KEARNEY — An estimated 12,500 people arrived Sunday for the first day of the two-day 100th anniversary celebration of the nation's first coat-to-coast highway.
"This is the most elaborate thing we've ever seen. It's an amazing event," said Nathan Wagner of Omaha, who was part of the throng that crowded downtown Kearney for the Lincoln Highway's national centennial.
One hundred years ago, when the route for the Lincoln Highway was announced on Oct. 31, 1913, wild celebrations erupted across the United States.
Fireworks shot into the sky, bands played and 10,000 Omahans burned a huge pile of railroad ties donated by the Union Pacific when they learned their city would be along the highway's route.
There were no fireworks Sunday in Kearney, but people who celebrated the Lincoln Highway's 100th year were continuously reminded of the historic nature of the event.
Re-enactors donned costumes from the teens, '20s, '30s, '40s and '50s, and a parade of classic cars passed on Central Avenue from about noon until 6 p.m. Many were Ford Model Ts and Model As. Among the rarest cars in Kearney on Sunday was a 1948 Tucker, one of just 51 manufactured.
Wagner arrived in Kearney after a seven-day cross-country caravan from San Francisco. In all, about 140 cars made up the Lincoln Highway Centennial Tour. Auto and travel enthusiasts departed from Time Square in New York City and Lincoln Park in San Francisco for the 1,733-mile trip to the mid-point of the Lincoln Highway in Kearney.
Drivers in the two caravans met jubilantly at 12:30 p.m. Sunday at 25th Street and Central Avenue, where Kearney's famous Midway Hotel and soldiers memorial statue stood during the Lincoln Highway's heyday.
"I could hear the honking. It was so emotional," said celebration organizer Ronnie O'Brien of Kearney's Great Platte River Road Archway.
While downtown Kearney was the center for Sunday's festivities, the archway is the backdrop for Monday's celebration.
Wagner traveled with his girlfriend, Ashley Glesmann of Lincoln, and brother J.J. Wagner of Grand Island, in a 1970 Oldsmobile Cutlass convertible. They were the youngest members of the West Coast tour.
Glesmann said it was a memorable trip capped by an amazing experience as they arrived in Kearney.
"Our motto was, 'We're doing it,'" Glesmann said. "We visited places I never would have known about, except that we were off the beaten path. Finally, when we saw the sign for Nebraska we cheered. It makes me really that Kearney put on this huge celebration."
Another member of the West Coast tour, Jackie Ferreira of Concord, Calif., said the trip was a lesson in "man helping man." When the 1953 Ford Crestline Victoria in which she was traveled had fuel pump problems in Laramie, Wyo., residents were quick to help, she said.
Most of downtown Kearney was barricaded for the classic autos and vendors. People arriving for the celebration parked up to seven blocks away.
The huge turnout brought tears to Sarah Focke of the Kearney Visitors Bureau, who worked with O'Brien to organize the festivities.
"I started to cry at the start of the parade," Focke said. "It hit me that these people had traveled from across the country to be here for the centennial."
Events Monday include educational presentations and dedications at the archway. A gala with big band music will cap the celebration Monday evening, but Lincoln Highway buffs plan to travel to various Nebraska destinations between Grand Island and North Platte throughout the week.