There's no doubt about it. Ike was one great guy. Perhaps one of the greatest Americans of the 20th century. Although his second administration ended five weeks before my birth, I can honestly say, "I like Ike."
Not only was he a masterful military leader, commanding the Allied forces in Europe in World War II, but Dwight D. Eisenhower served ably as our 34th commander in chief. Among his many accomplishments was the creation of our current system of national highways, dubbed "The Eisenhower Interstate System."
While in Europe during the war, the story goes, Ike developed a fascination with the German highway system built by the Nazis in the 1930s. He returned home with a vision of building a similar, but much larger, system of highways spanning the United States.
Although Ike gets credit for making the Interstate Highway System a reality, he wasn't the first to come up with the idea. The conceptual foundation of our existing interstate system predates Ike's vision by at least four decades.
In July 1913, an entrepreneur named Carl Fisher formed a public-private association to create the first "rock paved" transcontinental highway. Fisher and his team had a simple vision: Create a "coast-to-coast rock highway" stretching from Times Square in New York City to Lincoln Park in San Francisco. After rejecting names like the "Jefferson Memorial Highway" and "America's Road" for the project, the team decided to call it the Lincoln Highway in honor of one of Fisher's heroes: Abraham Lincoln, the nation's 16th president, born 200 years ago this month.
At the time the Lincoln Highway was proposed, America was a different place. Railroads were the dominant means of transporting both goods and people. Although decent roads existed in the more populous regions east of the Mississippi River, the roads in the western two-thirds of the country consisted mostly of a series of old paths used by pioneers during the great westward expansion of the 19th century. In fact, the roads were so poor that when Fisher and his team set out in July 1913 to plot the new highway's course, the portion of the trip from Indianapolis to San Francisco took 34 days, many spent pulling their cars and trucks out of mud and sand.
By fall, the final course for the road had been set. With the construction carried out in segments (the work often consisted of simply linking existing paved roads with a new, smooth surface), the work continued over the next 25 years.
During that time, Fisher and his group staged a variety of what we now call media events to generate publicity for the project. One of the more notable publicity stunts was the movement of a U.S. Army convoy from east to west in 1919. The journey turned out to be something of a publicist's nightmare—some bridges cracked under the strain and had to be rebuilt, and vehicles got stuck in mud. It took a month, but the convoy reached California to much fanfare.
Although the intent was to call attention to the need for road building, the convoy's biggest contribution to America's infrastructure development wasn't to be realized until more than 30 years later.Among the young Army officers on that convoy was none other than Lt. Col. Dwight D. Eisenhower. Eisenhower later acknowledged that the sometimes difficult trip convinced him of the importance of good roads and influenced his decision to make an interstate highway system one of his administration's priorities.
Today, the Lincoln Highway is little more than a memory, although some segments of roadway still carry the name. While the project may have fallen short of its original vision, it nonetheless made an important contribution to future highway development. And for that, we must give credit where it's due.