Americans are facing a reduction in available fossil fuels, most notably petroleum, and a need to reduce the usage of those same fossil fuels, thanks to the climate-changing greenhouse gases that are emitted when they are burned. The cost of finding a replacement for fossil fuels will be huge. Fortunately, we have a history of doing big things in big ways.
Imagine for a moment that you were a motorist in the early years of the 20th century. Your Napier, White, Maxwell, Oldsmobile, or Ford automobile sat high above the ground on large wheels that allowed you to traverse the miserable, bumpy, rutted, dirt roads that existed between towns and cities. Although there were already more than 2 million miles of roads in the U.S., they were unmarked and unconnected, being used mostly by farmers who carried their goods to the market. In 1912, any paved road was inside a city limit and only 28 of the 48 state governments had spent money on road construction or maintenance. If you wanted to travel between cities, you took the train.
If the deplorable roads were OK with state governments, they weren't with Carl Fisher. An early motorist, sometimes racing driver, and head of the Prestolite company that made headlight lanterns for vehicles, Fisher had traveled extensively by car in Europe and had come away impressed not only by sophisticated European automobiles, but also the hard-surfaced roads that European motorists enjoyed. By 1912, Fisher and his group of investors had already built the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and had held the first 500-mile race there in 1911. Fisher's experiences and his realization that the American automobile industry was on the brink of an explosion of growth led to his dreams of a transcontinental highway. His position within the industry gave him the credibility so that other industry leaders would listen to his plan. Fisher began a letter-writing campaign, and then formed a group to solicit support for the idea. He had no faith that the government could handle such a project, so he set about to find financing on his own for the highway. In the first 30 days, more than a million dollars of private money had been pledged to build the road across the continent. In 1913, the newly incorporated Lincoln Highway Association held its first official meeting.
The Lincoln Highway Association used the money it raised to survey a route to build so-called "seedling miles," which were mile-long sections of rural paved roads that would demonstrate the concept to a sometimes skeptical public, and to provide materials and know-how to state and local officials so that road construction could begin. The Lincoln Highway Association sparked a demand from the public for all-weather, hard-surface roads, and in 1916 the federal government passed a bill requiring states to establish highway departments and provide matching funds for state highway projects. The Lincoln Highway project got a boost in 1919 when an Army convoy of 79 vehicles crossed the country and proved a need for new and better roads to support military operations. One young officer on the convoy was Dwight D. Eisenhower, who, when he later became the 34th president, signed the Interstate Highway and Defense Highways Act in 1956 that would create America's interstate highway system.
By early 1923, the Lincoln Highway, the unusual combination of private innovation and capital, federal, and state support had created something that 10 years earlier had seemed impossible. Personal automobiles could now travel between towns and cities and an overland migration of labor and talent from east to west made California and the West Coast into the Promised Land for newly mobile Americans. It would take another 15 years before the final section would be paved, and by then the Lincoln Highway name had been replaced with U.S. highway designations, including U.S. 30, U.S. 40, and U.S. 1.