Iowa’s Lincoln Highway Is Now a National Scenic Byway!

Iowa’s Lincoln Highway Is Now a National Scenic Byway!

The long awaited announcement came the morning of February 16th, 2021 that the Lincoln Highway Heritage Byway has been given the designation of a National Scenic Byway!
This was a long-awaited award and work towards it began in 2016 when working on the Corridor Management Plan (CMP)and talked about even prior to that.

The Lincoln Highway, although the first improved transcontinental road in the nation, is a fairly newer byway in Iowa. The Department of Transportation’s Scenic Byway program is over 20 years old. The Lincoln Highway was nominated by the Iowa Lincoln Highway Association and brought into the fold as a state byway in 2006 (making it 15 years in 2021).

Woodbine’s bricked Lincoln Highway

A byway is made up of 6 intrinsic qualities: archaeological, cultural, historic, natural, recreational, and scenic. The Lincoln Highway Heritage Byway’s main quality is historic and we focus on that aspect in many of our programs and marketing materials. To be a National Scenic Byway one of these qualities needs to be of high value and the route has to already be recognized as a state byway through their DOT.

The Lincoln Highway Heritage Byway Corridor Management Plan (CMP).

As part of Prairie Rivers of Iowa’s agreement with the Iowa DOT to manage this byway, we created a CMP using criteria set out by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). We held community meetings and visited with residents, government officials (local, county, and state) and other organizations to see what amenities existed in each of the intrinsic qualities. Our plan gathered ideas and feelings of the 13 counties and 43 communities our byway ties together as we prepared our to-do lists of projects. One of the topics, and identified as a state-wide project, was for the Lincoln Highway Heritage Byway to apply to be a National Scenic Byway.

There was only one small problem. The National Scenic Byway program was sitting on FHWA’s shelf. It was still a program, but was not active and not being funded. It wasn’t revived until 2020 when the program welcomed new designations (no funding included). The stars had aligned for us- the Scenic Byway program was revived and taking applications, we had a completed our CMP, we also had an Interpretive Master Plan, and we had overwhelming support of our communities to make this application. See the full CMP.

Once the work began in earnest on the multi-page application, we needed to identify 8 important locations that supported our chosen “Historic” quality. It was difficult to narrow the choices down to just 8 and even them out across Iowa to show an accurate impression of the Lincoln Highway route in Iowa.

The locations chosen were:

  • The Sawmill Museum, Clinton
  • Youngville Cafe, rural Benton County
  • Preston’s Station Historic District, Belle Plaine
  • Lincoln Highway Bridge, Tama
  • Reed-Niland Corner, Colo
  • Carroll Railroad Depot, Carroll
  • Brick Street, Woodbine
  • Harrison County Historical Village and Welcome Center, Missouri Valley
Youngville Cafe, rural Benton County, is on the National Register of Historic Places. Built by Joe Young in his pasture for his widowed daughter to operate the gas station, cafe, and cabins. She and her children lived upstairs.

Also included in the application was a route map and a turn-by-turn description of the 460+ mile Iowa Byway route, traveler information about nearby airports and interstates/highways, restroom availability, brochures and marketing materials that are available, etc. It was a very intensive application and took a team to write it and to create the map.

Our application was reviewed and submitted in June 2020 by the Iowa DOT and then the waiting began. FHWA said in late summer 2020 that they had made their recommendations to the Office of Administration and Office of Transportation for them to review and approve the list. Approval finally happened on January 19, 2021 but the announcement not made until February 16th.

We are so excited to embark on this new journey as a National Scenic Byway and the exposure we will receive now on a national level. Even during a pandemic, we have been delighted to see visitors check-in to locations in our new passport program with Travel Iowa. This program rolled out in January 2020 and will run for a year. All eight of the above locations are, or will be, a part of this passport program. It’s another way we encourage people to travel and learn more about this historic road.

We’ll see you on the Byway – now a NATIONAL Scenic Byway!

Corridor Management Plan Update

The Lincoln Highway Heritage Byway is a little over halfway through our 3-year process to create a new Corridor Management Plan for the Byway. The Byway travels through 13 counties and 43 communities in the central part of Iowa. By holding community input meetings in each county, we have included residents in this process. We have asked them to consider the 6 intrinsic qualities that make a Byway: historical, cultural, natural, scenic, recreational, and archaeological. What did they have in their community, what do they currently have in their community and what do they wish to see in their community in relation to these qualities?

Historical is the most prominent quality of the Lincoln Highway. In Iowa, the train came through first and the Lincoln Highway followed the rail line going east and west across the state. They had already found, through trial and tribulations, the driest and flattest areas to lay their tracks and the best places build bridges to cross rivers and streams. Iowa was known for its MUD and the road we take for granted now, did not exist. Road improvements took some time and many conversations were held as to who should maintain and eventually pave main roads. Some felt it was a local responsibility, some felt it was a county’s, and some felt it should be the state’s. Today we see all of these variations depending on what type of road it has become. (Some “loops” of the original route are still gravel!) The Lincoln Highway, itself, is historical, but so are some of the bridges and buildings along the route in the counties the Highway travels through.

Iowans are people from many different cultures. The Meskwaki Nation settled in Iowa after the Louisiana Purchase opened up the territory. Other settlers moved westward and whole towns could be made up of German, Norwegian or Czech immigrants- just to name a few. All along the Byway, each town holds some kind of a summer celebration and offers up their special local foods and shares their customs and uniqueness with visitors.

Some might say Iowa is not that scenic or have many natural features, but just travel the Lincoln Highway and see the changes in the landscape! The Lincoln Highway crosses two major rivers – the Mississippi and Missouri, and other larger rivers- the Cedar, Iowa, Des Moines, and Boyer and  some smaller rivers and streams- the Wapsipinicon, Skunk, North Raccoon, Squaw Creek and Indian Creek, to name a few. Iowa might not have mountains, but the Loess Hills along the Missouri River or the Bohemian Alps, as the locals call them, to the east of Tama, sure show Iowa’s change in elevation. The M and M Divide outside of Carroll has rivers to the east traveling southeast to eventually flow into the the Mississippi and the rivers to the west, traveling southwest flowing into the Missouri River.

Along these rivers, streams, hills, wetlands, prairie potholes, and restored prairies there is a wide variety of recreational opportunities. Visitors and residents can bird watch, canoe, water ski, downhill ski, ice fish, hike, and hunting and fish. There are bike trails, horse trails, off-road vehicle trails, and walking trails.

The State Office of Archaeology has been a great resource for important digs along the Byway. Most sites are kept confidential, but much of Iowa has documented evidence that cultures living here long ago left proof of their existence. As new roads are built and riverbanks are cut away due to flooding and flow of water, new artifacts are bound to be uncovered.

Using all of the information collected in the community meetings and from other sources, we will develop a plan to preserve, restore, and create new opportunities for the communities along the Byway to develop and grow.  At its inception from Times Square to San Francisco, the Lincoln Highway was a way for “common” folks to purchase a car and travel from town to town, county to county, state to state, and see America. The traveler needed to find amenities in each community whether it be a gas station, car repair shop, restaurant, hotel/motel, or campground. This brought economic development to these communities and it was a great honor to be named as a town along the route. Over time, perhaps a newer bridge was built or a road was improved and that caused the route to be moved slightly and those have been developed into “loops”. But for the most part, the route has stayed within the original communities on the proclamation route. How can we measure the impact the Byway has on these 43 communities?

One way is through the Economic Impact study we are conducting as a baseline to determine what impact the Byway has on its Corridor today. Visitor surveys are in 11 locations along the Byway: Sawmill Museum in Clinton, Lincoln Cafe and Wine Bar in Mount Vernon, Belle Plaine Museum in Belle Plaine, King Tower in Tama, John Ernest Vineyard and Winery outside of Tama, Reed- Niland Cafe in Colo, Greene County LHA Museum in Grand Junction, Mahanay Bell Tower in Jefferson, Cronk’s in Denison, Harrison County Welcome Center in Missouri Valley, and the Union Pacific Museum in Council Bluffs. If you are out traveling along the Byway and are 25 miles from your residence, stop into one of these locations and fill out a survey.

The plan is to gather this information and develop it into a working document next year. In the meantime, we welcome comments, concerns, or general stories you might have about the Lincoln Highway Heritage Byway. Comment on this blog or contact Jan Gammon, Lincoln Highway Heritage Byway coordinator, at