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Book traces highway history
By Greg Houghton   - 04/07/2008

Joliet Herald News

History books note the role of automobile titans such as Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone in transforming our culture early in the 20th century. Thanks to them, Americans today barely think twice about driving 60 miles for a restaurant dinner or 120 miles for a round of golf.

Without question, the auto builders did much to create what we call the American way of life, or at least that part of it founded on unlimited ease of travel.

Yet there is another group deserving recognition, the people who built our first paved roads. If not for their work, the early automobile might have sunk, literally, into a quagmire of muddy roadways intended for horse and buggy. Lincoln Highway and roads like it made the automobile practical and desirable.

Author Cynthia L. Ogorek's book "The Lincoln Highway Around Chicago" puts a well-deserved spotlight on this road and the people who built and used it in the Southland.

Lincoln Highway, a route first designated in 1913, had the bold objective of linking New York City with San Francisco via a paved surface suitable for horseless carriages. The highway largely met its goal by the mid-1920s.

As the book illustrates, Lincoln Highway in the Chicago region was a critical link in the national plan.
Moreover, it was the nation's first urban bypass. Even before World War I, planners saw Chicago as a traffic bottleneck to be avoided in favor of a straight-line route from Dyer, Ind. to Joliet, then north to Geneva.

In each village, from Chicago Heights to Frankfort to Plainfield and hamlets in between, a private-public consortium called the Lincoln Highway Commission gave local boosters the curious title of "consul" and encouraged them to complete sections of the roadway in their neighborhoods.

The commission in its heyday had 262 consuls scattered across 13 states. Lincoln Highway system took shape like a beehive or ant colony, with hundreds of small road-building projects adding up to a massive finished product.
Two of the local consuls, Ralph McEldowney and Benjamin Vennatta, of Chicago Heights, arise as unsung heroes for their roles in implementing the construction of pavement, culverts and bridges for the road.

Ogorek's book, one of Arcadia Publishing's "Images of America" series, mainly is a pictorial work based on carefully researched vintage photos. The book clearly shows the birth of motor-driven American life, with photos of mom-and-pop sandwich stands set up along the roadside. Early drivers on Lincoln Highway could pull their car to the shoulder and spread out a picnic -- a quaint idea.

Decades later, our interstate highways, fast-food restaurants and megamalls dominate the landscape. Wherever our car-centric culture is headed, "The Lincoln Highway Around Chicago" puts a magnifying glass on where it began. Ogorek, a resident of Calumet City, makes this story interesting and highly local.





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