Statue of Abraham Lincoln

Library Park near the intersection of Library and Farmer streets in downtown Detroit

The absence of roads severely limited vehicle sales in the early years of the Twentieth Century. The owners of the some of the largest automotive firms hoped to pressure government agencies into road building. It was particularly important to get the federal government into road building since states were inclined to build roads that only served the needs of their own large cities and their own residents. States seldom had incentives to build roads directly linked to those of competitive states. By 1911, Henry Joy—president of Detroit’s prosperous Packard Motor Car Company—headed an organization called the Lincoln Highway Association—a group promoting a national system of highways.

In 1913, Carl Fisher of Salem, Ohio proposed a Lincoln Highway that would span the nation from Atlantic to Pacific, thereby linking the nation together in a manner similar to what had been accomplished by the transcontinental railroads. Fisher’s highly succesful Indiana firm made auto parts, but he was not related to the Fisher brothers who produced auto bodies for GM. Carl Fisher decided that a good strategy was to promote a Lincoln Highway that would extend from New York to San Francisco. To bring attention to this project, Carl Fisher had his friend, William Mullins, cast statues of the Great Emancipator to be placed in key locations such as Detroit and along the route of the highway. At least six copies of a statue of Abraham Lincoln that had been sculpted by Alfonso Pelzer in 1895 were produced. Two of those six copies were given to Detroit automobile entrepreneurs: one to Henry Joy of Packard Motors in 1915 and the other to Henry Leland, founder of the Lincoln Motor Car Company in 1919. Carl Fisher, who developed and owned the Indianapolis Speedway, saw Abraham Lincoln as an important hero. He wanted a national commemoration of the accomplishments of the Great Emancipator. His Atlantic-to-Pacific Lincoln Highway was compeleted well before the Lincoln Memorial in Washington was completed.

The statue that you see—or its predecessor—stood from 1919 to 1958 on the grounds of the huge Lincoln plant at Warren and Livernois on Detroit’s West Side. When the Ford Motor Company ceased building Lincolns in that massive factory, Leland’s heirs gave the statue of President Lincoln to the city of Detroit. It was installed in its present location, perhaps because this downtown Skilman Branch of the Detroit Public Library housed the nation’s most extensive archives of publications about the auto industry. In 1969, the impressive statue was destroyed by vandals. In the 1980s Neal Shine, a writer for the Detroit Free Press, initiated a drive to collect funds from Detroit school children to restore the statue to its original glory. This was done but, in the early 1990s, vandals once again destroyed the statue. After the Skillman Foundation restored the downtown branch of the Detroit Public Library to its original glory, another Detroit foundation—the $13 million Oliver Dewey Marcks Foundation—paid to restore the statue of President Lincoln. This is, I believe, a replica to Pelzer’s original work rather than a reassembling of the pieces of the vandalized one that had been cast in Salem, Ohio in 1919.

German sculptor, Alfonso Pelzer, came to the United States in the 1890s and worked in this nation for about a decade. In 1895, the city of Lincoln, New Jersey commissioned him to design a statue of President Lincoln. Fifteen presidents before Abraham Lincoln might have addressed the issue of slavery, but none of them took bold steps to end human bondage in this nation dedicated to freedom and founded on the principle that all men were created equal. On September 22, 1862 President Lincoln rejected the suggestions of most of his advisors and declared that as of January 1, 1863, slavery would cease to exist in all areas of the Confederate States occupied by Union Armies. Although the scope of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation seems limited, its consequence were not and, for all practical purposes, the selling of slaves and the holding of persons in bondage ended with President Lincoln’s September, 1862 proclamation. Pelzer’s statue shows President Lincoln holding a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. The simple inscription on this dramatic statue summarizes President Lincoln’s accomplishment in four words: Let Men be Free.

Carl Fisher played an important role in the development of the nation’s vehicle industry. He fully realized the need for publicity, as well as the need for roads. Between 1913 and 1915, a stone road was completed across the country. Some funds for this were provided by Fisher himself, by Henry Joy of Packard and by Frank Sieberling, president of the Goodyear Rubber Company. You can still travel on the Lincoln Highway route from New York to San Francisco. From Philadelphia to central Wyoming, Fisher’s Lincoln Highway is now U. S. Route 30. To promote the auto industry, Fisher purchased an Indianapolis race track, modernized and expanded it, thereby creating the nation’s premier race, one that would demonstrate the durability and speed of cars. Fisher was also the key developer of Miami Beach, Florida. Indeed, Lincoln and Fisher are still the two most important streets in that retirement and resort town.

Sculptor: Alfonso Pelzer
Date of original casting: 1895
Date of most recent restoration: 1990s
Information about Carl Fisher and the Lincoln Highway Project:
Picture: Ren Farley; October 1, 2006
Description updated: July, 2012

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