With the exception of two weather-beaten stone signs easily missed by passing motorists, there are few visible reminders of downtown Fort Wayne's importance to America's first transcontinental highway.
But that is about to change - an overdue recognition of the past that could also benefit the city's future.
At least Jan Shupert-Arick thinks so.
“Now you'll be able to drive around Allen County and know where the road was,” said the Fort Wayne resident and author of a new book about “The Lincoln Highway Across Indiana,” referring to Mayor Tom Henry's scheduled May 21 dedication of red- white-and-blue markers along the highway's original 1915 route through the central city. “With its services and great hotels, Fort Wayne was one of the key stops. The highway not only helped the local economy but began to change the culture of looking at the world locally in favor of a broader national view.”
Today's network of high-speed multi-lane interstate highways makes it difficult to imagine the challenges motorists faced in the early 1900s. When an Indianapolis automobile dealer and parts manufacturer named Carl Fisher suggested the need for a transcontinental highway in 1913, according to an official Lincoln Highway guide published in 1924, “ … roads did not connect, petered out in barnyards and disappeared completely on the plains and deserts of the west. It was hard to find a man who knew or cared if there was a road beyond a radius of 20 miles from his home. (There were) no road maps, no road signs, no roads!”
The Lincoln Highway changed all that by linking existing highways and building new ones where none existed. In Allen County, the original route largely paralleled today's U.S. 30 east of New Haven, entered Fort Wayne along Maumee Avenue, swung north on Harrison Street over the St. Marys River, then headed northwest out of town along present-day Goshen Road and U.S. 33.
In the 1940s, I should point out, Fort Wayne voters rejected a chance to have a federally funded superhighway run through downtown - just as Interstate 69 two decades later avoided the central city.
Portions of the original Lincoln Highway in rural Allen County were marked a few years ago, and New Haven plans to erect banners on its portion, Shupert-Arick said. But the route through downtown Fort Wayne - which according to the 1924 guide boasted eight hotels, eight garages, 10 banks, seven railroads, four newspapers, two telephone companies and a local speed limit of 15 mph - has remained largely hidden from public view except for the markers at either end of the rebuilt 1915 Harrison Street Bridge noting the distance to New York (724 miles) and San Francisco (2,660 miles).
The speed limit on rural portions of the highway in Indiana was 25 mph.
But the posting of downtown signs later this month will do more than acknowledge the past. It also represents an economic opportunity, Shupert-Arick said - one that will carry little cost to the city, but great potential benefit.
Shupert-Arick has been active in the Lincoln Highway Association, a 1,500-member group of people whose idea of a good time is to drive what remains of the original road and its later routes, including the late-1920s section between Fort Wayne and Valparaiso that paralleled today's U.S. 30. They and countless others, she said, could be drawn to Fort Wayne and Allen County by the chance to follow what was once America's king of roads.
“Right now, it can be frustrating (to find the old highway) in urban areas. There are dead-ends and other obstacles,” Shupert-Arick said, noting that the soon-to-be posted route won't direct anyone “where it's not safe.”
Greater awareness of Fort Wayne's Lincoln Highway prominence - it was the largest city on the route between Pittsburgh and Chicago - may allow history to repeat itself.
As Shupert-Arick notes in her book, “A good road meant profits for farmers who needed to get goods to market, improved commerce and more tourists.” The old Lincoln Highway may soon bring those tourists again, in the form of people who think driving is an experience to be savored along the way - not an ordeal to be endured while getting from place to place as quickly as possible.
When Henry proclaimed May “Historic Preservation Month,” he said, “We understand that moving forward into our future includes honoring our past, and we know how important it is to the vitality of our city to ensure strong revitalization efforts.”
Fort Wayne has done a pretty miserable job of preserving its architectural history. But roads are not so easily destroyed, allowing our appreciation for America's first superhighway to at long last catch up with its importance.
E-mail Kevin Leininger at email@example.com, or call him at 461-8355.