Highway Association president talks history

By Ryan Chodora

Kay Shelton is the president of the Lincoln Highway Association. Shelton is a professor at Kishwaukee College in Malta, home to the highway’s first seedling mile.

Northern Star: Who came up with the idea for Lincoln Highway?

Kay Shelton: That was Carl G. Fisher of Indianapolis. He already founded and co-owned the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and it was his idea to race for 500 miles to test the endurance of the early automobiles. He started out selling bicycles but saw automobiles as the future. He made a fortune through the company he founded, Prest-O-Lite, which made headlights for cars. He realized that early automobiles were hampered by muddy roads and he used his fortune from the Prest-O-Lite company to help support the establishment of the Lincoln Highway. Later, he was the key developer of Miami Beach. When NIU played in the Orange Bowl, I went and I took a later flight the next day so I could have time to see where Carl Fisher was in Miami, and there is a statue of him, too.

NS: What set Lincoln Highway apart from other roads?

KS: It is the world’s largest memorial to Abraham Lincoln. It was the first improved road coast to coast. It was also started with private donations, especially from early automobile manufacturers who understood that improved roads would help them sell more cars.

NS: Why is the road called “Lincoln Highway?”

KS: Carl G. Fisher originally wanted to call it the Coast-to-Coast Rock Highway because he wanted an improved road from New York City to San Francisco. But, his friend Henry Joy of Packard Motors came up with the idea of naming it the Abraham Lincoln Memorial Highway. Henry Joy’s father, James Joy, once owned the Illinois Central Railroad, and as a young lawyer Abraham Lincoln worked for that railroad and Henry Joy’s father.

NS: How did this road change American history?

KS: The Lincoln Highway Association could not pave all of the Lincoln Highway all at once. But, to show the public that paved roads were a good idea, the Lincoln Highway Association developed the idea of Seedling Miles: paved sections that showed the public how much better paved roads were over mud. The first of those Seedling Miles was in Malta, Ill., in what used to be a very muddy section. There are historical markers near Kishwaukee College about the Seedling Mile.

Also, a young lieutenant colonel named Dwight Eisenhower traveled in the first coast-to-coast Army convoy in 1919 which followed the Lincoln Highway. The road still had muddy sections then and he was miserable on that Army convoy. When he was president, Eisenhower remembered his bad experiences on the Lincoln Highway in the mud and he remembered seeing how good the Autobahn was in Germany during World War II. President Eisenhower signed the bill that created the interstate system in 1956.

NS: Why is Lincoln Highway something that should be celebrated?

KS: Besides being a memorial to Abraham Lincoln, the Lincoln Highway is part of American history with its ties to early automobiles and improving roads to help make those automobiles more popular and useful. One hundred years later, driving the Lincoln Highway means seeing the sights. Driving on an interstate can be boring. The Lincoln Highway is more scenic. Out west, people visiting Lake Tahoe may not be aware they are on the Lincoln Highway, but it is in one of the most scenic areas in the United States.