was glad that I came.
I felt like I spent the day learning a lot of good information from some honest people who are passionate about Iowa’s – and the nations – transportation past. But more importantly, they don’t just stay on the road. They reach into the surrounding countryside and towns and take careful note of what’s happening there and sights to see, both historic and otherwise. It’s important to them to preserve these things so that future generations can still see them.
It was a good day. I met some new people and made some new friends. They made me feel welcome, told me some great stories, and showed me some really cool stuff. If they ever invited me back out on another road trip, I’d probably go, and that’s saying a lot for an anti-social introvert.
So, if you’re ever in the area of one of their meetings, or one of their various historic Lincoln Highway sites, drop on in and say hello. I have no doubt you’ll get the same superb treatment as I did, and get to share in the sites and stories. Until then, we’ll see you on down the highway.