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Auto Camping and the Lincoln Highway

Download the Auto Camping on the Lincoln Highway brochure

Early Auto Travel

Traveling on a road in Ohio before the advent of paved highways

In the first years of the 20th century, only the very wealthy could afford automobiles and of these select few, only the most daring undertook the long and difficult journey across the country. In 1903, Dr. Horatio Nelson and Sewall Crocker made the first successful transcontinental journey from San Francisco to New York in 63 days and 15 hours. Alice Huyler-Ramsey became the first woman to drive across the country when she made the journey with three female companions in 1909. At this time the 2.5 million miles of road in the United States were mostly dirt, making them bumpy and dusty in dry weather and impassible in wet weather. The poor conditions of the roads were especially demanding on a traveler’s vehicle and frequent breakdowns demanded that these early auto motorists be self-reliant and serve as their own mechanics. Average Americans preferred to make the long-distance trip via railroad, which took less than one week. In comparison, an automobile trip from New York City to San Francisco in 1908 would have taken 60 to 90 days.

Development and Promotion of The Lincoln Highway

Seedling Mile - Malta, Illinois

Carl Fisher, founder of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, developed the idea for a ‘Coast-to-Coast Rock Highway’ in 1912. His plan called for a completely graveled highway running continuously from New York City to San Francisco. Fisher called upon auto manufacturers and accessory companies to donate a portion of their revenues to help cover the $10 million cost of the improved road. Although Henry Ford did not support the highway, other auto giants such as Frank Seiberling of Goodyear and Henry Joy of Packard were heartily behind it. Joy later became the highway’s main spokesman and devised the idea of naming the highway for President Abraham Lincoln and obtaining Congressional funding. The Lincoln Highway Association was formed in 1913 to carry out Fisher’s vision. Making sure to avoid larger cities and scenic attractions, the association mapped out the 3,389-mile route from Times Square in New York City to Lincoln Park in San Francisco. A one-mile stretch of concrete or ‘seedling mile’ was constructed in 1914 along the route near Malta, Illinois to demonstrate the superiority of concrete roads and urge the public to support the movement for better roads.

Proving that even a proper woman could manage the cross-country trip, etiquette expert Emily Post publicized her 1915 journey from New York to San Francisco in her first hand account, By Motor to the Golden Gate. In 1919, 209 men in 76 vehicles embarked on the Army’s First Transcontinental Motor Convoy in order to demonstrate the advantages of improved roads in case of war. The motor convoy was welcomed in Aurora by thousands of onlookers at an elaborate lunchtime reception held by the Aurora Red Cross in McCarty Park. This two month long trip from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco, along with firsthand familiarity with the German Autobahn gained during World War Two, later influenced trip participant Dwight D. Eisenhower to promote the development of the interstate highway system during his presidency in the 1950s.

Aurora Hotel

Road improvements and highly publicized expeditions generated much interest in the Lincoln Highway. By 1919, average Americans felt more confident about taking up the adventure of cross-country motor travel. With the aid of auto club guides and maps, auto travelers found motoring easier and less costly. Even travelers on a shoestring budget loaded their Fords with all manner of camping gear, luggage, children, and pets. By the mid-1920’s, it was estimated that 10 million people had tried auto-camping at least once. This surge in popularity of automobile travel and the Lincoln Highway also helped spark the development of many new hotels along the route. The Aurora Hotel constructed in 1916-17 was as an “example of the excellent accommodations being provided for the comfort of transcontinental and other motorists.”

Camping Along the Route

Auto Tent Campground

For those traveling on a budget or the outdoorsman, the practice of “motor hoboing” provided an appealing alternative to a hotel stay. Often trespassing on farmer’s lands, drinking unsanitary water from streams, and littering the roadside with refuge, these ‘tin can tourists’ were not the type of visitors towns along the route desired. Between 1920-24, municipal organizations established auto camps in order to prevent these motor tourists from “squatting” where they were not wanted. In doing so, opportunistic civic boosters also hoped to establish good reputations for their towns and attract the increasing number of auto travelers to their towns to buy groceries and gas. Over five thousand municipal camps were established by the mid 1920s. Most of the camps were free and provided domestic apparatus such as fireplaces, picnic tables, coin operated gas stoves, electric lights, tent floors, and recreational equipment so tourists could leave more things at home. The Aurora Automobile Club established an auto-camp along the Lincoln Highway around 1923 on the outskirts of town near Phillips Park. The 1924 edition of the Complete Official Road Guide of the Lincoln Highway noted that this new “free camping ground at the City Park” had “2 fireplaces, 2 ovens and a sink” in addition to a “good well of pure drinking water just outside the building.”

Lincoln Highway Shelter - Restored

The added comforts and amenities of municipal camps such as clean showers and privies, graded sites, and safe water attracted more women and families to auto camping. While most men viewed auto-camping as an escape from the demands and pressures of life, women rarely got a vacation from the domestic responsibility of meal preparation. One woman said, “The difference between the men I have camped with and myself has been this; they have called it sport; I have known it was work.” In the 1920s, camping equipment manufacturers marketed big tents and auto beds that could be set up right in the car to the female auto-camper who was described as being afraid of insects, cold, and ground moisture. Some women suspected that despite daring male talk about sleeping under the stars, pitching a tent near an isolated trout stream and cooking over a wood fire, many men secretly welcomed the female presence as a good excuse to get more comfortable facilities than were customary on all-male camping excursions.

Auto Tent Camp

As municipal auto-camps grew in popularity, they became overcrowded and noisy and sponsors had difficulty keeping them maintained. By the mid-1920’s, camps began to impose daily fees to pay for added facilities and screen out any campers who were unlikely to spend dollars at local businesses. Now able to compete for tourist dollars, private cabin camps that provided travelers with all the comforts of home including bedding, electricity, heating, and kitchenettes grew in number. Although the cabins were hardly big enough for a bed, travelers loved them because they still provided the feeling of camping in the outdoors, but provided some privacy and protection from the elements. Motor courts with cabins were arranged in a ‘U’ or ‘L’ shape with a central courtyard to add to the sense of security and coziness. In late 1940’s, the cabins were connected, neon added when possible, and motorists slept in a “miniature, idealized version of home, complete with oil paintings on the wall, a Bible, and hangers in the closet. The motel was born.”

End of the Lincoln Highway?

Burdick Signs Advertisement

In the first decade after the Lincoln Highway was created, the United States went from having only one major named highway to having a confusing, unorganized system of named highways distinguished only by bands painted on telephone poles. To help ease the confusion, a federal highway system based on numbered routes was created and the Lincoln Highway became several numbered roads. In 1928, thousands of boy scouts across the country placed small commemorative concrete markers about every mile along the entire length of the route. The Lincoln Highway Association dissolved in 1935 and when the federal interstate highway system was introduced in the 1950s, the Lincoln Highway was all but forgotten. By the early 1990s, however, interest in the highway was reawakened by many Americans who understood its significance in the American past. The Lincoln Highway Association reorganized in 1992 and is now dedicated to keeping the highway in the public consciousness and preserving the few remaining stretches of the original highway, important landmarks along the route, and the 1928 markers. In 2000, the Illinois portion of the Lincoln Highway was designated a National Scenic Byway by the U.S. Dept. of Transportation, leading many modern-day auto-tourists to rediscover the joy and adventure of traveling off the beaten path.

More Information on the Lincoln Highway and Auto-Camping

  • Warren James Belasco, Americans on the Road: From Autocamp to Motel, 1910-1945 (1979)
  • Drake Hokanson, The Lincoln Highway: Main Street Across America (1999)
  • Daniel L. Lewis and Laurence Goldstein, The Automobile and American Culture (1983)
  • Virginia Scharff, Taking the Wheel: Women and the Coming of the Motor Age (1990)

James Lin’s history on the Lincoln Highway

Illinois Lincoln Highway Coalition
200 South State Street, Belvidere, Illinois 61008
(866) 455-4249

Lincoln Highway Association
P.O. Box 308, Franklin Grove, IL 61031
(815) 456-3030

Illinois Chapter