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Sunday, December 09, 2001

Roadway was once a journey of endurance

Jerry Bowen

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Californians love their cars. Convenience and the freedom to choose when and where to go is the result of many years of progress building roads and highways.

But it wasn’t always so easy to travel from one place to another.

Roads at the turn of the century just weren’t meant for the “horseless carriage.” Most were the result of old trails or wagon roads and only consisted of graded dirt, sometimes covered with a layer of crushed rock. During rain or snow the roads often turned into a muddy morass trapping the incautious traveler or causing a wreck.

While there were many roads, such as they were, there was no organization as to where they went. Early Automobile Association map cards included photos of landmarks and descriptions of where to ford streams or which railroads to follow from one place to another.

Too often, a road would dead-end at some ranch or farm. There was no such thing as standard road signs, convenient gas stations or rest stops. There was no singular route to travel from the East Coast to the West. Traveling in those days was an adventure reserved only for the hardiest of souls.

In 1913, Carl G. Fisher, who built the racetrack at Indianapolis, conceived the then-preposterous idea of a 3,000-mile thoroughfare from New York to San Francisco. In order to prove the need of such a road, he organized and led a tour of Indiana industrialists from Indianapolis to the Pacific Coast in 1913. It wasn’t an easy trip, but they finally made it, proving the need for a coordinated transcontinental road.

Fisher appealed to a group of manufacturers for help in establishing the highway. Many went along with the idea, though some just laughed, including Henry Ford, at the thought of such a venture. Eventually, after a great deal of haggling and planning, work actually got under way. The idea was to have the road completed in time for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, and at an estimated cost of $10 million. The transcontinental highway was to be called “Lincoln Highway.”

Meanwhile, in Solano County, work had been progressing on what was alternately called the “Great Highway” or “Great Road” which was to run from Sacramento to San Francisco. The route, via Davis, Dixon, Batavia, Vacaville, Fairfield, and Cordelia to Vallejo was chosen in May 1913. The road progressed slowly, often held up by funding, rights-of-way and haggling over portions of the route. An early concern was the need for a causeway across the swamp from the Sacramento River to Davis. It was completed three years later in May 1916.

In 1915, Edwin J. Manker, editor and proprietor of the Solano Republican, proposed that the route of the Lincoln Highway should, ” . . . come our way, as even now there are influences at work to have it go from Sacramento via Stockton to San Francisco, so let us be up and doing for, it is only by concerted action that we can expect to accomplish our purpose.”

But the Lincoln Highway was routed through Stockton to Oakland where ferry service would provide the final link to San Francisco. The stumbling block at Vallejo was the lack of a bridge across the Carquinez Strait, a vital link on the route to Oakland, even though it was shorter by about 40 miles.

The Lincoln Highway was having problems of its own. By 1914, the Lincoln Road Association, a private enterprise organized to raise funds and oversee the construction, started foundering financially. The association was only able to raise half of the pledges it sought. It turned to government funding to complete the road, and encouraged communities to pave roads along the route and mark them as the Lincoln Highway.

Another problem arose when various cities wanted to be included on the route, but the inclusion would have required deviation from the plan to keep the road in a straight line as much as possible.

In spite of all the problems, the Lincoln Highway was more or less completed. But, as late as 1925, it wasn’t completely paved along the entire length as had been planned, and the target date for the San Francisco Fair was missed.

With the introduction of the United States Highway System, authorized by the 1921 Federal Highway act, standard road signs began to be installed and the naming of highways was abandoned in 1926. Instead, highways were numbered, thus making the name “Lincoln Highway” obsolete on maps. The Lincoln Highway Association was finally dissolved on Dec. 3, 1927, but had reserved enough money in its treasury to manufacture 3300 concrete memorial monuments with Lincoln’s image on bronze medallions.

In 1927, the Carquinez Bridge was completed and Solano County was listed as an alternate route of the Lincoln Highway because it was 40 miles shorter than the Stockton route. It was almost too late for the designation, but on Sept. 21, 1928, Boy Scouts across the nation placed the Lincoln Memorial Markers every mile along the entire highway on a signal from President Coolidge. The Boy Scout troops of Solano County were divided into groups and participated in the coordinated mass placement of the monuments.

In Vacaville the Lincoln Highway entered from the north on Sacramento Road (today’s East Monte Vista Avenue) turned left on McClellan Street, turned right on School Street, crossed the bridge over Ulatis Creek and continued down Main Street to Merchant Street and on to Fairfield via the old Lagoon Valley Road.

In Fairfield it followed Texas Street from the north end and out the south to Cordelia.

From Cordelia, the route continued through Jamison Canyon, south on the Vallejo-Napa Road to Vallejo, down today’s Broadway, turned onto Kentucky, south on Alameda Street and then to Fifth Street to the Carquinez Bridge.

As the years passed, the highway was realigned to the outer edges of the towns in Solano County and re-designated Route 7, then Highway 40, and finally improved and expanded to become Interstate 80. Our towns have grown and completely surrounded the freeways. They have become gridlocked with too much traffic, bypasses have been planned and efforts have been made to get people back onto trains and ferries, reminiscent of the old days in modern trappings. I guess you might have to say, “history is repeating itself.”

As for the Lincoln Highway; it was officially dead in 1928, and almost all the markers have been vandalized or removed. Even with that, the Lincoln Highway is still a fond memory for many of the old-timers of the nation.