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Lincoln Highway's First Paved Mile

In Part 3, author Dan Libman concludes his journey on Lincoln Highway. In March, Libman bicycled across sections of the highway to mark its centenary. Today, he visits Creston and Malta. The latter community is where the first mile of cement was laid, formally establishing America's first cross country highway. Click the Audio Link above to hear the radio version. Here's the final part of Libman's essay:

It’s a short bike ride from Rochelle to Creston, a town of 650 people. Despite its size, the town center has a gourmet butcher shop, a wine bar and a post office — but almost no other commercial businesses. It also has a historic opera house sandwiched between two of the enormous grain elevators. With outsized silos and silver, spidery ducts, these features give the town an otherworldly feel, like an agricultural Emerald City. Sure enough, I find Creston’s commemorative Lincoln Highway mural right on main street: old guys in hats leaning up against a white water fountain.

Heading east now, I didn’t have the trouble Emily Post did when she hand-wrote on her map “bad road if wet.” But I didn’t find it all that comfortable on a bicycle either. I wouldn’t recommend this stretch of Lincoln Highway on a bicycle. The shoulder is either gravel or nonexistent, the trucks and cars go by very quickly. They all seem unaware of the three-foot-berth rule for bicycles in Illinois, and they don’t seem all that much into “sharing the road.” To my left on this very cold afternoon, I started to see the wind turbines just across Interstate 88, the second location on the route where our energy concerns shape the skyline.

And then, just west of Malta, I pedal onto history. Like Richard Burton who led the team that found the source of the Nile River in 1858, on the first day of spring in 2013, March 21, I find the legendary first seedling of the Lincoln Highway: the exact spot where the very first cement mile, on the very first transcontinental highway, was poured.

Because the Lincoln Highway Association didn’t have funds for the whole project, it concentrated instead on these “seedling” miles,  — stretches of road from which the highway itself might grow like the flora it was paving over. Ten feet wide and one mile long, the cement stretch was so successful that people traveled literally for hours, just so they could brag about having driven from one end of the cement mile to the other. I find it an unassuming spot for one with such weighty import. Marked by only a single sign, it’s just directly across from Kishwaukee College’s baseball diamond, with its enormous black netting rising several stories in the air. It isn’t hard to imagine that the foreboding scrim was placed there for the sole purpose of keeping excited hordes of curiosity seekers from rushing out onto the highway to see this concrete Magna Carta, (although its actual use is to keep foul balls from going through windshields).

A few feet away on Malta road, in the parking lot of Kishwaukee College, is the commemorative Gazebo. This one has red-white-and-blue bunting and a large plaque, still readable even though plows had pushed a mound of snow in front of it. This seemed like as good a place as any to end my bicycle journey, right on the spot that birthed the long-distance car ride. But just as I am about to pedal home, I got one more surprise. A crew from IDOT pulled up to drop some gravel into one of the potholes created from the winter’s ice and salt. A nice reminder that, with a little maintenance and care, America’s oldest highway should be around to serve as a viable traffic artery as well as a living  historical artifact for decades to come.

Should you bike the Lincoln Highway? I would not recommend biking from DeKalb to Rochelle as there is no shoulder in many places and the motorized traffic is very fast. However, some parts heading west from Rochelle are quite pleasant — particularly Franklin Grove to Sterling, which features alternate routes through farmland and the long dogleg on Palmyra. It’s fun to look for all the commemorative murals — there are 40 placed across the state as far south as Joliet and as far north as Byron. Should you tire on your bike, you’re never too from a Casey’s, where pizza and coffee are pretty good fuel for the journey.

Dan Libman's series, "Pedaling Lincoln Highway," was produced by WNIJ's Dan Klefstad.

Dan Libman is an author, teacher, correspondent, and adventurous host of the WNIJ podcast Under Rocks.
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