Lincoln Highway 1928 markers dwindle as newer signs highlight historic route
Every two years, Lincoln Highway Heritage Corridor Executive Director Olga Herbert loads a rented U-Haul truck with silkscreened signs and wooden posts, and heads out with a few volunteers to maintain or replace signs along a six-county, 200-mile section of the historic route that have become worn, damaged or gone missing.
The oblong signs feature red and blue bands and a central “L,” beneath a portrait of Abraham Lincoln, and are meant to suggest the similarly styled cement markers that were placed along the Lincoln Highway in 1928. In 2001, with the help of a federal grant, the heritage organization began installing 175 of the signs, which carry on the same function as the older markers. They serve as guideposts for motorists who want to explore America’s first trans-continental roadway, connecting New York City and San Francisco.
“We put them on the original alignment of the Lincoln Highway,” Herbert said of the signs. “Just by having those signs out there, it raises awareness. There are people who live on the Lincoln Highway who don’t know any of the significance of the highway.”
In much of Pennsylvania, the Lincoln Highway follows Route 30, but there are sections where the original and modern roads diverge. Just west of Ligonier, in the vicinity of the Gray Goose Lakeside Restaurant, Herbert noted, the historic highway alignment can be seen to the right of the westbound lanes of Route 30. “Right along the lake, that’s the Lincoln Highway,” she said.
Individuals and groups, like the Norwin Historical Society, have adopted many of the heritage corridor’s modern signs and help keep each intact through a biennial contribution of $50.
“We’re ordering new signs all the time,” Herbert said, noting vehicle collisions take out some of them. “Sometimes a sign is moved because PennDOT is making a change in the road,” she added.
Interest has grown in recent years in also preserving the 1928 markers, which feature blue-tinted arrows that pointed drivers in the correct direction to continue on the Lincoln route. But there aren’t too many of those original markers remaining at the spots where they were placed 90 years ago — about one every mile — by the Lincoln Highway Association, a group that promoted use of the route.
The markers were an improvement over less uniformly placed Lincoln Highway logos on telephone poles and barns.
About a decade ago, Herbert and her family salvaged a cement marker that municipal workers were removing from along Arnold Palmer Drive, near Route 981 in Unity. The damaged, 6-foot-tall marker, which was waist-high when sunk in the ground, is displayed in the heritage corridor’s Lincoln Highway Experience museum along the eastbound lanes of Route 30, just before Route 217.
When Herbert and her husband went to retrieve the heavy marker, which is reinforced with steel rebar, she recalled, “We couldn’t budge it. We had to wait until our two sons came home from college.”
Brian A. Butko, director of publications at the Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh and author of several books about the Lincoln Highway, noted there were only 23 of the cement markers remaining close to their original locations in 1996, when he published his “Pennsylvania Traveler’s Guide to the Lincoln Highway.”
Just two can be found in Westmoreland County — outside the Ligonier Town Hall and along Arnold Palmer Drive west of Youngstown. The sole original marker in Allegheny County, according to Butko, stands at Ardmore and Yost boulevards in Forest Hills.
“There are still a lot of locals and street departments who have no idea of (the markers’) significance,” he said. “Unfortunately, those markers are often destroyed or end up on eBay.”
Many markers, including the one on view at the Lincoln Highway Experience, are missing the bronze medallion at the top that depicted the 16th U.S. president.
Pennsylvania’s chapter of a new version of the Lincoln Highway Association has made an effort in the past few years to ensure remaining cement markers aren’t forgotten.
Jeff Stonesifer of Gettysburg, director of the state chapter, has been hands-on in placing election-style signs next to the cement markers to point out their significance to the uninitiated and to solicit interest in the chapter and its goal of celebrating the historic Lincoln Highway route.
“I like to try to keep the history in view,” Stonesifer said. “It’s just a fun hobby.”
In the case of the cement marker near Youngstown and another farther east in Stoystown, Somerset County, Stonesifer said, “They were on private property and the landowners didn’t know what they were.”
But, he said, the owners allowed the association to install the adjacent new signs and agreed to mow around them.
“It’s heartwarming to see so many people taking care of their local markers, especially since about 95 percent of the originals are now gone,” said Butko, who was a founding director of the new Lincoln Highway Association before shifting his focus to publications.
“Reproduction markers may outnumber the originals by now,” he noted.
Stonesifer’s chapter placed one of its signs next to a reproduction marker at the parking lot of Barnhart Funeral Home, along East Pittsburgh Street in Greensburg.
The recreated marker stands across the street from where the original once stood, according to funeral director Mark Barnhart. He noted late Greensburg resident Wilbur “Wib” Albright, a local history and Lincoln Highway buff, was the driving force behind that effort, along with his wife, Margaret.
“He installed it and he set up a dedication ceremony that we had,” in October 1997, Barnhart noted. “Every once in a while someone will pull in the parking lot who is traveling the Lincoln Highway.”
Barnhart, who is a member of the Lincoln Highway Association, took the group’s sign inside for the winter after somebody moved it. He plans to display it once more when mild weather returns.
“Raising awareness is the best method for saving the original (Lincoln Highway) roadway and the old buildings and businesses along it,” Butko said. “The costs of preservation may seem daunting, but there is far more value in saving cultural artifacts, both from a business standpoint and for quality of life.
“Tourists, both local and from around the world, visit an area to see and experience its history, not to see the same chain stores they can find at home.”
Jeff Himler is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jeff at 724-836-6622, [email protected] or via Twitter @jhimler_news.