One hundred years ago, the fastest way across the country was by train, and roads were only a way of traveling locally. The Lincoln Highway changed that when it was completed in 1913, becoming the first transcontinental road stretching from Times Square in New York City to San Francisco, California. Today, the route is celebrating its 110th anniversary of leading travelers off the major highways to appreciate the nation’s charming small towns and stunning rural landscapes. Take a tour of Iowa’s portion of the Lincoln Highway with these 16 must-stop attractions.
1. The Lyons-Fulton Bridge, Clinton
Start your journey by crossing into Iowa on the Lyons-Fulton Bridge, which was once one of the highway’s most stunning bridges. Opened in July of 1891, the original bridge connected the cities of Lyons, Iowa (which merged with Clinton) and Fulton, Illinois. Back then, it was the only way to cross that section of the Mississippi and therefore the main reason the Lincoln Highway was routed there.
2. Lincoln Park, De Witt
This park in De Witt marks the historic crossing of two original transnational highways, the Lincoln Highway and the Blues Highway (Hwy. 61). The notable crossing is marked at an intersection next to Lincoln Park, which features a crossroads emblem on the road and placard in the park. Today, the park includes modern amenities such as picnic shelters, playground equipment and public restrooms, making for a perfect stopping point on your journey west.
3. Abandoned Section of Highway, Calamus
Between Calamus and Clarence, you can quite literally get off the beaten path and experience an abandoned section of the Lincoln Highway. This specific stretch was removed from the route in 1956 when a new two-land road was built. Though the original road is not drive-able, it makes for a peaceful place to take a stroll.
4. Historic Lincoln Hotel B&B, Lowden
Take a break from your travels with an overnight stay at the Historic Lincoln Hotel B&B, which marks the crossroads of the Lincoln Highway with the Hoover Highway. Built in 1915 then renovated in 1996, the hotel has since been placed on the National Register of Historic Places and won the residential Preservation At Its Best Award from the Iowa Historic Preservation Alliance. Today, the Lowden hotel offers four modern suites along with a small-town setting and beautiful rural scenery.
5. Union Pacific Bridge, Mount Vernon
Built in 1910, this historic bridge in Mount Vernon has been restored to its original pony truss structure. Located on 10th Avenue SW between Prairie Park and Van Metre Field, you can drive a short stretch of the road’s original brick path up to the bridge, then walk across it to enjoy the views and historic structure.
6. First Paved Section of the Lincoln Highway
The first major metropolitan area on the route features Iowa’s first paved mile of the Lincoln Highway called the “Seedling Mile.” Located halfway between Marion and Mount Vernon on what is now Mount Vernon Road, a mile-long stretch was paved in 1918-19 as a demonstration for the benefits of concrete roadways and road travel before the entire highway was paved by 1931. Though the original concrete Seedling Mile was paved over in 2002 as part of a reconstruction project, a memorial plaque maintains the Seedling Mile’s legacy. Though the Lincoln Highway used to route through Marion, which was then the Linn County seat, the current route takes travelers directly from Mount Vernon to Cedar Rapids.
7. The Youngville Café, Watkins
Built in the 1930s as a one-stop filling station/eatery, Youngville Café was started by a father and his widowed daughter in response to the heavily traveled highway and operated until 1967. Located on the corner of Highways 30 and 218 in Watkins, the café once served all traveler needs from providing hearty meals, stocking general grocery items, housing slot machines and offering cabins for overnight stays. Though the cabins and other items are long gone, Youngville’s family-friendly atmosphere and meals remain. After going through a restoration project, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Today, the café offers a unique seasonal attraction from June – September, during which they serve lunch on Tuesdays and Thursdays and host weekly farmers’ markets.
8. Lincoln Café, Belle Plaine
If you love soup of chili, then the Lincoln Café is a must stop along old Lincoln Highway. Opened in 1928, the Belle Plaine café has since gone through several owners and renovations to today offer a small-town dining experience paired with modern seating and great service. They serve breakfast all day along with an impressive lunch and dinner menu, though their homemade soups continue to be the most popular.
Belle Plaine is also home more historic sites, including the Belle Plain Museum, the Herring Hotel and King Theatre.
9. Watson’s Grocery Store Museum, State Center
Built in 1895 and in business until 1989, Watson’s Grocery Store has remained virtually unchanged and has since become a recognized landmark and museum. Step inside to see stocked oak shelves, roll-top bins and ice boxes. Sturdy benches and chairs still await farmers who once stopped there to trade fresh produce for grocery items. This State Center museum is open Memorial Day through Labor Day on weekends from 1 – 4 p.m.
10. Reed/Niland Corner, Colo
Another one-stop shop along the Lincoln Highway, the Reed/Niland Corner was run by two local Colo families to provide gas, food and lodging to travelers on Lincoln and Jefferson Highways. Today, visitors can still enjoy a hearty meal from Niland’s Café or enjoy a night in a room at the Colo Hotel, both owned by a local family who are passionate about preserving the community’s history. The café and surrounding areas also include original Lincoln and Jefferson Highways markers.
11. Ames History Museum
As you wander through Ames, be sure to stop by the Ames History Museum, which shares area history including historic photos of the Lincoln Highway and important figures from the community. You can also stretch your legs with a visit to the collection of Iowa State University Museums, such as Reiman Gardens and the Brunnier Art Museum. Or stroll through Iowa State’s campus and visit the Durham Center to learn about the creation, history and development of the first electronic digital computer.
12. Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad
Get off the roads and enjoy the sights from the Lincoln Highway's predecessor, railroads! This railway started in 1893 and has since been reclaimed as the Boone and Scenic Valley Railroad to offer visitors a variety of rail adventures. Hop aboard the train for a 15-mile trip through the Des Moines River Valley and over the stunning Bass Point Creek High Trestle Bridge. Or pay a visit to the site’s new addition, the Rail Explorers, which takes you along the same route, but on a rail bike.
13. Mahanay Bell Tower, Jefferson
After enjoying views from bridges and railroads, it only makes sense to add a bird’s eye option to the list. Stop by the Mahanay Bell Tower in Jefferson to take in the sights and unique sounds. Located on the town square, the 14-story carillon features an enclosed observation deck where visitors can admire the community and its collection of rooftop murals. The tower’s 47 bells chime throughout the year and carillon concerts are performed by local musicians, so you’re sure to catch some tunes on your visit. The tower is open daily from Memorial Day through September and weekends in May and October.
14. Chicago at Northwestern Railroad Depot & Park, Carroll
Dive into railroad history at Carroll’s historic train depot. Built in 1896 and used for passenger service until 1959, the depot has since been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Today, the building and its exterior grounds are open for self-guided tours to learn more about railroad and community history.
15. Longest Intact Brick Portion of the Lincoln Highway, Woodbine
Experience true 1900s views along Woodbine’s portion of the Lincoln Highway. Recognized as the longest intact portion of the route left, the tree-lined route features picturesque homes and restored canopy gas stations. Choose one to stop at for a lunch or a snack along with local history and Lincoln Highway memorabilia. Other area historic sites include the Woodbine Carnegie Public Library, Merry Brook Rural School Museum and the Harrison County Genealogy Office.
16. Harrison County Historical Village and Welcome Center, Missouri Valley
This self-touted Lincoln Highway/Loess Hills interpretive center offers Lincoln Highway exhibits, a Welcome Center and Farmers’ Market throughout its five-building complex in Missouri Valley. Outside, you can find a Lincoln Highway marker in its original location, then grab a seat in the theatre for a media presentation to learn all about the infamous route.