Our city of firsts has, for much of its existence, played the part of Pennsylvania’s “Keystone City” within the nation’s Keystone State. And from its keystone perch, Philadelphia has likewise served as an origin point to many of the nation’s byways and borders that have formed the United States. The Mason-Dixon Line had its start at the southernmost house in Philadelphia in 1763, which at that time was a modest building at 30 South Street. The ‘Great Wagon Road to Philadelphia’ led thousands of Pennsylvania émigrés of Scottish, Irish, German, and Welsh heritage to their desired destinations in the Shenandoah Valley and points south in colonial times. Lewis & Clark’s 1804-06 expedition to explore and chart the Louisiana Territory and the American West happened in large part from its conceptualization, planning, and equipping in Philadelphia. And of course, in the 1960s, the urban renewal era City of Brotherly Love lobbied to have I-95 slice an interstate swath along the Delaware River, bringing a constant stream of traffic from up and down the east coast. Each route holds a distinctive place in American history, but perhaps none of them brought about change quite like the Lincoln Highway, which celebrates its centennial today.
The Lincoln Highway was the first improved transcontinental highway across the United States, running cross-country from “Times Square to the Golden Gate,” New York City to San Francisco. With celebrations and parades in towns across the country, the “Main Street Across America” was formally dedicated on October 31, 1913.
Inspired by the Good Roads Movement, the Lincoln Highway was the result of a widespread advocacy effort for improved roads initially led by bicyclists. However, the roadway itself was conceived in 1913 by businessmen intimately involved with the emerging tire, gasoline and concrete-pavement industries. The federal government was not yet building roads, so their plan was to connect and improve existing state roadways so as to incorporate them into one grand byway—all to get people driving and using their wares.
Most of Lincoln Highway’s final alignment became US Routes 1 and 30 in the Eastern and Midwestern United States and US Routes 40, 50 and 93 in the West. Additionally, many sections of U.S. Route 30 in Pennsylvania have been realigned with alternative routes and bypasses since the highway’s final alignment of 1928. Similarly, the path that Lincoln Highway took through the city of Philadelphia changed over time, making the exact current-day routing somewhat difficult to follow.
The Lincoln Highway, as it ran through Philadelphia, dates back long before 1913. In 1686, the Provincial Council of Pennsylvania ordered the construction of the King’s Highway, which followed an existing Native American trail from Philadelphia to Trenton, New Jersey. This, the first major road in Pennsylvania, hugged the Delaware River through Bristol, Falls, and Morrisville in Eastern Pennsylvania, and then made its way through Philadelphia County by following the old Byberry and Bensalem Turnpike and Frankford Avenue into the city. (Going along today’s Bustleton Avenue, the Byberry and Bensalem Turnpike was chartered as a toll road in 1848 and opened for travel in 1852.)
When the King’s Highway (or “Kingshighway”) was extended to New York City in 1756, it took three days travel to go from Philadelphia to New York. This was the first direct stage road between New York and Philadelphia, and it would become the main colonial link between the two cities. By 1783, the ninety mile trip took one day aboard the coach dubbed the “Flying Machine.” Eventually, the thoroughfare would extend north and south through several states, linking and unifying several cities and towns along the Atlantic seaboard. The King’s Highway still exists today as US Route 13, following closely its original configuration along Frankford Avenue and generally paralleling I-95. (In the 1950s and 60s, the Interstate was considered as having the same purpose that the Kingshighway had some three hundred years before: connecting East Coast municipalities. But the King’s Highway, I-95 is not.)
At any rate, Lincoln Highway began at Times Square in New York City and proceeded west to a ferry that took travelers across the Hudson River into New Jersey. From Weehawken, the road followed an indirect path to Trenton, where it would cross the Delaware River into Pennsylvania at Morrisville beginning in 1915. The highway’s initial 1913 route went to Camden, New Jersey, and crossed the Delaware into Philadelphia via the Market Street Ferry, an alignment that lasted for only two years.
Traveling southwest through Bucks County to Philadelphia, this bit of Lincoln Highway eventually became part of U.S. Route 1. The road entered Northeast Philadelphia via the now-abandoned Poquessing Creek Bridge, which was built in 1805 to carry the King’s Highway and later the Byberry and Bensalem Turnpike. The double stone arch bridge was improved in 1917 to carry Lincoln Highway, but it was bypassed by Roosevelt Boulevard in 1921. Open these days to pedestrians only, it may have been the oldest bridge to have been along the highway. The stretch of abandoned roadway in the forested area behind the Lincoln Motel on Route 1 was once one of the busiest highways in America.
The Lincoln Highway originally made its way along Haldeman and Bustleton Avenues to Roosevelt Boulevard before connecting with Broad Street. In 1924, a major bypass was added around the developed portion of Philadelphia using Hunting Park Avenue, Ridge Avenue and City Avenue, but Broad Street could still be used through North Philadelphia as the downtown route.
The Lorraine Hotel (later the Divine Lorraine) was well-known to Lincoln Highway travelers via guidebooks of the day. The hotel advertised its parking facilities, which showed that much of its patronage came from overnight travelers rather than permanent tenants. Lincoln Highway guidebooks, by the way, instructed drivers to sound their horn at every street intersection as they made their way through Philadelphia.
North Broad Street became home to most of the city’s earliest car dealers partly due to the Lincoln Highway. Many motorcar companies located their offices and showrooms along “Automobile Row”—the stretch between Race and Callowhill Streets especially. This was the place to go car-shopping for Fords, Chevrolets, Pierce Arrows, Cadillacs, Buicks, Maxwells and Packards. The Depression drove most of the auto dealers out of business and many of the dealerships were demolished, but the Packard Motor Corporation Building at 317 North Broad Street remains. Designed in 1910-11 by industrial architect Albert Kahn, this building is now a residential complex.
The downtown Lincoln Highway route turned west at Penn/Center Square (at City Hall) onto Market Street, where it proceeded towards West Philadelphia. Following today’s U.S. Route 30, the artery went along Lancaster Avenue through the neighborhoods of University City, Powelton Village, Mantua and Overbrook, leaving the city at Lower Merion in Montgomery County. The old Lancaster Pike is a historic section of Lincoln Highway, which continued west through the Main Line suburbs of Philadelphia and the towns of Lancaster, York, Gettysburg, Chambersburg, Pittsburgh, and points west.
Along with the hundreds of other named roads that followed it, the Lincoln Highway inspired the national freeway numbering system, which ultimately made the named highways obsolete. In 1924, the eastern portion of Lincoln Highway in Pennsylvania was designated Pennsylvania Route 1, later becoming U.S. Route 1. The part from Philadelphia to West Virginia was assigned as Route 30 in 1926.
Philadelphia celebrated the Sequi-Centennial at that time, focusing on its role in creating the United States. But it seems that the city’s historic position in uniting the country—via the crossroads that passed through it and the boundaries that it established—had been taken for granted, if not already forgotten.