A journey on the first transcontinental highway is a nostalgic way to discover Pennsylvania’s past — and see something unexpected (elephants! Giant coffeepots!) at every turn.
When driving west on Route 30 through the part of south central Pennsylvania that might best be described as “Kentucky, is that you?,” I squint my eyes so the Unborn Lives Matter billboards and Chick-fil-A drive-throughs go fuzzy and imagine the road as it could have existed a century ago — lined with farms, happy brown cows, and German colonial and Federal-style homes. Ah, I think from the front seat of my Toyota Corolla. That’s better. A car passes by with a bumper sticker that reads, “Save gas, ride a horse.”
The Lincoln Highway was constructed in 1913 as the first transcontinental road for automobiles. In essence, it became America’s first road-trip road, wiggling across the country from New York to San Francisco. Pennsylvania’s portion of the drive, now called the Lincoln Highway Heritage Corridor, became a popular route for mid-century motorists, all of whom presumably needed to sleep and eat along the way to wherever they were headed. (Mid-century motorists: They’re just like us.)
Today, the 200-mile stretch through Adams and Westmoreland counties is an expression of historic leftovers — antiques shops, Americana delights worn by decades of rain and sleet, roundabouts with commemorative Civil War statues, roadside attractions with a striking enthusiasm for preserving something, anything. In Orrtanna, I visited Mister Ed’s Elephant Museum & Candy Emporium, with its collection of more than 12,000 elephant figures on display, an almost life-size animatronic elephant named Miss Ellie out front, fudge for sale at the counter, and a garden out back where teacups hang on trees and bowling balls are painted like ladybugs. Admission to the museum is free, with donations accepted in honor of Mister Ed’s daughter, Tammy, who loved the pachyderms.
In Gettysburg, I ate a Texas-style wiener slapped with spicy beef chili, a biscuit with scrapple, egg and cheese, and a bowl of ham and bean soup at Ernie’s Texas Lunch, which has been run by the same family for three generations. In Bedford, I admired an 18-foot-tall building known as the Giant Coffee Pot. The thing was designed by a local gas-station owner in 1927 to attract highway visitors and for a time operated with a full bar inside.
Near the coffeepot, in Manns Choice, I spent the night in a cabin at the last motor court on the Lincoln Highway open for overnight guests. Lucas Steinbrunner and his partner recently revived the Lincoln Motor Court (rooms from $95), leaving many of the property’s original 1940s details intact. The cabins were genuinely charming, if a little rustic, and should be considered as the set of a future Wes Anderson film. (Dear Wes: Book during a summer weekend, when LMC hosts outdoor concerts in the middle of the motor court.)
Less than a five-minute drive away is Jean Bonnet Tavern, where they make a great French dip, improved only by a side of onion rings (to dunk into the sandwich’s accompanying jus) and a visit with the sweet old goats out front after dinner. Then, for dessert, I downed a peanut-butter sundae covered in pretzels on a picnic bench by the side of the road while staring at one of the approximately 17,000 churches I saw on my three-day journey.
For most of my trip, I didn’t know the date. But perhaps that’s part of this trek’s charm. If there’s a point to the preservation of yesteryear, this seems to be it.
Believe it or not, many of the country’s biggest live shows — Taylor Swift’s tour, for example — rely on lights, stage equipment and sound setups built on Rock Lititz’s 108-acre campus in Lancaster County. The campus’s Hotel Rock Lititz (rooms from $167) is open to the public and decked out with relics from famous concerts and events. All guests have access to the indoor pool. There’s an indoor bouldering wall on-site, and various breweries are nearby.
For a restaurant in Lancaster that can compete with Philly’s best, head to Luca and munch on wood-fired Neapolitan pizza and handmade pasta. Luca highlights local produce in ways that feel integral to its mission, rather than like a marketing slogan. It has an extensive amari list and cocktails made with the bitter Italian liqueur.
Philly chefs go wide-eyed about Lancaster’s produce. Visit Lancaster Central Market to see why. And while you’re there, snack on PA Dutch hand-rolled pretzels and sausages from Kom Essa, Puerto Rican empanadillas from Christina Criollo, and West African stews from Isabelle’s Cuisine.
Published as “Motoring Along the Lincoln Highway” in the June 2023 issue of Philadelphia magazine.