The Lincoln Highway: At the Intersection of a Leisure Read and a Research Need

Monday, March 20, 2023

For me, the hard part of writing is knowing where to begin, but for eight-year-old Billy Watson, the hard part is knowing where the middle is. Although this character in our recent acquisition, The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles, is halfway through his journey from boy to man, he has already figured out from Professor Abacus Abernathe’s Compendium of Heroes, Adventurers, and Other Intrepid Travelers that every epic tale begins in the middle.

Billy began his story on June 12, 1954—the middle of a month in the middle of the 20th century—in the heart of the continental United States as his eighteen-year-old brother Emmett returned from juvenile detention. With their father deceased and their farm foreclosed, the brothers leave Nebraska to start a new life and possibly reunite with their estranged mother in California. What better path to follow than the nearby Lincoln Highway?

When Emmett loses his 1948 Studebaker Land Cruiser, the adventure fiction quickly veers off course. Likewise, this reader found herself in unfamiliar territory, wrapped in a fog of nostalgia. As a cataloger at Hagley, I understand that our published collections create the context for the records we maintain on business history and that mid-century America is one of our strong suits. What better place to clarify details about the meandering route and menacing rogues of the Lincoln Highway?

The map above comes from a booklet issued by the Lincoln Highway Association in 1913, tracing in red the proposed plan for the first “highway from New York to San Francisco, as direct as practicable considering the limitations by Nature in the topography of the country.” The panel below comes from a 1959 promotional comic that dramatizes danger along the railway while empowering youth to handle it. Whether your curiosity is driven by business or pleasure, we invite you to visit Hagley virtually or in person to explore all sorts of materials that relate to 20th century road travel, such as our Z. Taylor Vinson collection of transportation ephemera, John Margolies collection of travel ephemera, Dallin Aerial Survey Photographs, Du Pont magazine, and Lukens Steel Company newsletters.


Image 1: Lincoln Highway Association. The Lincoln Highway, its ideals, plans and purposes. Detroit, Michigan : The Lincoln Highway Association, 1913.

Image 2: Ernest, Brian. “Car of the Week: 1948 Studebaker Land Cruiser.” Old Cars, April 16, 2015.

Image 3: Special agent : a picture story about the railroad police. (Washington, D.C. : Association of American Railroads, [1958]), 4-5.


Alice Henderson Hanes is the Technical Services Librarian at Hagley Museum and Library.