IN SEARCH OF...
THE SEPTEMBER 1913 LINCOLN HIGHWAY IN OHIO
Galion to Lima
In September 1928, the Lincoln Highway Association completed their marking of the final version of the route across Ohio, setting a total of 241 concrete posts along 242 miles of brick, concrete, macadam, stone, and earth. This final route was remarkably different than the original route proclaimed fifteen years earlier—not just in the improvement of its surfaces, but also in its orientation. Considering the original routes through Ashland, Galion, Marion, Kenton, and Lima—plus other variations in the years between 1913 and 1928—at least another 242 bypassed miles of Lincoln Highway alignments can be included as part of Ohio's transportation history. Thus, for every mile of 1928 alignment that was marked in Ohio, there was one mile of pre-1928 alignment that was bypassed.
This newly-prepared "Map of Proclaimed Route of Lincoln Highway/September 1913" is drawn in the classic style of the early strip maps of the Automobile Club of Southern California. Images with blue borders are expandable.
Most of those bypassed miles have been charted in the research project entitled A History and Road Guide of the Lincoln Highway in Ohio, which was first published by this author ten years ago. However, sixty of those bypassed miles were part of a short-lived segment of the transcontinental route which passed through Marion and Kenton for just three weeks in September 1913. Given that this part of the highway apparently existed only on paper, and was likely never marked with any Lincoln Highway signs, the road guide author never saw the need to chart that particular alignment.
Recent events, though, require a change of thought. Successful promotions by the Ohio Lincoln Highway Heritage Corridor have inspired folks in Kenton and Hardin County to rediscover their highway heritage in refreshing new ways. For example, the idea of the Lincoln Highway Buy-Way Yard Sale came from Charles Brunkhart of Forest, a Hardin County town which hosted the route for six years after the Kenton alignment was erased. Also of significance is the fact that the National Park Service, in their recent study of Lincoln Highway "special resources," has inventoried several sites along this first route.
Thus, the time has come for this author to explore the originally proclaimed 1913 route of the Lincoln Highway—a route which came to be known as the Marion Way, then the Harding Highway, U.S. 30-South, and now State Route 309.
According to Rand McNally's Official 1926 Auto Road Map of Ohio, the signs for the Harding Highway featured a black sylized Roman letter H within a black circle, all on a white diamond.
Let us begin our journey in Galion, which in 1913 was the first major city west of Mansfield. Galion held its location on the Lincoln Highway until 1921, when the route between Mansfield and Bucyrus was revised to pass through Crestline and Leesville. Galion—along with Marion, Kenton, and Lima—was a key commercial point on Main Market Route No. 3, which connected these and other western locations with county seats in the eastern half of the state. When Lincoln Highway fathers proclaimed the route in September 1913, the market route provided a ready-made link in the chain that was the transcontinental highway, and thus would have seemed a justifiable choice.
Dedicated in 1900, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974, the Big Four Depot in Galion is the point of beginning for this tour.
However, at the end of that same month, Henry Joy made a significant revision. For whatever reason, sixty miles of the market route were abandoned in favor of a path which was supposedly shorter, bearing westerly from Galion to Bucyrus before continuing on to Upper Sandusky and Lima. Actually, Joy had made the path to Lima longer by three miles, with a series of tedious right angle turns and dangerous railroad grade crossings being the rule, and not the exception, west of Bucyrus. This author remains steadfast in his belief that politics—not mileage—provided the impetus for the sudden change. These matters, which included key players such as Lincoln Highway Consul John Hopley (from Bucyrus) and Governor Frank Willis (from Ada), are discussed in detail in a Spring 1997 article in The Lincoln Highway Forum, entitled "Before the Route Was Straight: Ohio's Zigzag Route."
A good place to zero the trip meter in Galion is at the Big Four Depot, the impressive facility at the first railroad crossing east of the "Historic Uptowne," or three blocks east of the town square. The depot was dedicated in 1900, and served as the division headquarters for the Cleveland, Chicago, Cincinnati, and St. Louis Railroad, commonly known as the Big Four. Look for the C.C.C.&St.L. letters cut in the west face of the building. Also take time to read the Ohio Historical Society marker on the site, which was placed as part of the same Ohio Bicentennial Commission program that awarded the Ohio Lincoln Highway League their marker at Upper Sandusky.
From this point, bear west through town on Harding Way. The city's main east-west street was originally platted as Main Street, but the city fathers changed the name to Lincoln Way at the coming of the transcontinental highway. The name change to Harding Way was probably made some time after the route was realigned through Crestline in 1921, or perhaps shortly after the death of President Warren G. Harding in 1923. As our journey continues west, the significance of the Harding name will be easily understood.
A concrete post replica was placed at the southwest corner of the town square in September 2004. Although the nearest concrete post erected in 1928 would have been just up the road in Leesville, this replica is a splendid reminder to the community of their Lincoln Highway heritage. The newly renovated Lincoln Way Professional Building, on the northwest corner of the square, reinforces that same idea.
This concrete post replica on Harding Way is a reminder of Galion's place on the Lincoln Highway from 1913 to 1921.
Just west of the square is the restored Galion Theater—with its fine marquee—which now hosts events such as the recent landmark meeting of the Ohio Lincoln Highway Heritage Corridor. This gathering, which included the dedication of the nearby replica post, introduced many new businesses and visitors bureaus from across the state to the potential of the highway as a linear tourist destination.
At the one mile mark, turn left on Portland Way—which traces the Portland (now Sandusky) and Columbus State Road from pioneer days—also following the signs for State Route 309. This numerical designation will be followed all the way to Lima, except for those places where the author has charted some interesting remnants of the September 1913 alignment.
The relative quality of this route—in comparison to the later routes of the Lincoln Highway—is borne out by the fact that this alignment became the original path of U.S. 30 when the federal system of highways was first designated in 1926. However, politics came into play again, and in 1931, this segment became 30-South, and the traditional Lincoln Highway route was labeled 30-North. By 1973, the 30-North corridor had been improved with the construction of several intermittent bypasses and four-lane sections, and had once and for all surpassed the southern route as the route of choice for through traffic. It was then that the "cumbersome compromise" of north and south numbers was finally dropped in favor of the simpler U.S. Route 30 and State Route 309 numbering, respectively.
At 2.0 miles, State Route 309 crosses two sets of railroad tracks. Although both tracks are now the property of CSX Transportation (by way of Conrail), these tracks were previously the competing lines of the Big Four and the Erie Railroad. The railroads ran side-by-side for all of the twenty miles between Galion and Marion, making plausible here the legendary stories of one engineer racing the opposing train from one city to the other.
At 4.6 miles, State Route 309 begins a sweeping curve to the right on a new alignment opened in about 1970. The previous version of State Route 309, and the alignment used in 1913, is now obliterated by a modernized State Route 61 for the short distance to its junction with State Route 288. At the southwest corner of this four way stop, an old road remnant survives through the trees, along with an old bridge. The structure is solid enough to walk on, but most of the bridge rails have disappeared, and the few pieces which do remain have rusty rods exposed in crumbling concrete. With the vegetation heavy, highway archaeologists will find this a challenging photo subject. To return to State Route 309, follow a modernized version of State Route 288 a short distance to its western terminus, and then turn left.
At 6.3 miles, State Route 309 passes through the unincorporated town of Iberia. This was once the home of Ohio Central College, where at age fourteen, Warren G. Harding began his secondary schooling. He was considered a popular student—editing the yearbook, playing a horn, and entering speaking contests. Harding graduated in 1892, just a short time before the academy burned to the ground. Had it not been for Harding's time there, the school would likely be forgotten—after the fire, it was never rebuilt.
At 9.0 miles, turn right to follow one mile of an old road alignment that is now designated Marion Galion Road. Half a mile beyond the turn are the remains of an ancient railroad viaduct that was indicated on a 1915 map drawn by Marion interests to promote their route. One of the selling points of the Marion Way was that it had five less grade crossings than the competing Lincoln Highway route, which was derided as "a narrow, crooked lane...through swampland."
On the old Marion‑Galion Road near Iberia are the abutment walls of an old railroad viaduct under which the original Lincoln Highway route would have passed.
The viaduct was the property of Toledo and Ohio Central Railroad, one of the weak sisters in the New York Central system of lines that also included the more prominent Big Four. It was therefore one of the first lines to have its tracks pulled up when the railroad industry was in a major decline. Interestingly, Warren G. Harding worked on a crew that laid the first tracks down. The narrow opening and hazardous dip at the viaduct eventually proved insufficient for the increasing traffic on U.S. 30 South, and a new grade separation was built just south of here on the present alignment of State Route 309. Continue west for another half mile and rejoin State Route 309 after turning right.
At 12.5 miles, watch for a tall communications tower on the right side of the road, and again leave the state highway by turning right. Because this old road remnant is in Morrow County and not Marion County, it carries a designation inconsistent with other similar remnants—Canaan Township Road 39. Follow this road through some tight curves into the picturesque village of Caledonia, where the road becomes Marion Street, and find a place to park your car in the surprisingly spacious town square. Each quadrant of the square has a point of interest, with plenty of photo opportunities for those with various highway interests. The impressive town hall and a modest business block are on the northeast quadrant, a war memorial and historical marker are on the northwest quadrant, and an old canopy gas station survives as an insurance office on the southwest quadrant. I missed it on my trip here, but Mike Hocker of Galion tells me that there is a fine local meat market on the southeast quadrant. In the excitement of my day-long journey, I had skipped lunch, and could have enjoyed at least a stick of good beef jerky while I was stopped.
An old canopy gas station on the photogenic town square in Caledonia is now home to an insurance business.
One thing that I did not miss during my short visit to Caledonia was the earthshaking arrival of a fast freight train immediately north of the square. As I exited my vehicle and planted my foot on the ground—just in time to hear and feel the approaching train—I was reminded of a similar event during my first visit to western Nebraska. The surreal experience was complete when I looked up to see two freshly painted Union Pacific engines leading a long consist of container cars, blasting through the shockingly gateless crossing (flashers only) at 60 miles per hour. Although most engines passing through here would be in the livery of CSX, it is not unusual for contemporary railroads to do a run through with foreign engines from the West.
Just one block south of the square, on the northwest corner of Main Street and South Street, is the boyhood home of Warren G. Harding. The adjacent historical marker explains that it was in a Caledonia printing shop owned by his father that Harding "learned the fundamentals of the printing trade which inspired his interest in a journalism career." Warren also participated in the town band, playing the alto horn—an instrument he continued to play in future years in Marion.
The boyhood home of Warren G. Harding is on Main Street, one block south of the town square, in Caledonia.
Given the several possible diversions in Caledonia, it would be wise to return to the town square long enough to reset your trip meter to zero. Then go south on Main Street four blocks past the Harding home before turning right onto a curving portion of State Route 309. When it was still U.S. 30 South, a two lane bypass was built around Caledonia in the 1950s. A very short old road remnant, now designated Section Line Road, is colinear with the east west portion of the improved highway.
At 2.7 miles, veer right from the state highway onto another road remnant designated as Marion Galion Road. Just before reaching the railroad, veer left and follow one mile of narrow unpainted pavement that parallels the tracks. According to the Claridon Prairie historical marker near the west end of the road, the grassland between the pavement and the railroad "is one of the few surviving remnants of the once extensive prairies that were part of pioneer Marion County." The strip was "preserved by chance when the railway and road were constructed side by side" and "contains more than 75 species of significant prairie grasses and flowers." The sunny afternoon of my visit was certainly made brighter by walking among the orange day lilies that were out in full force.
After passing the historical marker, turn left at the stop sign onto State Route 98, then right at the traffic signal to resume west on State Route 309. The immense former site of the Marion Engineer Depot stretches for two miles along the south side of the highway. According to yet another historical marker, during World War II "food, munitions, equipment, and other military supplies flowed in and out of MED and heavy machinery was renovated." Government operations were discontinued in 1961, and after languishing for years with either occasional users or no users at all, the site was renovated in 2003 to serve in its present role as a distribution, storage, and manufacturing complex.
For now, you may ignore your trip meter and simply continue west into Marion. State Route 309 serves as more of a back door to the city than it does a front door. Most of the city's strip malls and hamburger joints are on State Route 95, just one interchange south on U.S. Route 23, but the splendid new Harding High School is along this stretch. Within the city limits, the route will also be signed as Center Street. Westbound tourists following the original 1913 route will be able to stay on Center Street all the way through the city—including about one mile that is one way westbound. Eastbound travelers have to follow Church Street (one way the other way) to make their way through town. Both streets are wide and well maintained, and the newly attractive downtown seems very much in contrast to the Rust Belt image often attached to once major industrial cities such as Marion and Lima.
Upon your arrival in Marion, the hour long tour of the restored Harding Home at 380 Mount Vernon Street is strongly recommended (visit www.ohiohistory.org for hours and other information). It was here that Harding conducted his famous "front porch" campaign, which played a great part in his unprecedented landslide victory in the 1920 election. Ironically, two former newspapermen from Ohio ran for the presidency that year—Harding, who had purchased the Marion Star after honing his skills in Caledonia; and Governor James M. Cox, who had ties to a major newspaper in Dayton. Harding—now an Ohio senator—was popular with the press, and had the foresight to build a Sears catalog home at the back of his neighbor's property. From there, correspondents would regularly prepare their news stories during the spirited campaign. The press house is now operated by the Ohio Historical Society as a visitors center for the Harding Home.
Unfortunately, the presidency of Warren G. Harding is now recalled mostly for its scandals and corruption. The twenty-ninth president was spared most of the pain of those revelations, dying on August 2, 1923 while on a speaking tour in California. Doctors originally cited food poisoning or apoplexy as probable causes of death, but modern medicine strongly supports that his death was the result of a heart attack—something that was little understood in that day. Harding died a popular president and was mourned deeply, and the tomb on the south side of Marion (along State Route 423) is one of the most impressive memorials anywhere outside of Washington, D.C. The circular monument of white Georgia marble, with simple Doric features and spacious grounds, combine to make it another worthwhile diversion while in Marion.
A side trip to the impressive Harding Memorial is a worthwhile diversion on State Route 423 south of downtown Marion.
To resume your tour of the originally proclaimed 1913 route, find your way to the Marion County Courthouse at the northeast corner of Center Street and Main Street, and again reset your trip meter to zero. The centerpiece of downtown Marion, the courthouse was completed in 1886 "for the good of the public," or pro bono publico as inscribed above the impressive south entrance. Over the years, the exterior has been cleaned and left intact, in conjunction with downtown improvement efforts. Unfortunately, extensive alterations have mutilated the interior—with losses including an original staircase, ornate woodwork, a large courtroom, and decorative murals.
The Marion County Courthouse, restored only on the outside, is the centerpiece of downtown improvements in Marion.
From the courthouse, go west on Center Street, passing the fabulous neon sign of the Palace Theater after just a few blocks. At 0.6 miles are the two busy railroad crossings of Norfolk Southern and CSX Transporation, respectively. Tucked neatly between the tracks is the restored Marion Union Station, which was built to serve the four railroads that originally passed through the city. Another set of tracks—a later generation of the parallel lines that previously passed through Galion and Caledonia—is at the north side of the station.
A caboose and crossing tower at a restored Union Station are reminders of a rich Erie Railroad history in Marion.
If you are a rail fan, a stop at the station is a must. A handy book by the publishers of Trains Magazine lists five "hot spots" in Ohio for watching trains, and this is one of them. During my short visit, I met several men from Ontario who were on their way to a large model railroad show in Cincinnati. Each one of them had a camera strapped around his neck, mostly shooting pictures from ground level, but sometimes climbing the old Erie crossing tower (just above a restored Erie Lackawanna caboose) for a better vantage point. Marion is steeped in Erie Railroad history, with the remains of a large yard and shops just west of here.
Marion is also renowned for its history in the manufacture of heavy equipment such as the steam shovel. Just west of the railroad crossings is an interesting memorial, plus a historical marker which states that at its peak in the middle of the twentieth century, the adjacent Marion Power Shovel plant employed about 2500 workers. Later in the century, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) selected the company "to build the crawlers that transport spacecraft to their launch pads." Ironically, the operation was purchased by a Bucyrus company, then closed. Marion had previously lost out to interests in Bucyrus when the Lincoln Highway was relocated in 1913.
At 0.8 miles, angle right and follow State Route 309 out of town. More railroad tracks will be crossed, and much of the old Erie complex—now occupied by CSX—will be visible at your left. five miles ahead, the route passes through the unincorporated crossroads town of Big Island, which serves as a community center for Big Island township. The interesting name is attributed to early pioneers who found a prominent island like grove of trees in the middle of the then wet prairie.
At 8.7 miles, a repainted Mail Pouch barn is partially visible above the crops growing at left. Then at 9.3 and 9.9 miles, curve improvements have rendered short sections of bypassed roadways which remain as access roads. These are both typical of highway improvements that commenced in 1930s, when the speeds of cars and trucks significantly increased. Smooth curves were built to replace sharp curves, and superelevation became more of a factor in holding vehicles to those curves.
At the second curve, take note of the white-on-brown signs pointing to the Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area. I have never visited this site, so I went online to learn more about it—and it seems to be a good choice for a future adventure. Operated by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, the area covers over 8,600 acres—just a fraction of the 30,000 acres that comprised the original prairie. The site is "situated in a natural basin of flat, poorly drained soils formerly covered by prairie sloughs," with large marshes, a greentree reservoir (that's a new term to me), an upground reservoir, and 125 ponds of various sizes. Crops and meadows are managed for nesting and migrating waterfowl, and plantings provide permanent cover for upland wildlife.
This author has heard it said that before the pioneers starting clearing trees from the Ohio lands, a squirrel could cross the state without touching the ground. Considering the several prairies already encountered on this brief tour, and with more still to come, it is a good bet that there wasn't much pioneer squirrel traffic in the northwest part of the state. In some cases, the prairies and swamps were so expansive that several adjacent sections of land could not be monumented by the original government surveyors.
A half mile west of the directional signs for Killdeer Plains, slow down as you approach another unincorporated crossroads town. This is Meeker, which shows up as Cochrantown P.O. and Scott Town in the old county atlas. At 10.5 miles, angle left onto the town's modest Main Street, which features an old canopy gas station (now a popular tavern), a row of strikingly similar light colored houses, and a well-kept church property. For some reason, the NPS study did not inventory the old gas station in Meeker. I have a feeling that they mistakenly buzzed through town on the numbered road, not realizing that the 1913 route had a short diversion here. The same thing could probably be said for the several noteworthy sites back in photogenic Caledonia—none of which were listed in the inventory.