Trip along Lincoln marks highway history
By Amy Lavalley Post-Tribune correspondent June 23, 2013 7:49PM
Medallion noting the dedication of the Lincoln Highway to President Abraham Lincoln graces the highway marker in downtown Valparaiso. | Sun-Times Media
For more on the Lincoln Highway, its old route and its 100th anniversary celebration, go to www.lincolnhighwayassoc.org/
Updated: July 25, 2013 6:45AM
When Phil Doolittle bought his house on Old Indiana 2 on the outskirts of Valparaiso, he didn’t know it was along what was once the Lincoln Highway, which, when christened 100 years ago, connected San Francisco and New York City.
He was tickled to find that out and thought it was kind of neat.
“I’ve been an Abraham Lincoln fan since my dad took me to Springfield as a boy,” he said. “I’m a retired electrical engineer, so people like Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and Lincoln are my heroes.”
On June 21, groups of travelers left from the highway’s two coastal destinations to meet in Kearney, Neb., on June 30. On June 27, about 45 cars spanning the history of the automotive era will pass by Doolittle’s garden on their way from New York City to Kearney. Their official morning stop will be at the grist mill in Hobart, at Deep River.
He planned to host an impromptu welcome party for them as they head into Valparaiso.
“I’m going to make it a photo op for each vehicle, give them Indiana-shaped cookies, and send them on their way,” he said.
Local historians note that when the country’s first continental highway was constructed, much of it utilized existing routes, some spanning the trails of the region’s earliest travelers.
In Lake County, it followed what is now 73rd Avenue, through Merrillville, on what was once the Sauk Trail, a Native American route, said Lake County historian Bruce Woods.
Hotels, including the Old California Hotel on 73rd Avenue in Merrillville, as well as tourist cabins sprouted up along the way even before the route was the Lincoln Highway, particularly during the Gold Rush in the mid-1800s.
“There was a lot of activity that people were taking care of,” Woods said.
By around 1930, the Lincoln Highway through Indiana aligned with what is U.S. 30 now. Initially, though, the route in Porter County followed Joliet Road going east, went through downtown Valparaiso to LaPorte Avenue and connected to Indiana 2 to LaPorte — the stretch Doolittle lives on between Valparaiso and Westville.
“They used to have it meander through a lot of downtowns, and they decided that was not the best way to route a highway,” Porter County historian Larry Clark said.
Even building what became U.S. 30 had unexpected consequences in Valparaiso, particularly for Valparaiso University students who used to go to Sager Lake to hang out. They cut through a wooded area to get there.
“When they built the highway through, it caused a big disruption because they couldn’t cut through the woods and go to the lake anymore. Now there was a big highway through it,” Clark said.
One section of the Lincoln Highway that ran south of where Teibel’s and Walgreens are in Schererville, and followed a road behind where the Dyer/Schererville branch of the Lake County Public Library system is, was the 1.9-mile “ideal section” of the road.
Each state was supposed to be given federal money to build an ideal segment of the roadway, Woods said, with pedestrian walkways, lighting, landscaping and other amenities.
“I don’t think it ever had all that,” he said. “It was supposed to be a prototype of what a national highway would be.”
Of course, over time, faster cars, true interstates and toll roads eventually overtook the Lincoln Highway, leaving behind old road markers and the occasional downtown street, like the one in Valparaiso, named for what the nation’s first transcontinental highway once was.
But for at least a little while this month, drivers will hit that old highway and follow it through small towns across the nation, recalling a time 100 years ago when such trips were truly extraordinary.