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Burning up the Lincoln Highway
At 45 mph, one man honors firefighters, a president and a road

Kelly St. John, Chronicle Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 20, 2002

Click to View Click to View

Craig Harmon's great American odyssey started with a 1964 open-cab fire truck, a giant American flag and a lock of Abraham Lincoln's hair.

Harmon, 46, has spent the better part of two years traveling through the country's heartland, sharing his unabashed love of the United States even before the Sept. 11 attacks sparked a new wave of patriotism.

Something of a modern-day Don Quixote, Harmon tells a story about what happens when someone trusts in fate, humanity and the spirit of Lincoln.

And America's firefighters.

"The firemen," he said with great reverence during a recent interview in San Francisco, "are really like modern-day guardian angels. They just drop what they're doing and risk their lives to help you. And they've welcomed me with open arms."

Harmon is the founder of the Lincoln Highway National Museum and Archives in Galion, Ohio. The Lincoln Highway was the nation's first transcontinental highway. When it was completed in 1913, it linked New York City to San Francisco, making it possible for the first time to drive across the country on one continuous, hard-surface road.

Harmon, a photojournalist who has never been a firefighter himself, wanted to drum up support for the highway and the "greatest president" for whom it was named. So he decided to drive the length of the Lincoln Highway -- in style.

In July 2000, he set off with $1,000 cash and the framed brown lock of Lincoln's hair that was lent to him by Miami University in Ohio. He was driving the classic vehicle he calls "America's Fire truck," the eye-catcher he bought from a friend for $6,000. It gets 4 miles to the gallon.

"To carry the flag across the country that way," he said, "now that would be compelling."

Harmon stopped in each of the 450 towns along the highway, which winds through Philadelphia, Chicago, Omaha, Salt Lake City, Sacramento and Oakland. After showing up unannounced at each town's fire station, he raised the American flag on his truck's 100-foot ladder and took a picture.

And in town after town, hearts swelled with pride.

It is a splendid sight, said Doug Churchill, a 46-year-old San Francisco resident who said he was watching the sun set over Ocean Beach when he saw the stars and stripes fill the sky.

"That flag up against the sky is actually quite spectacular," Churchill said. "I ran out to hug him, I was so overwhelmed."

Firefighters and other kind strangers have fed and sheltered Harmon along the way, including Churchill, who cooked him a dinner of pork chops and ravioli.

Mayors and other fans have splurged and filled his gas tank. Small-town newspapers have written stories and splashed his photograph across their front pages.

And Harmon himself has fallen in love all over again with the route he says binds the nation together.

"The beauty of America is in its changing landscape," said the man with a salt-and-pepper beard, a faraway look in his eye. The bumpity-bump road, where he was confined to driving just 45 mph, was "built for the eye," revealing an intimate look at American life that is missed by modern interstate highways.

"Sometimes, I'd like to be able to do it in one continuous day. Rolling plains to sand dunes to mountains," he said. "And when you come out of the Sierra and into California, the land of milk and honey . . . it's something everybody dreams they can do, to let life take care of itself."

The trip, which Harmon timed to coincide with the 85th anniversary of a similar trek in 1915 by members of the Lincoln Highway Association, had several interruptions.

In January 2001, Harmon and his truck were part of the inaugural parade for President Bush. Engine troubles have also slowed him down, and he spent five months stranded in Utah while he rebuilt the engine.

Harmon finally completed his journey this Fourth of July. He raised the flag in front of the highway's end in San Francisco's Lincoln Park at the Palace of the Legion of Honor.

Then to celebrate, Harmon went to Ocean Beach, and pulled Lincoln's lock from the inner coat of his yellow firefighter's jacket. There, he dipped his big toe in the frigid water for the president who never lived to visit California.

"Abe Lincoln always wanted to see the Pacific Ocean," he said.

Harmon's journey put him at a unique vantage point to gauge how America has changed since the 9/11 attacks. He had just left his hometown of Galion for the final leg of his journey on Sept. 5, 2001.

On the morning of Sept. 11, Harmon was sleeping in a fire station in Goshen,

Ind., when a firefighter woke him up by saying, "You won't believe this."

Harmon watched the World Trade Center towers collapse on television and for several days that followed, he wondered whether he would finish his journey at all.

"I was the only person who was carrying a flag across the country and visiting fire departments." But, he said, "I wasn't going to ride the coattails of 300 brave men."

He decided to continue after all, and was surprised to find he was received even more enthusiastically at stations along the way. The volunteer fire department of Valley, Neb., gave Harmon a fire hat signed by its chief.

That started Harmon onto another quest -- to collect fire hats from towns along the Lincoln Highway as a memorial to the fallen firefighters of New York.

He has more than 80 hats sitting on his truck now.

"I carried the energy of all the firemen across the country," he said.

Harmon plans to bring those hats to New York City and raise the flag near ground zero on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. He said he will then ask firefighters from around the world to send signed helmets to make a memorial to the slain firefighters.

"Fire service is a brotherhood," Harmon said. "If you ever get in trouble, go to a fire station."


For more information

Craig Harmon invites anyone who wants to learn more about the Lincoln Highway, or who has archival materials about the highway that they may be able to share, to contact him at (419) 566-0790. Information is available online at lincoln-highway-museum.org.

E-mail Kelly St. John at kstjohn@sfchronicle.com.

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