Historic Iowa highways getting more attention

(Radio Iowa) – Two of Iowa’s oldest highways are enjoying more attention as groups work to preserve their past history. The 100-year-old Lincoln Highway was the nation’s first coast-to-coast roadway. The Lincoln in Iowa extends from Clinton to Missouri Valley, passing through 40 communities in-between — much of it is today’s Highway 30. Highway historian Lyell Henry used to hitchhike on the Lincoln Highway.

“Prior to the Lincoln Highway there were no highways of any significance. Most paved surfaces were in the cities, and beyond the cities you had mud,” Henry explains. Four-lane interstates have replace the Lincoln as the main route for many travelers, but the old highway remains.

“It’s now listed as a county road, yet there it is. It’s the same road bed as it was a hundred years ago,” Henry says. The Lincoln Highway is a tourist destination now, a Heritage Byway that may lure some R-Vs and camper trailers off the interstates to explore the auto trails of an earlier time.

Along quiet stretch of old Highway 30 in Colo, just east of Ames, the town has preserved an original café, gas station and motel. It is one of the best, authentic all-in-one stops along the entire length of the Lincoln Highway. During junior high school, Scott Berka used to pump gas, change tires and sell Greyhound tickets when the state was also bus stop.

Today, the antique filling station offers nostalgia instead of gas. “We washed the windshield, and checked the oil, and put air in the tires if people wanted. We got prices down to around 22-cents a gallon once upon a time,” Berka reminisces. Two companion landmarks Niland’s Café and the Colo Motel have been restored and are running.

Historian Henry says the revival of the Lincoln Highway has enthusiasts setting their sights on revitalizing another forgotten roadway — the north-south Jefferson Highway. “It’s a surprise to people to know that there was a Jefferson Highway and that they were on the Jefferson Highway. It just hasn’t been in the consciousness of people as the Lincoln, but still, there are people we have found who increasingly say ‘yea, I’d like to do something about the Jefferson Highway.’,” according to Henry.

The Jefferson connects Winnipeg to New Orleans, running parallel to Interstate-35, tracking through Iowa along highways 65 and 69. Publisher Edwin T. Meredith was a key promoter. It was coined the “Pine to Palm” highway, or “The Vacation Route of America.” Supporters have already started to paint utility poles along the Jefferson Highway with the old J-H stencil.

Scott Berka, the former gas station attendant, is treasurer of the Jefferson Highway Association which re-formed two years ago. He says a byways designation would raise awareness further. “I think the byways signage is definitely in the Jefferson Highway’s future,” He says. “I know it’s going to be a while, but the Jefferson folks are working toward that, so I look for that to happen. I’m not sure how soon that’s going to happen, that’s why poles are being painted because that’s something that can be done today.”

The Lincoln became an Iowa Heritage Byway seven year ago, and now has thousand signs showing the way across the state. John Mazzello is with the non-profit group Prairie Rivers of Iowa, which manages the Lincoln Byway. “I think that a partnership between the Lincoln and Jefferson Highways would be a great asset for both of us. The roads –just like 100 years ago — still serve to connect ideas and people and places,” Mazzello says.

“And so, by demonstrating what are those things that are engaging and what are those places that are exciting, that’s the way to build interest in the roadway.” The Lincoln has always been more prominent, with heavier traffic and design upgrades. At the end of June, a caravan of classic cars will head to the centennial celebration on the Lincoln Highway in Nebraska.

The Jefferson Highway turns 100, in two years.