Setting the XM on our GMC Sierra Denali to Willie's Roadhouse, and after a good night's sleep at the Red Lion Hotel minutes from the Denver International Airport, we pointed our AWD pickup northeast and headed for Central Nebraska. Traversing land that was once home to the Pawnee, Sioux, and Cheyenne, our goal was to follow the old original Lincoln Highway from Gothenburg, Nebraska, in the west to Grand Island in the east.
Now 100 years old and with a centennial celebration planned in Central Nebraska, a below-the-radar but hugely important piece of American automotive history called the Lincoln Highway was in our crosshairs. Forgotten or unheard of by most, the Lincoln Highway was the first coast-to-coast highway (dedicated in 1913) that when completed could take the American family by automobile across America in 10 days from Time Square in New York City to Lincoln Park in San Francisco. The Highway was the idea of a group of auto enthusiasts including Carl Fisher, who was a partner in the building of Indianapolis Speedway and a supplier of headlamps to the auto industry. These forward-thinking promoters recognized that the age of the automobile had arrived and it was time to forge a single route across America. The midway point on the Lincoln Highway was to be in central Nebraska near the town of Kearney, 1700-plus miles west of New York City and a similar amount east of San Francisco.
A marketing ploy called the "Seedling Mile" would promote the Highway. It was an idea the founders hoped would accelerate the completion (the paving or surfacing) of the 3389-mile-long Lincoln Highway. Seedling Miles were stretches of the highway outside of towns and cities across America that would be paved, the idea being that when someone traveling by automobile left the primitive unpaved dirt trail and enjoyed smooth effortless travel on the paved sections (even for just a few hundred feet), they would be inspired and join forces with those who were pushing to get the Lincoln Highway paved.
Two of the total four Seedling Miles across America were completed in Nebraska: One was in Omaha and one in Kearney. Today, remnants of these along with other Lincoln Highway memorabilia can be seen between Gothenburg and Grand Island. Paving the Lincoln Highway would finally be completed in the mid 1930s, and the few sections of the original pavement that remain today are treated as historical landmarks.
One such stretch of paved highway is in Shelton (east of Kearney on Highway 30), which is also where the Lincoln Highway Travel Center is located. Here, the main street remains lined with the original red bricks that were laid 100 years ago. The Travel Center offers a wealth of information about how the Lincoln Highway was planned and built. West of Kearney on Highway 30 is an original Lincoln Highway bridge built in the very early 20th century. It's adorned with red, white, and blue paint to signify its historical importance in America's progress west.
In Gothenburg, you can see a stretch of the original dirt highway. At the railroad depot in Cozad which is now a museum, you can stand in one place and look to the right and the left where within a few feet of each other lies the Pony Express Trail (1860-1861), the Lincoln Highway (1913), and Interstate 80, the first completed highway in the Eisenhower Interstate Highway system completed in the 1950s. This was the brainchild of President Eisenhower when he was a major in the U.S. Army. In 1919, he led a motorized caravan across America (part of it along the Lincoln Highway) as a test to see how responsive the military could be if a national emergency were to take place on the West Coast. The experience of getting bogged down, stuck, continuously needing to be pulled out of mud and muck, and averaging only 5 mph -- in conjunction with his being impressed by the German autobahn when he commanded the Allied Armies in the European Theater during WWII -- made him push for the Interstate Highway System.
Nebraska's rich historical landscape is dotted with the original structures that remain from the days of the Lincoln Highway. They lie juxtaposed along historical landmarks like the original Pony Express Station in Gothenburg when they could deliver a letter between St. Joe, Missouri, and Sacramento, California, in 10 days at the cost of $5 per half an ounce. There are wagon tracks carved into the earth 150 years ago where the California, Oregon, and Mormon Trails ran along both sides of the Platte River. Between 1840 and 1869, these three trails carried a half-million pioneers west and are examples of what makes taking a road trip through central Nebraska (with or without Willy's Roadhouse) such a grand idea. Central Nebraska is an important part of American History.
Kearney is smack dab in the middle of America and at the very center of the Lincoln Highway. Here, you can visit the Classic Car Collection, where 1310 cars are exhibited. This collection represents many of the 2600 different makes of automobiles built over the last 100 years (that doesn't count the models each built). All the vehicles are beautifully restored and housed in 50,000 square feet of museum. You can find the cars from your youth, along with the musclecars that roared through the streets of America during the 1960s and '70s. This collection is superb.
Twice a year along the Platte River, between Kearney and Grand Island, you can find a different kind of autobahn, but this one is for migratory birds andn is one of the top world wildlife migrations that ranks along with the wildebeests on the Serengeti. Each spring and fall, a half million Sand Hill cranes, two million snow geese, and some 350 varieties of birds use the North American Central Flyway as a stopover on their way to Mexico or on their return to the Arctic to places as far away as Siberia. Here, crane-watching is a favorite of the Audubon Society, which hosts guided excursions to watch and photograph these huge birds (wing spans of more than 5 feet) land and take off from their nesting grounds on the sandbars in the Platte River. The Flyway is like a huge funnel, where millions of birds fly through one narrow passageway in a day.
Kearney hosts many excellent eateries, such as Grandpa's Steakhouse, which serves prime Nebraska beef aged for six weeks. You also have the choice of many affordable comfortable accommodations.
There are two historical places that are fun stops in Grand Island, Nebraska, where the fine tradition of Lincoln Highway lives on. One is a roadhouse called Doc & Fritz's Shady Bend Restaurant, which opened in the 1920s and where automobile travelers could stop and spend the night in a camp cabin or pitch a tent and get an excellent meal . The cabins and campground are no long around, but the restaurant remains and is as charming as it was back in the day. The second place is Kensinger Service & Supply, built in 1937. It's a service station that looks as it did when Model As and Chevy roadsters pulled up to the gravity-fill pumps. It's a time capsule where today their state-of-the-art fuel delivery system still pumps gasoline.
South of Grand Island (and worth the short drive) is Red Cloud, the girlhood home of Willa Cather, one of America's premier novelists. This country town that sits just above the Kansas line is one of the best-kept secrets in America's heartland. Here, the Willa Cather Foundation has stopped time in its tracks by preserving the old downtown buildings where the Cather Family lived circa the 1880s and 1890s. In Willa Cather's novels and short stories (such as "My Antonia" and "Oh Pioneer"), the characters she wrote about are based on the people she grew up with and this community where she lived. The Old Opera House, which houses the Foundation now hosts events and performances on the same stage where both Willa Cather and Williams Jennings Bryan addressed audiences 120 years ago.
Grand Island CVB
Lincoln Highway Association
Willa Cather Foundation