By building one short stretch of concrete highway in rural Illinois, backers of the struggling Lincoln Highway project relaunched the national effort to build the nation’s first hard-top transcontinental highway. This month, Malta, Illinois, celebrates the centennial of its seedling mile.
The DeKalb County village, 70 miles west of Chicago, was the site of the first “seedling mile” of concrete pavement for the transcontinental Lincoln Highway in 1914. This short stretch of road was one of a number of such seedling miles built to demonstrate construction techniques and generate support for the highway. The centennial of this mile is a significant but obscure event in nation building.
The original highway ran just north of Malta (population 450 in 1910), parallel to the Union Pacific mainline. It is now Illinois Route 38, a busy highway on a windy, sunny April Saturday when I visited. Part of the seedling mile is preserved at the Malta Cemetery entrance. Malta (population now 1,155) is pretty quiet, except for the park, where families are playing after the long, hard winter. The highway seems to be part of the town’s fabric, but no big deal.
Road building was becoming a big deal early in the 20th century. States began to supplement county bond issues, but federal aid was nonexistent. Until about World War I, as automobiles became more widespread, roads were basically a local affair, a hodgepodge of dis- or un-connection. Paved roads were mostly urban. Rural areas were linked by dirt roads. Even through the 1920s, most rural roads were rutted mud pits when rains came, a hallmark of rural isolation.
A good roads movement that emerged in the late 1800s because of bicycles grew more quickly after 1900, urged on by organizations such as the American Automobile Association (AAA), founded in 1902. The federal Office of Public Road Inquiries in the U.S. Department of Agriculture conducted a national road inventory in 1904; reliable information was hard to get.
In 1912, AAA and the American Highway Association held the American Road Congress in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Conventions like these sought federal funds for roads. That same year, Congress passed the Post Roads Act, which allowed for federal-state-community matches for road funding.
According to America's Highways, 1776-1976, Congress soon set up a Joint Committee on Federal Aid in the Construction of Post Roads. Hearings revealed that the average haul for U.S. farm products to market or to the nearest railroad station was nine miles, with an average cost of 21 cents per ton-mile.
The hearings raised the specter of global competition. Transportation cost French farmers 8 cents per ton-mile on their macadam (hard surface) roads. The 13-cents-per-mile difference was dubbed a "mud tax" that cost the U.S. $504 million annually (about $12.2 billion in today’s dollars). Poor roads were said to harm farmland values, horses, wagons and draft gear, as well as discouraging motorized farm equipment. Committee testimony also illustrated how bad roads affected schools, quality of life and youth migration from farms to the cities. A nationwide survey received 10,000 replies; 97% favored some form of federal road-building aid.
With slow federal movement, private capital tentatively stepped in. In 1912, Carl G. Fisher, Indianapolis Speedway founder, proposed a “coast-to-coast rock highway” to be called the Lincoln Highway. With initial support from the automobile and related industries, he helped form the original Lincoln Highway Association, a group that was re-formed about 25 years ago with chapters in the 13 states crossed by the original highway. Wayne Silvius, president of the current Illinois Chapter, says the resurrected group’s focus is “on restoration of the history” of the highway.
The 1912 association raised about $1 million for construction. When dedicated in 1913, the highway was mostly a gravel automobile trail from Times Square in New York City to San Francisco’s Lincoln Park, about 3,150 miles. From New York City, the route headed south to Philadelphia and then west, skirting Chicago to the south and west before going on toward Omaha, Cheyenne and Salt Lake City.
As funding slowly dried up, the original Lincoln Highway Association took up educating the public about good roads, building seedling miles in each state. The sites at Malta and other points along the highway demonstrated that concrete was durable under heavy traffic and loads.
Perhaps the Lincoln Highway’s 1913 dedication is more significant to nation building, but the seedling mile in Malta has its own importance. The mile marked a cultural convergence of new and expanding technologies with economic change, education and voluntarism for nation building. Building a road and seedling miles with donations showcased new technology and confirmed public interest.
Concrete, in use for centuries, was now being adapted for roads and bridges. The first concrete roads were poured more than a decade before, but experimentation and extensive testing had improved concrete’s strength and durability.
The Lincoln Highway’s construction triggered discussion about long-distance roads. According to America’s Highways, some rural interests claimed the nation would spend too much to build a few "peacock alleys" for wealthy tourists to enjoy. In addition, rural residents apparently disdained autos because of dust, traffic noise and rude drivers. They said cars upset farm animals and the quiet of the countryside—that is, until they began to drive.
In a few short years after 1900, motorized vehicles changed the country. Before long, interstate concrete roads would ease the way for buses, trucks and cars, altering rural-urban relationships. All-weather roads opened possibilities for rural tourism, farm marketing and industrialization. Coupled with increased mechanization on farms, roads also facilitated the growing rural-urban migration and eased rural access to city and national markets.
By the 1920s, the federal government had assumed more responsibility for planning and funding national highways, including legislation to designate federal routes in 1926. U.S. 30, from Atlantic City, New Jersey, to Astoria, Oregon, covered much of the original Lincoln Highway route. It was completed late in 1927.
Interest in the Lincoln Highway was widespread in 1912 and persisted after the original association shut down on December 31, 1927. The group’s last act, according to Journey Illinois Lincoln Highway, was to fund markers designed by Jens Jensen, a noted Illinois landscape architect, for the highway. On September 1, 1928, Boy Scouts across the country placed 3,000 concrete mile markers—with a bronze head of Lincoln, the highway logo, and a blue directional arrow. Voluntarism opened an era and marked its end.
Today, the Lincoln Highway has a corps of devotees interested in its history and tourism value. Silvius says the original Lincoln Highway lost its identity as the federal government took a larger role in highway building. The renewed Lincoln Highway Association seeks to reclaim history that would be lost otherwise.
Tourism is also a consideration. In 2000, based on efforts by the Illinois Lincoln Highway Coalition, now Journey Illinois Lincoln Highway, the highway was designated a National Scenic Byway. A kiosk at Kishwaukee College to the west of the seedling mile explains the highway’s history. The group also used grant funds to put a mural on the historical society’s building in Malta. The group has done similar projects in communities along the highway.
The centennial of the first seedling mile will not go unnoticed. On Saturday, September 13, the Lincoln Highway Association plans a mini tour that will honor Jensen’s birthday. The tour will pass the seedling mile, as well as other historic sites along the road from Dixon to DeKalb. The national association celebrated the dedication centennial in 2013 with a convention in Kearney, Nebraska, near the national center point of the highway.
Sweeping changes of national history help us understand how technology, education, economic and political processes and individuals’ actions sought to make the states more united. Road building came to be considered as vital to nation building. Seemingly insignificant events that occurred in small towns and rural areas along those roads also underpinned nation building.
Visiting Malta’s short strip of concrete laid a hundred years ago recalls the good intentions of generations past and remains an educational experience in understanding one facet of what we were then and how we have become what we are.
Timothy Collins is assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.