In 1919 the roads comprising the Lincoln Highway hadn’t yet met the expectations of the “Main Street Across America” that was envisioned in 1913, especially west of Omaha.
The Lincoln Highway Association (hereinafter “the association”) needed an event that would publicize the need for federal funds to build and improve roads. So, at the association’s invitation, on July 7, 1919, the U.S. Army Motor Transport Corps set out to test its equipment and personnel in a coast-to-coast convoy of military trucks and trailers. It set off from Washington, D.C., and joined the Lincoln Highway at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, with San Francisco as its ultimate destination.
One of the last-minute volunteers for the adventure was 28-year-old future president Lt. Col. Dwight D. Eisenhower of the U.S. Army Tank Corps. The convoy’s guide was Henry Ostermann, field secretary of the association, driving his white Twin-Six Packard touring car. He drove in the lead because he knew the way better than anyone.
The 56 military vehicles included a trailer hauling a 2 million-candle-power searchlight of the type used for spotting aircraft in French skies during the Great War, recently concluded. Numerous civilian vehicles promoting auto and truck manufacturers and tire makers followed in the Army’s wake, stretching the entire caravan for more than 2 miles.
The convoy took three weeks to reach Council Bluffs, and that was on the decent roads in the East. On July 29, the troops were treated to the shortest travel day of the entire trip — just across the Douglas Street Bridge to Omaha. After the welcoming auto parade, the vehicles retired to Fort Omaha for rest and repairs.
That night the luckiest soldiers were let loose to dance with the 200 or so girls rounded up to entertain their heroes at Benson’s Krug Park. And downtown on 17th Street, the Army’s giant traveling searchlight was fired up and dazzled local spectators by demonstrating that it could track down a military observation balloon originating in Fort Omaha 5 miles away.
The next day the motorcade lumbered on across Nebraska, where “the first real sand was encountered, and two days were lost,” according to Eisenhower’s official report.
After 62 days on the road, and no fewer than 100 bridges built or repaired, the weary doughboys reached San Francisco. The trip proved to be just the kind of promotion that the Lincoln Highway needed, and Congress took note.
In 1926, a numbering system for designating major motorways across the U.S. was adopted. The Lincoln Highway was assigned the label “U.S. Highway 30” on its way through Omaha and most of the rest of the country.
Shift your focus to an important ceremony that took place on July 26, 1929: the dedication of the Abraham Lincoln Memorial Bridge over the Missouri River at Blair, Nebraska.
The Omaha Chamber of Commerce sent a delegation of 30 citizens to the event. It might have felt like a going-away party to the Omahans, who must have realized that the new Blair Bridge would shorten the Lincoln Highway by almost 30 miles if it were rerouted to the north of Omaha.
Yet, two weeks later The World-Herald was editorializing that “Omaha has only best wishes for the Blair bridge,” and “will enter into no heated competition to draw tourists away from the new span across the Missouri.”
These generous expressions were rendered meaningless a year later when a July 25, 1930, World-Herald headline blared (or blaired, perhaps?): “STRONG PROTESTS AS OMAHA LOSES LINCOLN HIGHWAY.” The story continued, “Like a bolt from a clear sky” the announcement came that Omaha and Council Bluffs had been “secretly removed” from the Lincoln Highway. The route would henceforth run directly from Missouri Valley, Iowa, to Fremont, Nebraska, on graveled roads using the new bridge at Blair.
At the same time, it was divulged that on July 23 and 24 the distinctive Lincoln Highway concrete markers and signs had been removed from both the Nebraska and Iowa approaches to Omaha under the supervision of the association, a nearly defunct organization by then.
A Fremont newspaper reported that the removal was accomplished before it was possible for any organization to institute legal proceedings.
One source contends that the highway markers were stealthily stolen away in the middle of the night. I can find no concrete evidence of that, but there is no doubt that newly appointed Omaha Mayor Richard Lee Metcalfe was taken by surprise!
He threatened someone, somewhere, that “Omaha will not take this lying down,” but in the end he was as prone as anyone can be who is not already deceased. The Enterprise, a newspaper in Blair, gleefully taunted, “Come on, Omaha, if you are going to be a suburb of Blair, do it gracefully.”
The insult and injury were made complete when, in June 1931, U.S. Highway 30 was also rerouted so as to cross the Missouri River at Blair. In the 1930s, the red, white and blue signs, markers and poles of the Lincoln Highway faded along with its historic identification as “America’s Main Street.”
Twenty-five years after Omaha’s case of highway robbery, President Eisenhower supported and signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, establishing our modern Interstate system. At last, Omaha was to reclaim its place at the halfway point on the major thoroughfare crossing the nation: I-80, the Interstate most closely approximating the route of the former Lincoln Highway.
Remarkably, there is a way that you and your automobile can still experience the nostalgia that clings to the name, “Lincoln Highway.” Take the West Dodge Expressway to the 192nd Street exit and turn north. In slightly less than a mile, you’ll see a narrow east-west brick road on both sides of 192nd. This is perhaps the best-preserved stretch of the Lincoln Highway in the nation.
It was first paved in 1920, and is now on the National Register of Historic Places, thanks to the efforts of the late Elkhorn historian Bob Adwers.
Access to the historic marker between 180th and 192nd may be temporarily closed to traffic, but turn west and drive along the serene, though somewhat bumpy, mile to 204th Street. Where else can you find a red brick roadway with hefty overhanging tree branches right next to an operating railroad? And, most likely, not another moving automobile in sight. Enjoy!
Next week: Tolf Hanson’s Café Beautiful
Bob Marks lives in Omaha, where he sleuths for local history and delights in busting myths and setting the record straight. He writes weekly for The World-Herald. Reach the Omaha History Detective through his editor, email@example.com; 402-444-1094.