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Joy's vision spread from sea to shining sea

March 07, 2004|by JASON STEIN/Wheelbase Communications

The road is broken and dusty, a mere shadow of its former relevance. Travel its original path and in some places you can still see the history.

In a few places, in small towns such as Van Wert, Ohio, or Columbia City, Ind., there are still signposts and markers, reminders erected as monuments by those who still care.

The Lincoln Highway, America's first "transcontinental" highway, once stretched from sea to shining sea. Today, it's in shambles, overgrown by weeds and underused after six-lane highways and passenger planes became the preferred mode of long-distance travel.

Henry B. Joy would've never understood.

"It was the greatest thing I ever did," he said when the six-year project was completed in 1919.

Joy was always one for spotting opportunities. As the president of the Packard Motor Car Company, he was a mover and shaker in the early 1900s. In fact, it was Joy's desire to get America moving that ultimately saw Packard's involvement in the highway project.


Not only did the company donate $150,000 - the equivalent of about $3 million today - but many of the highway's key officers and support staff came from the auto company. Why would Henry Bourne Joy, a rising auto executive care about developing a "coast-to-coast rock highway from New York to San Francisco," as he once said? It was in his genes and in his heart.

His father, James, a prominent lawyer from Michigan and president of several railroads, was always one for expanding methods of travel. Long before the advent of the automobile, he had hired a young lawyer from Illinois, Abe Lincoln (president from 1861-'65), to do his legal work and help expand the rail industry.

Henry perpetuated his father's work ethic and business sense: highways were just a new kind of railroad for the 20th century.

Joy gathered a group of investors and bought Packard in 1901, moving the company to Detroit, Mich. from Warren, Ohio.

An avid outdoorsman and a brilliant businessman, Joy succeeded Packard founder James Ward Packard as president from 1906-16 and, during that time, was responsible for one of the company's most rapid eras of growth. Packard was one of America's first luxury brands.

Joy created some of the industry's first endurance tests and then personally put his cars through their paces to make sure they were up to scratch. He was revolutionizing the auto industry, one mile at a time, while helping build the idea for a highway that spanned the country.

Joy realized the auto industry couldn't alone finance construction of the 3,389-mile road, so he sought public support and money. All total, about $1 million was raised to begin the project. When the Lincoln Highway Association was announced on Sept. 14, 1913 (the federal government stepped in three years later with funding), it electrified the nation. Great celebrations took place, including parades with hundreds of automobiles, fireworks and speeches. The first shovel went into the ground about a year later.

Joy was responsible for planning the route all the while making Packard a player. And why not. The only thing better than overseeing the highway project was building a car that could actually drive it.

His vehicles were earning the reputation as high-quality vehicles for the well-heeled, a reputation that was backed up when a 1903 Model F was driven to New York from San Francisco in just 61 days. Keep in mind that there was no direct route and most of the roads were dirt cow paths and former stage-coach trails.

On another test some years later, Joy set out with two colleagues headed to San Francisco from Detroit along the proposed route of the Lincoln Highway. The trio encountered 12 consecutive days of rain that turned dry ruts into hub-deep holes. Three-fourths of the distance was made in low gear, often at a rate of just 35-70 miles a day.

Back in the factory, Joy was implementing other amazing innovations such as automatic spark advance, the "H" gearshift pattern and a foot-pedal accelerator.

By 1910, Packard was acknowledged to be one of the finest automobile brands in the world. Joy would help Packard grow by developing a V12 engine, referred to as the Twin Six, a wildly popular engine that pushed Packard's production over 100,000 units by 1916.

But that would be Joy's last stand. That same year he abruptly resigned when the Packard board of directors failed to endorse his carefully constructed merger with Charles W. Nash, a builder of mid-priced cars.

Packard would halt production during World War I and then suffer a slowdown following the stock-market crash of 1929. During World War II, Packard switched to manufacturing marine and aircraft engines. After the war, it was back to car production and then a merger with Studebaker in 1956 before the company ran out of road.

As for Joy, he eventually built his road (essentially a connected series of upgraded existing roads) but it, too would decline. His legacy, however, would be everlasting thanks to a cross-country trip in 1913. Joy stopped to set up camp in Wyoming and discovered a spot on the Continental Divide Road where you could see for 20 miles in all directions.

Joy asked that he be buried there one day.

In 1936, when Joy died, his wife and daughter erected a memorial on the spot for all his efforts.

The monument was later moved to Sherman Hill, the highest point on the Lincoln Highway, alongside a statue of one other famous person.

It's doubtful that Abe Lincoln would have have complained.

Jason Stein is a feature writer and the editor of Wheelbase Communications' RaceWEEK racing page. He can be reached at

© 2004, Wheelbase Communications

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