Part two of seven parts
Lincoln Highway Motor-court Cabin Testing Program
Fort Bridger State Historic Site
From Wagon Road to Auto Road (1900 to 1925)
Records from the New York-to-Paris Race of 1908 provide one of the earliest accounts of the Lincoln Highway being used as a national highway. The racers and the accompanying newspaper reporters who rode and drove in this fabled race around the world offer a glimpse of travel over the Lincoln Highway. Track and road racing were popular diversions in the early twentieth century. "In 1904 the famed racer Barney Oldfield made a cross-country tour which unleashed auto-mania in America" (Earl 1976:105). In the year of the "Great New York to Paris Automobile Race," Henry Ford introduced the fabled Model T. In addition, numerous other gasoline cars were available at the time for prices under $1,500 (Scharff 1991:45). By 1908, the public had a ready interest in automobiles and their performance in cross-country races. Many who owned automobiles or contemplated buying autos were captivated by the 1908, 23,000 miles by land and sea "New York-to-Paris Race of 1908." This storied race was depicted in the 1965 Warner Brothers motion picture, The Great Race starring Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Natalie Wood, and Keenan Wynn (Earl 1976:124). Of course, this romanticized version of travel over the future Lincoln Highway is "highly fictionalized," but it provides one example of how overland automobile travel captured the imagination of the American people.
American auto enthusiasts had long considered a competitive race from New York to San Francisco. Among the backers for the proposed cross-country marathon, however, were the publishers of the French newspaper Le Martin. These sponsors desired an international competition with Paris as the terminal point. "Such a journey would take the competitors across the United States, thence to Valdez, Alaska by ship over the Tanana and Yukon Rivers to Kaltag, Unalakle and Nome, and across the ice of the Bering Strait to Russian Siberia" (Earl 1976:105). To accomplish this, the race had to be run in winter. "The whole idea seemed preposterous to many because no car of any kind had ever crossed the United States in the dead of winter." As author Phillip Earl notes, at the time "out in the hinterlands there were neither snow plows, filling stations, road signs, or, in much of the country, roads" (Earl 1976:105). Ultimately, the planned route would have to be altered, but as the racers set out from New York City on February 12, 1908, the plan was to travel across the United States, then north to the polar ice caps.
Interest in the race was widespread. Both the New York Times and Chicago Tribune became co-sponsors. As interest mounted, plans solidified as to what the route would be. L. L. Whitman and Percival Megargel, two of nine men who had previously driven across the United States, were asked by race organizers to lay out a practical route west from Chicago. Initially, this route ran west from Chicago then to Omaha, Cheyenne, Ogden, Reno, Carson City, Goldfield, Daggett, Mohave, Sagus, Santa Barbara, and San Francisco. As the racers from the United States, Italy, Germany, and France proceeded west, they found the course unfeasible. By March 17th, plans were made to direct the race to follow a route from Ely to Tonopah then to Goldfield (Earl 976:108). The Midland Route, so called because it traveled through the center of the nation, was about to receive the attention of international reporters and drivers.
The "Great New York-to-Paris Race" ended on July 16, 1908 when the German team rolled into Paris. The Americans arrived July 30th. Once the Race Committee figured up the lapsed time, however, they declared the Americans the victors by twenty-six days (Earl 1976:123). The French teams all dropped out, but the Italian team gamely pushed on reaching Paris on September 16, 1908. The "Great Race" was over. As a result of the race, people around the world learned that when traveling to the west coast, they could travel over a road that passed through Fort Bridger.
The "Great Race" also made many aware of the need to improve Wyoming's roads. If tourism was to increase into and through southern Wyoming, the roads would have to be upgraded. Not only in Wyoming, but regionally and nation-wide, it became apparent that to cash in on the growing "auto-mania," good roads were essential. It was obvious, even in 1908, that travel by car was about to explode. "In 1900, only 8,000 passenger automobiles had been registered in the United States; by 1905, the number of registrations had increased ten fold, to 77,000" (Scharff 1991:25). By 1906, 106,000 passenger cars traveled America's highways. In 1919, the number of registered passenger cars was placed at 6,711,000, ten years later this number stood at 23,122,000 (Scharff 1991:28, 112). Building roads to accommodate these numbers was no small undertaking.
Early Twentieth-Century Road Construction
Highway historian Jeffrey Rose (1992) provides excellent details about how roads were built in the early nineteenth century. In addition to his detailed description, Rose discusses highways in both broad and narrow contexts. Specifically, he describes roads as both serving as a means of transporting goods from farm to market and as a linkage system to the broader world. In this sense, North American highways formed networks that link states and provinces from Mexico City to Alberta, Canada and from Washington D.C. to Tijuana, Mexico. In essence, each road ultimately conveys a traveler from the most rural community to urban centers and thus must be viewed internationally, nationally, regionally, statewide, and locally. As early as 1908, roads were seen as paths to the broader world and were important as links from mine to mill, farm to town, and village to city. Rose's greatest strength is that he takes local highway (U.S. Route 85) and shows its international implications. Moreover, he provides a basic description of how road improvements evolved from the local to the state level and then were ultimately linked to national roadways and to international highways.
In the rural West, many mining and ranching communities desperately needed good transportation networks to link them with markets and centers of commerce. Ultimately, these same roads would carry tourists and potential investors to these small communities, providing much needed capital for the area's economy. Early on it was realized that good roads encouraged traffic to and from an area. Yet, in the rural and mining West, money for constructing long interconnecting roads was not readily available. To overcome the problem of inadequate finances, communities and states employed innovative construction methods.
The simplest answer to automobile road construction was to allow automobiles to use wagon roads. While this was a cheap solution, it did not address the larger problem of providing good roads. Unimproved roads were rough and unsafe. The degree of roughness was plain to all drivers as basic traveling equipment called for a shovel to fill in a rut or "dig out" the car as one often needed (e.g. Earl 1976:106). Since most vehicle drivers wanted roads that required little additional work to drive on, most travelers would select their route based on "road conditions." "Road conditions" is a term that has lost much of its historic meaning and currently most often applies to the potential for icy or wet roads. At the turn of the century, however, it literally implied whether a road had adequate bridges, culverts, or maintenance to allow passage. Local communities who improved their roads quickly profited from increased traffic. But it was not enough to just improve roads. To make the system work, communities had to convince neighboring areas that they should improve their roads also. They also had to impress on the next county and the neighboring state that it was in everyone's best interest to construct better roads. The entire process of building roads required cooperation between diverse groups, a process that was not always easy.
In Wyoming, it was easier to convince local citizens of the need for good transportation since roads linked isolated ranches and mining communities to the wider world. The major obstacle facing the proponents for road improvements in Wyoming was finding funds and convincing the legislature in Cheyenne that one road deserved more attention or monies than did another route.
To the credit of most communities, many local groups took the task of road building into their own hands. While each community solved the problem of road construction in their own unique manner, most followed a similar pattern of simultaneously attempting to improve the roads themselves while actively pursuing funds from country and state treasuries. Ultimately, these pioneers developed a system of roads that employed both local political talent and a pragmatic understanding of how to build a good road. In building these roads, the builders used the rudimentary skills of highway engineering that emerged in the early 1900s.
Like other western regions, early road builders in Wyoming utilized "road building methods directly descended from railroad construction." Road builders used buckets, blades, and horse-drawn drags similar to those used when constructing the region's railroads. "Like railroad builders of an earlier era . . . road contractors kept cuts and fills to an absolute minimum, and wherever possible followed the abandoned wagon routes" (Rose 1992:54). Because of limited funds and the use of light equipment, following existing wagon roads made the most sense.
Building roads in Wyoming meant crossing diverse topography and devising construction methods to match the local geology. While there were numerous types of roads built, four major roads existed: valley roads, mountain roads, sand roads, and adobe roads. Historically, variations of these four basic types can be found in most western states (Rose 1992:62). Roads built across the plains and basins of Wyoming were the easiest to construct. They could be built by following wagon roads with horse-pulled building machines. The valley roads were the least expensive to construct. For example, in New Mexico it was estimated that this type of road construction cost between fifty to one hundred dollars per mile (Rose 1992:662). The cost would rise when playas had to be avoided or drainage systems built. Throughout the arid west, although rain was infrequent, it could be heavy, sending flood waters down arroyos and often filling playa lakes. "This meant that drainage systems were complex but seldom used. If they failed, the entire road bed could be wiped out in just a few hours" (Rose 1992:61). Drainage features, although expensive to build and maintain, were essential.
The most expensive type of roads to build was those crossing mountain ranges. Estimates vary, but in at least one western state, mountain construction in the early twentieth century cost between two thousand and three thousand dollars per mile (Rose 1992:62). Mountain roads, even in the early 1900s, required crowns for drainage. Crowning a road meant making the center higher than the sides for drainage. While roads varied in quality, one 1920s highway engineer recommended that mountain roads have a grade no more than six percent and that they have a "nine-foot width of gravel surfacing to prevent washouts." In some areas, drainage ditches paralleled the road (Rose 1992:62). These expensive, but necessary, secondary drainage ditches and the crown used on mountain roads were precursors to the modern crowned and ditched roads. Although crowned roads were not a new invention, they eventually became common features of good roads built throughout the West.
Within the valleys and deserts of Wyoming existed many stretches of sand and adobe. "Sandy portions could be made passable after blending in six to eight inches of adobe" with the sand. By doing this, costs could rise to $2,000 per mile. "Similarly, the adobe stretches required a thick layer of gravel at slightly less expense" (Rose 1992:63). In places where local gravels were readily available, a thin skin of gravel often covered the adobe, and more was added as needed. By hand-raking the gravel over the road, a distinct, sometimes intermittent, road was marked out along the valley floors. In time, unless the road was abandoned, a gravel base was built up giving the appearance of a modern gravel road. Interestingly, in some places within southwestern Wyoming along old little used roads, one can still find a thin skin of small gravels evident atop the adobe. In other places, the rock found on colluvial aprons have been raked or scraped out of the road to provide a smooth surface for travel.
Ultimately, highway enthusiasts press for paved highways. Pavement, however, was expensive and required preparation of the road bed prior to paving. The expense of this seemed prohibitive, but pavement became a symbol of an advanced highway system. Thus, local road boosters pressed for this symbol of "modernarity." If they could not get a paved highway, gravel roads served as a distant second best.
*Historic Photographs are courtesy Fort Bridger State Historic Site and Martha Powers
If you have any questions please feel free to contact Dudley Gardner.