In 1912, the Nation's highways were just emerging from the "Dark Ages" of road building in the second half of the 19th Century. Railroads dominated interstate transportation of people and goods. Roads were primarily of local interest. Outside cities, "market roads" were maintained, for better or worse, by counties or townships. Many States were prohibited by their constitution from paying for "internal improvements," such as road projects. The Federal-aid highway program would not begin until 1916 and, because of structural problems and the advent of World War I in 1917, would not accomplish much until 1921. The country had approximately 2,199,600 miles of rural roads and only 190,476 miles (8.66 percent of the total) had improved surfaces of gravel, stone, sand-clay, brick, shells, oiled earth, bituminous or, as a U.S. Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) bulletin put it, "etc." Many people thought of interstate roads as "peacock alleys" intended for the enjoyment of wealthy travelers who had time to spend weeks riding around the country in their automobiles.
Fisher saw the situation differently. He was an early automobile enthusiast who had been a racer, the manufacturer of Prest-O-Lite compressed carbide-gas headlights used on most early motorcars, and the builder of the Indianapolis Speedway. (In the 1920's he would be known as the promoter and builder of Miami Beach.) He believed that, "The automobile won't get anywhere until it has good roads to run on."
He began actively promoting his dream, a transcontinental highway, in 1912. On September 10, he held a dinner meeting with many of his automobile industry friends in the Deutsches Haus in Indianapolis, his home town. He called for a coast-to-coast rock highway to be completed by May 1, 1915, in time for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. The project would cost about $10 million, he said. "Let's build it," he told the group, "before we're too old to enjoy it!"
Within a month, Fisher's auto industry friends had pledged $1 million. Henry Ford, the biggest automaker of his day, was a notable exception. He refused to contribute in spite of a personal plea by Fisher over a pigpen at the State Fair in Detroit. Ford believed the government, not private individuals or companies, should build the Nation's roads.
By July 1913, Fisher and his associates had chosen a name for the road. After rejecting the "Fisher Highway," the "Jefferson Memorial Highway," and the "American Road," among other possibilities, the group named its highway after one of Fisher's heroes, Abraham Lincoln. Fisher adopted the name only after Congress rejected a proposal by another group to build a "Lincoln Memorial Road" from Washington to Gettysburg; instead, Congress authorized construction of the Lincoln Memorial on the Mall in Washington.