By Chris Lewis
These are among the unsung landmarks of the great Lincoln Highway, an artery of travel and symbol of American mobility that stretched from one coast to the other before freeways and highways took on numbers instead of names.
A decade before the federal government got into the highway construction act, the budding automobile industry marshaled its resources in the early 1900s in an effort to pave the first main street through America.
Some historians doubt it was the first cross-country highway. But the efforts of the Lincoln Highway Association made it seem that way.
"They were the ones who advertised, promoted and let people know about the highway more efficiently than some of the others (highway promoters) did," says Lynn Protteau, a highway historian from Sacramento.
By 1915, cars were able to make the 3,300-mile journey from Times Square in New York to the world's fair in San Francisco, following highway markers through a dozen states, negotiating mud in some places, pavement in others.
In California, the route came over the Sierra Nevada into Sacramento. The earliest route went from there into Stockton, Tracy, Livermore and on to Oakland. But in the 1920s, an alternative route jogged from Sacramento to Vallejo and over the Carquinez Bridge, using San Pablo Avenue to get to a ferry shuttle.
The prominent path is, for the most part, long gone -- replaced by numbered highways, including Highway 30 through most of the country, and Highway 50 in the Bay Area (including Interstate 580 later).
"The strands lie loose across the landscape, just under the surface, overlooked by most people and overshadowed by newer lines of travel," says Drake Hokanson in his book, "The Lincoln Highway -- Main Street Across America."
But the people who traveled it fondly recall taking Sunday drives, visiting relatives or traversing the country. Roy Niedt, 75, remembers taking the road all the way from Dublin Canyon Road to Missouri.
"They used to say Dublin had the longest main street in the world because it went all the way to the East Coast. They were referring to the Lincoln Highway," says the longtime Dublin resident.
This Halloween will mark 84 years since the Lincoln Highway officially declared its path across the United States. A San Francisco Examiner article on Oct. 31, 1913, stated:
"The Lincoln Highway, which promises to be a lasting monument to the automobile industry and one of the greatest developments ever made in this country, will be offically dedicated tonight by every city, town and hamlet between New York and San Francisco."
Lincoln Highway Association guidebooks from 1916 and 1926 pointed out the towns where motorists could stop along the way for a rest, a bite to eat, gas and auto repairs.
Coming from Stockton into Tracy, travelers cut across a vast expanse of farmland and small railroad towns, such as Banta, with 143 residents.
The highway was so important to the economy that Tracy shifted its downtown to 11th Street, relocating Tracy High School and building hotels, diners and gas stations along the route, says Tracy High history teacher Alan Hawkins.
"Eleventh Street was quite an active area; there was almost literally a gas station on every corner," Hawkins says.
From there, the road meandered through the chamois-colored hills of the Altamont Pass, through the town of Mountain House and on to Altamont, which remains a virtual ghost town now -- with its Summit Garage standing guard.
Livermore resident Malvern Sweet, born in 1919, remembers how summer vacation travelers crowded the road along with fruit and produce trucks going to canneries in Stockton, making driving conditions nightmarish at times.
"The old Altamont Pass was kind of like Vasco Road is now. It got so terribly crowded," he says.
Flat tires, overheated radiators and broken transmissions were common casualties of the long, winding drive. In Livermore, ailing autos would pull into the Duarte Garage.
Earl Duarte, 80, whose father built the garage in 1915, was born in a "tank house" next to the garage, along the highway. As he got older, he helped his father work on cars.
"The garage was open seven days a week. No one could come from Oakland to here without car trouble," Duarte says. "Cars weren't dependable. In the summertime, with those small tires, they would have blowouts and they'd have to get new tires."
The garage -- which later became the distributor for the Durant and Star automobile lines -- is preserved as the Lincoln Highway Museum, at Portola Avenue and North L Street, in Livermore.
From Livermore, the highway continued into Dublin. It was a narrow path with weedy shoulders, recalls Don McCormick, 67, former president of the Dublin Historical Association.
At the time, there was no asphalt, he says. Trucks with grader blades would turn the dirt, then trucks would spray oil on top of the loose dirt, which would be turned again to create oil sand, and then rolled out flat on the ground. "Which meant during the really hot weather, over 90 degrees, the roads get really soft. Heavy trucks or big cars would leave their tire imprints," he says.
Not all sections of the road were paved this way. Some would be just leveled out dirt or laid with crushed rock -- depending on what resources were available to the local road commissioners.
The road had its share of accidents, particularly along Dublin Canyon where Niedt remembers a 27-car pikeup.
"Water came over the hill and it would form ice. They (drivers) weren't expecting it," he says.
The portion of the old Lincoln Highway that followed a creek through Dublin Canyon has been filled in and topped by Interstate 580.
"The state didn't have a hearing. They just started out, and they could condemn anything they wanted, and they just kept going," Niedt says.
There are plenty of sleuths who get a kick out of tracing the route, using buses, old touring cars or four-wheel drives.
Jay Smart, a Manteca city councilman, says he often takes parts of the old route into work at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory.
He's been tracing the Lincoln Highway through the Livermore and San Joaquin valleys, climbing fences and trudging through fields to find old sections of pavement. When he does, he says just stands there, listening to the roar of the distant freeway.
"Knowing that for thousands of people, this is the way they made their way out West -- there's some pretty profound history that's traveled over the concrete you're standing on. You hate to see that history fade," he says.
Originally published in the Oakland Tribune, Sunday, October 19, 1997. Also published in the Tri-Valley Herald and The Argus. Reproduced with permission.
Last modified on October 7, 1998 by James Lin
Copyright © 1997 by ANG Newspapers