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Rolling Clouds and Fog at Start of Lincoln Highway
[Small Town America] Lincoln Highway Part 1, August 18, 2009
Email Article  Print Article David McLane (davemclane)    
This article is first in a series of reports that documents life in small towns along four major highways in the United States during these hard times. It is NOT a survey but an attempt to come a fuller understanding of the land and the people that are typically under-represented by mainstream media.  <Editor's Note>
When we crossed over San Francisco Bay on the San Mateo - Hayward Bridge, the fog was so heavy we couldn't see the other side. The fog turned to low clouds and drizzle as we made our way to the north-east corner of Lincoln Park in San Francisco. It was still early, around 8 a.m. and the only people around were a few early morning bicycle riders and somebody mowing the grass in front of the Legion of Honor. There was supposed to be a view of the Golden Gate Bridge but all we could see was rolling clouds and fog. The lack of people made it easy to set up the van and trailer with the camera across the street and shoot a picture of myself and Sueko holding our 18-year-old Osaka alley cat, May-chan.

Dave, Sueko, May-chan, west-end Lincoln Highway, San Francisco
©2009 D. McLane

The maps we purchased from the California Chapter of the Lincoln Highway Association said there was a western terminus marker located at the south-east corner of the Legion of Honor Plaza, a replica which had been placed there during the 10th annual convention in 2002 but I couldn't find it. I had just about given up and was wandering around the east side of the fountain when I saw it hiding behind a bus that was waiting for passengers.

West-end marker, Lincoln Highway, San Francisco
©2009 D. McLane

There were supposed to be two more markers on one of the three routes we could go through San Francisco proper but we chose the straightest and easiest way to navigate the city traffic which was beginning to build up and crossed over the San Francisco - Oakland Bay Bridge to Interstate-80.

We went north on I-80 and connected with San Pablo Avenue which took us around San Pablo Bay to the Carquinez Strait Bridge across the Carquinez Strait which connects San Pablo Bay to Suisun Bay. There are actually two bridges: the first was opened to traffic in 1927, two new bridges were added on either side of the original bridge in 1958 and the original retired from active service in 2006 and subsequently removed.

Carquinez Strait Bridge across San Pablo and Suisun Bays
©2009 D. McLane

Crossing the Carquinez Strait, put us in Vallejo which was very different than the towns we had come through. All along San Pablo Avenue in Oakland, Berkeley and El Cerrito were what looked like -- mostly Hispanic -- day laborers waiting to be picked up in front of run-down stores multi-ethnic names. Richmond and San Pablo were a bit more upscale and Pinole even more so with its restored heritage buildings. But then came Rodeo where we wound in and around oil refineries belching smoke and smelling bad.

General Mairano Guadalupe Vallejo founded the city in 1851 and donated land from his Mexican Land Grant and offered to build a capital at his expense and although it never got build, Vallejo was the capitol of California between 1851 to 1853. The city of Vallejo continued to grow along with Mare Island, the first U.S. Navy ship yard on the west coast, founded by Commodore David Farragut in 1854 and was incorporated as a city in 1867.

There was supposed to be a Lincoln Highway marker in the Vallejo Naval and Historical Museum, so called because the city of Vallejo and the Navy had grown up together. The building was built in 1927, is the old City Hall and on the National Register of Historic Places.

Janet was in charge of the museum and said that, yes, they had a marker but she wasn't quite sure where it was and for us to have a look around and if we didn't see it to come back and she'd check with the warehouse to see if it was there.

We had a look, no marker.

Paul Goodrum dusts Lincoln Highway Marker
©2009 D. McLane
Janet took us to the warehouse/workshop and introduced us to Paul Goodrum who said, "Sure, it's right under the workbench over here," and hauled out a full-length marker including the long shaft that went into the ground. All it needed was a bit of dusting.

Paul said that often times, things of historical interest get thrown away as the city renovates itself. There used to be quite a few markers but they were taken down and buried. However, some kind person saved one and brought it to the museum. It's been sitting there under the workbench when he started volunteering at the museum during high school and has been there ever since.

His saddest story was how he came across a whole row of Russian signal cannons which had been converted to decorative fence posts with chains welded from on to the other. For shame!

Before we left, Sueko asked Janet about the multi-ethnic character of the area we had come through on our way to Vallejo and whether this was an example of "majority minority" -- a term used to describe an area whose racial composition is less than 50 percent white. Janet said that, while this may be, the real problem was drugs, and it didn't matter which people used them.

The next marker was easy to find, as it was in front of the Solano County Courthouse in Fairfield, California.

Lincoln Highway Marker, Courthouse, Fairfield, Calif.
©2009 D. McLane

As you can see, the copper in the bronze medallion has discolored the concrete which indicates it's much older than the one in front of the Legion of Honor.

There were many styles of markers as they were made and installed by various groups in each of the thirteen states the highway goes through. In this one, the colors have been added to the concrete while those like the one at the Legion of Honor have been painted on.

The next markers were a bit more difficult to find as they weren't right on a main road, and we began spending a lot of time just finding the original route. Since traveling the highway itself wasn't our main goal as we were only using it as a way to travel through a slice of America, we began looking for reasonably easy ways to find markers.

Left to right, Markers at Vacaville, Sacramento, Placerville
©2009 D. McLane

There were supposed to be two markers in Vacaville, one at either end of a bridge, but all we could find was one. There was a park on the far side of the bridge and I looked over there as well but, again, no marker. Oh well, one was better than none.

The absolute hardest to find was the one that was supposed to be in a bike park at the end of West Capitol Avenue in Sacramento. From the map it looked like you would get there by exiting Interstate-80, turning left and then curving right to get on West Capitol, which we did, but we didn't see anything that looked like a bike park. We gave up and back to get on I-80 and saw the bike park off to the side of the curve! Still no marker but we parked and walked into the park and around some trees and there it was. At last.

There are two major alignments of the Lincoln Highway east of Sacramento. Both go to Nevada, one to the north of Lake Tahoe via the Donner Pass and one to the south of Lake Tahoe via Echo Summit. We chose the southern route as it seemed simpler.

The third marker we found was embedded in the front wall of the Tortilla Flat restaurant in Placerville. Not particularly difficult to find but hard to get a reasonable photo as the wall faces north, it was late in the afternoon, and the main street is narrow and filled with parked cars so the marker is in deep shadow. I gave up and we found a place to camp for the night and came back for another try.

The light was better the next morning but I couldn't get both the marker itself and the shiny stainless steel plaque above it which said "Masonry by Elderict and Sons, May 1980, Camino, CA, 644-2667." The plaque was acting like a mirror and reflecting the buildings across the street which were in full sunlight. Sueko and I stood close together to block the reflections and I took a shot of just the plaque and edited it onto the photo of the marker.

The side of Tortilla Flat looked interesting visually even though there weren't any real shadows due to its position as there were some painted into the scene.

Tortilla Flats Restaurant, Placerville, Calif
©2009 D. McLane

Down the street was the Placerville Historical Museum in the Fountain and Tallman Soda Works Building on the same side of the street so it was also in shade. The person in charge was Marilyn Ferguson who knew a lot about the history of the town and its current politics.

Marilyn said the building was constructed in 1852 and is one of the oldest buildings in Placerville. Soda water was bottled using a carbonation machine -- on display -- and sold to miners as ordinary water was polluted due to the mining.

When we asked about signs along the way referring to "Hangtown", Marilyn said Placerville began at the start of the California Gold Rush in 1848 when it wasn't still part of Mexico, wasn't a territory, wasn't a state, and wasn't a military base. Each had its own idea of what applied and originally Placerville was called Hangtown due to all the hangings that took place according to local law.

Marilyn said it was a "Paint Your Wagon" kind of place, presumably alluding to the 1969 movie where a crusty old miner is conducting a make-shift funeral for a friend and his 16-year-old daughter discovers gold dust. The miner claims the land and prospects start flocking to the brand new town. In any case, the name was changed to the more friendly "Placerville" -- a particular type of mining used in the area -- when it was incorporated in 1854.

As for the Lincoln Highway marker at Tortilla Flat, Marilyn said it, along with others, was pulled out and dumped in a pit during a street and sidewalk project and somebody rescued one before they were buried.

When we asked about the recession, Marilyn said that while the older part of town with its 19th century buildings was doing OK, if we looked at the newer section we'd see a lot of empty store fronts. And both the county and state have been laying off middle workers so some people were having a hard time.

If you know anything about Placerville, you're probably wondering why we've considered a small town as its population is over 9,000. While that's true, it's the only place along the Lincoln Highway that even looked like a small town and we were about to go over the Echo Summit into Nevada.

Such is life, you try and do the best you can under the circumstances.

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