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First Trans-U.S. Highway Ran Through El Cerrito

Rich Bartke, president of the El Cerrito Historical Society, tells the story of the Lincoln Highway, America's first transcontinental roadway, whose entire length was driven by Bartke's father in a Model T.

First Trans-U.S. Highway Ran Through El Cerrito First Trans-U.S. Highway Ran Through El Cerrito First Trans-U.S. Highway Ran Through El Cerrito First Trans-U.S. Highway Ran Through El Cerrito First Trans-U.S. Highway Ran Through El Cerrito First Trans-U.S. Highway Ran Through El Cerrito

Love it or hate it, San Pablo Avenue is the main artery for our community.  The Avenue starts in downtown Oakland and traverses the eight cities of Emeryville, Berkeley, Albany, El Cerrito, Richmond, San Pablo, Pinole and Hercules, and the unincorporated towns of Rodeo and Crockett with a couple of now-gone towns in between. 

When was the roadway started?  The complete history will have to wait for another day.  But according to Edward Staniford, author of  El Cerrito Historical Evolution, it was originally “El Camino Real” (meaning a main road) and then “San Pablo Road” going from Oakland to Martinez via “San Pablo town.” Victor Castro (first non-Native American settler in what is now El Cerrito) built his El Cerrito adobe ranch house on this road in the early 1840s, while Francisco Castro's adobe was on this road in San Pablo in 1823.  So the route is old, and historic.

In the mid-1890s when the Rust and Stege areas (which later became El Cerrito) began to blossom, San Pablo Avenue was the major thoroughfare in the northern East Bay, and commercial activity was conducted along its length.

With the advent of automobiles in the early years of the twentieth century, more and better roads were wanted.  By 1912, some drivers began talking about a transcontinental roadway.  Their voices quickly began to pay off.

The Lincoln Highway Association was founded in Detroit on July 1, 1913 with this objective:

“To procure the establishment of a continuous improved highway from the Atlantic to the Pacific, open to lawful traffic of all description, without toll charges, and to be a lasting memorial to Abraham Lincoln.”

The Lincoln Highway, the first transcontinental highway in the United States, ran from coast to coast.  It started in Times Square in New York City and ended in Lincoln Park, San Francisco.

The first route was announced on September 14, 1913.  It went through twelve (later thirteen) states, and was 3,389 miles long.  Work continued for several years with frequent realignments to shorten the route.

The first concrete mile was laid in September 1914 just west of Malta, Illinois.  The Portland Cement Company donated concrete in many places to encourage construction.

The entire highway was traversed from East to West by a convoy of Army trucks between July and September 1919. The last portion of the highway to be paved west of the Rockies was over Donner Pass in 1927.   

The original route in the West ran from Sacramento through Stockton and the Altamont Pass to San Francisco.  With completion of the Carquinez Bridge in 1927, the Highway was re-routed from Sacramento through Davis, Dixon, Vacaville and Fairfield to Vallejo.  It then ran down San Pablo Avenue, through El Cerrito, to the Berkeley Pier ferry landing.

In 1928 the Highway was marked coast to coast by concrete posts set by the Boy Scouts.  Each post featured a Lincoln medallion and a directional arrow.  The posts are almost all gone, but replicas are being installed.  (Our Society President attended a replacement a few years ago at the Big Bend Ranger station in the Sierra, just off I-80.)

By the end of 1928 the naming of highways was phasing out and a numbering system was begun.  Much of the Lincoln Highway was later designated U.S. 40, including San Pablo Avenue in El Cerrito.  The completion of Interstate 80 later supplanted that designation, and currently San Pablo Avenue from Cerrito Creek to Cutting Boulevard is State Route 123.

In 1935 the Lincoln Highway Association dissolved. Its work was done. The Association was re-established in October 1992 and is now active in preserving the history of the Lincoln Highway.

The Historical Society is considering the purchase of two or four of the nationally recognized signs that will identify San Pablo Avenue as a portion of The Lincoln Highway.  We would ask for the City’s consent, and perhaps that of CalTrans, before such signs are posted.

(Facts cited above are from the Lincoln Highway Association, Franklin Grove, Il., and from R. Tribbett of the Dixon, California, Chapter.) 

This article by Rich Bartke, president of the El Cerrito Historical Society, appeared earlier in a different version in the December 2011 issue of the Historical Society publication, The Forge. Bartke’s father, as a teen-ager, bought a 1920 or ’21 Model T Ford, upgraded it, and drove the entire Lincoln Highway from New York to Berkeley in 1926 when he was 21. The two accompanying historic photos are from that trip.

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