A 1.5-mile stretch of U.S. Hwy. 30 between Dyer and Schererville, known as the Ideal Section of the Lincoln Highway, was at one time the prototype for a new type of highway system: One with a 100-foot right-of-way, 40-foot paved width, 10-inch steel-reinforced concrete, underground drainage, lighting, landscaped bridge, and pedestrian pathways.
In all, it was the harbinger of what roads would look like in the future because what existed before then was less than ideal.
Bruce Butgereit, a historian and former board member for the Indiana Lincoln Highway Association, says that of the 2.2 million miles of rural roads in America then, only 2.5% were considered improved.
“At the time, improved meant using materials like gravel, stone, sand-clay, brick, shells or oiled earth,” he says.
Carl G. Fisher, one of the major investors in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and manufacturer of the Prest-O-Lite carbide gas-headlights then found on most automobiles (replacing what were basically lanterns), believed if cars were the future of America then Americans needed good roads to drive on.
His idea was to create a transcontinental highway connecting Times Square in New York City to Lincoln Park in San Francisco, a route traversing 13 states, 128 counties and more than 700 villages, towns and cities. And because Fisher was a great marketer and Abraham Lincoln was his hero, he proposed calling it the Lincoln Highway.
Fisher and his supporters didn’t dream of just any old road. They wanted an ideal highway, which gave rise to the 1.5 miles between Calumet Avenue and Janice Lane developed in 1923.
It was made of concrete and “had sidewalks, lights, curbs, bridges and culverts," says George Rogge of Gary's Miller Beach area, a former director of the Indiana Lincoln Highway Association.
According to Butgereit, a roadside park area and campground also was commissioned for the Ideal Road. Edsel Ford, scion of the car company, offered Jens Jensen, famed landscape architect who helped in the preservation of the Indiana Dunes ecosystem, the then tidy sum of $25,000 for the design.
“Back then, most people just paid a farmer to park in their field and slept in their car,” says Rogge.
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According to Butgereit, the Ideal Road, the most technologically advanced road at the time, was designed to last about 20 years.
“It lasted much longer than that,” he says.
Because the cost of Jensen's plan grew to $75,000, the park was dropped. A monument dedicated to the Lincoln Highway and to Henry C. Ostermann, an early proponent of the Lincoln Highway, rose in its place. Ostermann was killed in a car accident while driving on it late one night in Tama, Iowa.
Kathy Powers, curator of the Dyer Historical Society Museum, says that when her son John was working on his Eagle Scout project, one of the things the troop did was to clean the monument.
“John is 51 and he was in middle school at the time,” she says. “They pulled a lot of weeds.”
Keeping up the monument continues. Several years ago, the Gibson Woods Chapter of the Wild Ones, an organization that promotes environmentally sound landscaping practices, did plantings the way that would have met with approval from Jensen.
“He only used native plants in his design,” says Pat Rosenwinkle, president of the Gibson Woods Wild Ones, noting the group had to submit its landscaping plan to the Indiana Department of Transportation for approval. Their plantings include Rattlesnake Master, purple coneflowers, wood sedge, wood oats, wild quinine, short aster, Jacob's ladder, arrowwood shrub, witch hazel, ninebark and spice bush.
“Some plants aren't up yet, and some we may have to replace,” says Rosenwinkle.
“My wife, Marcia, and I have volunteered to cover the monuments in the fall, to keep salt and snow off the tablets during the winter and then to remove the coverings in the spring and at that time, we assess the area and the condition of the stonework, etc.,” says Butgereit.
“it is a large piece of Northwest Indiana’s history,” says Rogge.