If you're looking for a historical pick-me-up, it's hard to beat a two-story coffeepot.
Or so I think as I gaze up at the Coffee Pot, a restored 1927 roadhouse in Bedford, Pa., and one of the most famous landmarks on the Lincoln Highway, the first transcontinental highway in the United States.
Named after President Lincoln and completed in 1925, the road stretched 3,389 miles from New York to San Francisco and set in motion the idea of tourism by automobile. Long eclipsed by other well-known highways, such as Route 66, the Lincoln Highway has gotten more attention lately with the opening of a new museum and the 100th anniversary of the highway's creation coming up next year.
So, always game for a road trip, my boyfriend and I decided to drive part of the Lincoln Highway Heritage Corridor, a 200-mile "museum" along Pennsylvania's portion of the road that boasts 63 ways to catch a driver's eye, from an art deco gas station to kitschy "roadside giants" that once advertised various services on the go, such as the Coffee Pot.
Also admiring the Coffee Pot on this fall afternoon were Fred Craddock and Kim Myers, motorcyclists from nearby Indiana, Pa.
They remember the original Coffee Pot and other highway attractions, such as the S.S. Grandview Point Hotel in Bedford, a steamer-ship-shaped hotel where Craddock's parents honeymooned. The Ship Hotel, as it was nicknamed, fell into disrepair and burned down in 2001.
"These are things that need to be preserved," Craddock said. "This is a bygone era."
Preservation is the goal of the Lincoln Highway Experience, a museum that opened last fall in an 1815 house in Latrobe, Pa. -- on the highway, of course. We stopped in for a tour by Olga Herbert, the 16-year director of the heritage corridor. Still in its early stages, the museum will focus on the highway's heyday between 1912 and 1940 -- a period when cars were getting cheaper and more people were hitting the road, feeding a new market for roadside food, gas and lodging.
She walked us through a black-and-white photography exhibit of Pennsylvania highway landmarks, including the Lincoln Garage -- motto: "Don't cuss, call us" -- and the 25-foot-tall Shoehouse, a former guesthouse in the shape of a shoe that now offers tours. The museum also has a collection of gas pumps, three of which are still functional: a 1907 Bowser, a 1916 Fry Visible and a 1950 Atlantic. Truly works of art, the pumps, with their bold colors and graphic logos, make today's pumps look downright boring. We all got a chuckle out of the Atlantic's going rate: 24 cents a gallon.
Herbert told us that the museum is building an annex, due to open in mid-2014, that will house a restored "Cadillac of diners," where visitors can enjoy pie and coffee; a tourist cabin where weary road-trippers once rested; and the facade of a filling station.
But "I don't want people to come here and think that this is the end-all of their visit," Herbert said. "I want them to be out there driving it."
We took her advice, heading east with a list of must-sees. Though the word "highway" may conjure up congestion and concrete, the Lincoln Highway is mostly rural and scenic.
We quickly ticked off some modern roadside giants, built in 2008 by local students: a 21-foot-high 1940s-era gas pump; a 17-foot-tall bicycle; and a giant U.S. quarter. Also scattered along the roadside museum are highway-inspired murals, often painted on the sides of buildings or barns, and vintage fiberglass gas pumps painted by professional artists. On quiet Stoystown's main street, we took in a double feature -- a brightly colored Pennsylvania-themed pump in front of a mural of an early automobile.
Our next stop was the Lincoln Motor Court, the only one of the heritage corridor's original 12 motor courts still open to the public. In the Lincoln Highway era, these groups of small cottages were popular stopovers for touring families. Owners Debbie and Bob Altizer keep each of their 12 cottages as true to the 1930s as possible, from the light fixtures to the linens.
"If you're interested in nostalgia, stay here," Bob said. "If you want a cookie-cutter hotel, please go to one."
Hungry after a day of driving, we pulled into the Jean Bonnet Tavern. This 18th-century restaurant and B&B in Bedford was once and is still a vital oasis on the Lincoln Highway. After a tasty dinner with a view of the fall-tinted Alleghenies, we turned back onto the modern highway. With new eyes, I noticed exit after exit of the same hotels and restaurants, driving home exactly why the Lincoln Highway is so precious.