A pioneering path
At the south approach of the Harrison Street Bridge is an embedded plaque with these words, “Lincoln Highway Bridge New York 724 Miles – San Francisco 2,660 miles.” Directly across Harrison Street, on the north end another panel gives the names of the Indiana Allen County Commissioners and the date, 1915.
Jan Shupert-Arick, in her book “The Lincoln Highway Across Indiana,” has more than 180 illustrations and features the Harrison Street Bridge. It is described as a concrete structure built at a cost of $200,000 before it opened in 1916. “A photograph of the bridge was printed in the Lincoln Highway guide as an example of how bridges could be designed to beautify communities and enhance the travelers’ experience,” she noted.
From north of the city traveling south on Harrison Street, the Lincoln Highway traveler crossed the Saint Mary’s River. Continuing toward downtown, and now a portion of the Heritage Trail, it is still possible to experience revisiting one of America’s grand transportation achievements.
Fort Wayne has had a long and rich heritage when it comes to providing paths for the movement of people. Because of a continental uplift known as the Saint Lawrence Divide and ancient glacier action, river ways flow in all four directions of the compass. The Miami people understood the significance, and Chief Little Turtle described the place in 1795 as, “that glorious gate through which all the good words of our chiefs had to pass from the north to the south and from the east to the west.”
George Washington saw the advantages of cutting a canal across that glorious gate known as the Maumee-Wabash Portage. It was the only land barrier interrupting an all-water way connection between Lake Erie with the Wabash-Ohio-Mississippi valley system. Fort Wayne, the highest point along the line, was dubbed the “Summit” for the construction of the longest canal in the western hemisphere. Later railroads mimicked the canal route, and it seems fitting that the first cross continental highway would find its way through Allen County.
It was Indiana businessman Carl Fisher who envisioned America’s first coast-to-coast motor highway in 1913. Fisher, of Indianapolis, and his friend James Allison caught the attention of the automakers to help finance a passable coast-to-coast roadway. In September 1914, they announced the creation of the Lincoln Highway with a route winding from Times Square to San Francisco. Fort Wayne was a point along the way, and the Harrison Street, Lincoln Highway Bridge was constructed to accommodate the new automobile route.
The original 1915 Lincoln Highway entered Indiana from Ohio at Allen County. It passed through the communities of Zulu, Townley, Besancon, New Haven and Fort Wayne. From Fort Wayne, the Lincoln Highway headed toward Goshen, and in 1926 became U.S. 33. Known as the “1915 Route,” it passed through Churubusco through South Bend and on to Valparaiso. In 1926, in an effort to shorten the distance, a new course was laid out passing through Columbia City, Warsaw, Bourbon, Plymouth and reconnecting to the older route at Valparaiso.
After the 1915 opening, the U.S. Army conducted a 3,239 mile transcontinental convoy over the Lincoln Highway in 1919 from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco. The story has been told of 28-year-old Lt. Col. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who experienced the excursion and understood its military importance and economic value. It became the impetus for the Interstate system he later inaugurated as president of the United States.