Across the Continent by the Lincoln Highway
Effie Gladding 202 pages 1915
“The Lincoln Highway is already what it is intended to be, a golden road of pleasure and usefulness, fitly dedicated, and destined to inspire a great patriotism and to honour a great patriot.”
One of the big firsts for Donner Summit is the Lincoln Highway, the first transcontinental highway (the others being the first transcontinental railroad, the first transcontinental telephone line, the first transcontinental air route, and the first wagon trains to California with wagons.) We’ve been reviewing books with some focus on Donner Summit in the Heirloom for some years (there are 92 posted book reviews and a number of video reviews as of this writing.) We’ve known that there is not an unlimited number of books even tangentially related to Donner Summit and we are now coming to the end. So imagine our excitement when Effie Gladding’s 1915 book, Across the Continent by the Lincoln Highway, appeared during a search. According to the Lincoln Highway Association, Gladding’s book (available in reprint editions on the internet or in various ebook editions for free) “was the first full-size hardback to discuss transcontinental travel, as well as the first to mention the Lincoln Highway.” The book also has a picture of an automobile on the Lincoln Highway between Big Bend and Cisco. We thought we’ve not run out of Donner Summit related books yet.
Now for the bad news. There is only one spot in the whole transcontinental route where the Lincoln Highway broke into two routes. Donner Summit is one of the routes and then there is the Carson City to Placerville/Sacramento variation. It’s clearly inferior but it’s also the route Effie took. Why there is a picture of Donner Summit on the cover (and another on page 92 of the highway up Donner Pass, who knows). Even though Effie did not go over Donner Summit, she did travel the Lincoln Highway and if you’re interested in early 20th Century automobile travel, keep reading.
We don’t know much about Effie but she must have been adventurous, willing to try new things, and forward thinking. She also must not have had very good taste to avoid the clearly superior Donner Summit route.
Effie had already toured Europe for a year, followed by six months in Australia and New Zealand, and three months in Hawaii before arriving through the Golden Gate. There she and her husband started an exploration of six hundred miles of the El Camino Real and California before heading across the Sierra and across the country. In some ways the book is an exploration for us of life in the early 20th Century. Effie, for example, was quite taken by California cafeterias, “well equipped and perfectly ordered restaurants.” They saw Palo Alto and Stanford University; U.C. Berkeley; the Santa Clara Valley, “…amid its orchards are tasteful houses and bungalows…”; Santa Cruz; Monterey and the 17 Mile Drive (75¢); Carmel, Salinas; and then down the coast staying in little inns.
At Los Olivos “We pass dozens of wagons and buggies, the people all in holiday attire, coming into town for the May-day celebrations. Los Olivos was once an olive growing valley, but grain growing has been found more profitable.”
“It would be hard to exaggerate the charm and beauty of the Ojai Valley for those who like its type of scenery. A magnificent wall of stone mountain, whose colors run into greys, pinks, lavenders, and yellows, forms the eastern boundary of the valley. On its level floor are luxuriant orchards. Here in warm protection grow the fig, the olive, the orange, and the lemon. The beautiful Matilija poppies grow in great luxuriance here, their tall grey-green stalks and white crape petals with golden hearts being very effective.”
There was joy in the trip,
“…the woman waves to me with a big loaf of bread in one hand and her bread knife in the other. I wave with equal heartiness to her. This is part of the charm of the open road, these salutations and this jolly passing exchange of sympathy, not between two ships that pass in the night, but between two parties who enjoy the air and the open, and who are one in gypsy spirit. It all belongs in the happy day.”
Not everything was great though. “Before we reached Saugus we had to ford the Santa Clara River, the bridge being down. We stuck in the soft sand in mid-river and T. [presumably her husband] was obliged to wade through the shallow water to the shore behind us, which happened to be nearest, to go in search of a countryman and horses. In the meantime I took off my boots and stockings and waded across to the far side of the stream… Soon T. appeared with a countryman driving two stout horses. They quickly pulled the car across and their master received a dollar for his services.”
Another time the rain came in torrents near Mariposa and they got stuck, “We found that with no chains and with the machine slipping and sliding on the steep clay road, progress would be impossible. I tried to help the matter by putting freshly cut branches of odorous balsam fir under the wheels to help them grip. I walked behind the machine with a log, throwing it under the wheels as they advanced foot by foot, T. fighting at the steering wheel like the pilot of a drifting ship. But it was impossible to make headway. We met some teamsters who had evidently been taking something hot to counteract the discomfort of their wet exteriors. One said solemnly of the sun when we expressed a wish that it would appear, "Yes, the sun is our father, and our step-father." Then he added, "I'd worship the sun if I were a heathen. I kinder do, now." He went on irrelevantly, "I do think Roosevelt's one of the best men we've got. I do think so. I do so." We were close to a deserted logging camp, which looked doubly melancholy in the falling rain. There was the deserted runway, there were the empty cottages, with broken windows and doors swinging open. Back of the cottages were piles of tin cans. One cottage still bore its old name, ‘Idle Burg.’ All about were blooming columbines and the odorous balsam.”
Once they finished with California and got on the Lincoln Highway Effie felt their great adventure had really begun. “We were driving down an unfrequented hill road, in an attempt to cut across to the main road, marked by white bands on the telephone poles. We suddenly found ourselves hanging high and dry above the ruts of the road. The rain had worn them so deep and the middle of the road had remained so hard and dry, that on the hillside we were literally astride the ridge in the middle of the road. This meant a long journey on foot to a farmhouse to borrow a spade and a pick. It also meant much hacking and digging away at the hard earth under the body of the machine to release the axles and drop the wheels to the road. Finally it was accomplished. We picked up the farmer's children who had come out to see the rescue and drove down the long hill to the farmhouse.” Another time they couldn’t do the extricating themselves and an industrious local helped them for $2.00. There was no AAA.
Reading Effie’s book you do get a sense of California in 1915 “Los Angeles is unique. Where will you find another city like it, so open, so bright, with such handsome apartment houses, designed for light housekeeping, such multitudes of cafeterias? Where will you find such a green square of civic center with people sitting quietly about, enjoying the sunshine, the splashing of the fountain, the tameness of the starlings? These are the happy, not the unhappy, unemployed. They have come from far and near to live simply in light housekeeping apartments, to bask in the sunshine, many of them to enjoy a sunny old age on a modest but comfortable income. The last census, they tell us, shows that 80 per cent of the Los Angeles people are from the State of Iowa. But from all the Middle West they have fled from the cold winters to the warmth of this big city which really seems to be not a city at all, but an immense collection of open parks, bright houses, and handsome streets. Thousands of people are pouring into Los Angeles every year. Great fields around the city have been included within the city limits, fine streets with ornate lamps and copings have been cut through them, handsome stucco and shingle villas have been erected. These are homes of well-to-do people who mean to spend at least part of each year, if not the rest of their lives, in Los Angeles.”
Effie dispenses little bits of advice,
“We had taken luncheon at Acton, a sordid little place with an extremely unattractive wooden hotel, poor and bare. The luncheon, cooked and served by a hard working landlady, had been better than appearances promised. We had had hot beefsteak, a good boiled potato, some crisp lettuce, and fair tea. Western people are addicted to green tea, a great affliction to one accustomed to black tea. Western hotel keepers would do well to use black tea for their tourists, as the use of green tea is, so far as I know, almost unknown in the East.”
And how travel was done sometimes “We found Mr. and Mrs. Dudley of the ranch hospitable and willing to give us bed and board. It is very pleasant for those who are willing to forego luxuries to stop at farm houses and ranch houses, to take the fare and sleep upon the beds given them, and to enjoy the talk of the people and the contact with real ranch life.”
"I must own to having an impression that the trail across Nevada could be marked by whiskey bottles if by no other signs. All along our road across the great State we saw the bottles where they had been thrown in the sand and dust by passers-by."
The quotes above and the sidebars here give you the impression that Effie’s telling is more interesting than it is. Basically the book is a list of places. We don’t know what induced Effie and her husband to undertake the cross country journey. We don’t even know Effie’s husband’s name. We don’t even know she was traveling with her husband (that came from the Lincoln Highway Association’s website). In her introduction Effie says, “What a tour it has been!” There is not much in the book to justify the sentence or the exclamation mark.
Outside Reno, the joy of travel on the Lincoln Highway
"I believe that's N's car!" said T. As we came up to it we saw that the two left wheels were hopelessly down in a deep rut. Mr. N. had stuck his card in the windshield of the car, and had written on it, "Gone for some boards; wait until I come back." Soon we saw him coming across the desert with some loose boards in his arms. We found that the poor fellow had been there from ten o'clock the night before until ten o'clock in the morning, the hour of our passing. He had been bowling along comfortably and somewhat sleepily the previous night, when suddenly his car bumped into a muddy rut from which he found it impossible to extricate the machine. He told us that he had worked frantically and futilely until about midnight. Then he put out his lights, wrapped himself up as best he could, and slept until seven. He said that utter stillness and darkness were about him. "Not even a jack rabbit passed." At seven he again began to struggle with his car. He had the sure hope that we would come along sooner or later. He had calculated that we would arrive about eleven. When we found him he had just gone to a deserted, falling ranch house to find a few boards to be used as levers. He and T., taking our machine, now drove to the ranch house and brought back a goodly supply of boards and some heavier pieces of timber which they had torn from the dropping fences. The boards they put in the rut in front of the wheels in order that they might get a grip when once they started. The heavier timbers they used as levers. And so by dint of hard work and by the help of two young men who passed in their motor half an hour after our arrival, the front wheel was pried out of the sticky mud, and the car was once more gotten on firm ground. It was past one o'clock when we climbed up the bare road to the high town of Austin and went to the International Hotel for our luncheon. What with lack of sleep and his long fast Mr. N. was quite worn out. A good luncheon prepared by a Japanese cook and served by a natty and very debonair Japanese waiter put us all in better trim.
When we left Stockton we felt that the great adventure had really begun. We were now to traverse the Lincoln Highway and were to be guided by the red, white, and blue marks; sometimes painted on telephone poles, sometimes put up by way of advertisement over garage doors or swinging on hotel signboards; sometimes painted on little stakes, like croquet goals, scattered along over the great spaces of the desert. We learned to love the red, white, and blue, and the familiar big L which told us that we were on the right road. Had we taken the Lincoln Highway literally from ocean to ocean, we should have driven direct from San Francisco to Stockton. As it was we saw California first, and came in at Stockton.
Finally there’s advice.
First: We did not wear our good clothes. The long, dusty journeys are very hard upon clothing, and for a lady a comfortable light weight tweed suit with plenty of washable blouses with rolling collars, covered by an ample motor coat, gives the greatest comfort and satisfaction. The dust of the plains is ground into one's clothing and one should be ready for this. The requirements of the hotels along the road are very simple, and a fresh blouse will usually be all that is needed. We took care to use only such dust robes to cover our luggage as could not be injured by the wear and tear of the journey. We did not take with us our best rugs and robes.
Second: We did not travel by night. We found it very delightful to travel in the late afternoon, when the lights were particularly fine, but we avoided as much as possible traveling late into the evening. In this way one does not miss the scenery of the country, and one is not over fatigued. We found that when we were obliged to arrive late at our inn, it was wiser to eat supper at the proper supper hour wherever that might find us.
Third: We did not as a rule travel on Sunday. Partly because we wished to attend church in whatever town we might be, partly because we found ourselves fresher for enjoyment and sight-seeing after the rest and quiet of a day.
Fourth: We resolved at the outset to take the days and the roads as they came; not looking for luxury and well satisfied with simplicity. It is surprising how one is fortified for the vicissitudes of the road by such a deliberate attitude of mind.
The Lincoln Highway is not as yet a road for those motorists who wish only luxurious hotels, frequent stops, and all the cushioned comfort of the much-traveled main roads of the favorite tourist parts of Europe. It is, however, perfectly practicable in its entire length of 3200 miles, and rich in interest and charm for those who care for what it has to give.