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Henry Joy's monument was supposed to be on the Lincoln Highway. Like the Lincoln Head, it no longer is.
Henry Joy's monument was supposed to be on the Lincoln Highway. Like the Lincoln Head, it no longer is.

Giant Head of Abraham Lincoln

Field review by the editors.

Laramie, Wyoming

No one driving on Interstate 80 between Cheyenne and Laramie, Wyoming, can possibly miss the colossal, craggy Abraham Lincoln head towering over traffic at exit 323.

Robert Russin applies finishing touches to the head.
Robert Russin applies finishing touches to the head.

But why Lincoln? Why here? Wyoming didn't even exist as a territory when Lincoln was around.

The big head began as a vague idea by the Wyoming Parks Commission, which wanted to celebrate Lincoln's 150th birthday in 1959. As a justification, it cited the Pacific Railway Act of 1862, which Lincoln signed into law, and which later ran the transcontinental railroad through what was later named Wyoming.

A rich Wyoming landowner, Charles Jeffrey, put up the money, and the Parks Commission hired Robert Russin, Wyoming's best-known sculptor and a big fan of Lincoln. Unlike the Commission, Russin knew exactly what he wanted: a giant Lincoln head at Sherman Summit east of Laramie, the highest point on the old coast-to-coast Lincoln Highway, 8,878 feet above sea level. He said he'd been dreaming about it since 1947.

Unveiling day - October 18, 1959.
Unveiling day: October 18, 1959.

Tourist with stovepipe hat ponders a bare-headed Abe.
Tourist with stovepipe hat ponders a bare-headed Abe.

Russin sculpted the head out of 70 tons of clay. He described it as "a brooding, contemplative Lincoln... his great heart sorrowing over the rent nation." The head was deliberately made rough and craggy, like its Wyoming surroundings, then cast in bronze in Mexico City. "The statue came up from Mexico with armed guards from the Mexican Army," said Joe Russin, Robert's son, in a 2008 interview for the Laramie Boomerang. "They were afraid that someone was going to steal it."

Perched atop a hollow 30-foot-high concrete pedestal faced with 120 tons of Wyoming granite, the Lincoln head was unveiled with much fanfare on October 18, 1959. Its serendipitous Lincoln Highway location, however, didn't last long. After less than ten years the head was moved to its current spot at the Summit Rest Area on Interstate 80 -- losing a couple of hundred feet in elevation (and its key excuse for existing, really) but gaining a vast new audience. It can be seen from quite a distance on the freeway, looking uncomfortably similar to box-bound Captain Pike from Star Trek: The Original Series.

The 12.5-foot-high head sits on tiny shoulders, like a cartoon caricature, and seems to be sagging from its own weight. According to the official Summit Rest Area brochure, Russin's sculpture is "the only monument to Abraham Lincoln along the Lincoln Highway" and "the largest bronze head in the U.S."

Lincoln seems to be wondering,
Lincoln seems to be wondering, "Why am I in Wyoming?"

(Visitors who want the complete Lincoln Head experience can drive south from the Rest Area, cross I-80, and then drive east one mile, up the hill along the old Lincoln Highway, to see Abe's original gravel turn-out spot at the summit.)

Also at the Rest Area is another relocated monument, this one for Henry Joy, the first president of the Lincoln Highway Association. A sign next to the monument says that Joy felt that his work to create the Lincoln Highway -- America's first transcontinental auto road -- was "the greatest thing I ever did." The monument was originally 140 miles west of here on the old Lincoln Highway, at a spot where, according to the sign, Joy "saw the most beautiful sunset he'd ever witnessed." He told his family that when he died, he wanted to be buried at that spot. They ignored him, and buried him in Detroit. But they erected the monument out there in 1938, and in 2001 it was moved here, surrounded by a fence with four replica Lincoln Highway road markers.

Robert Russin fared better than Henry Joy. He, too, wanted to be buried at his favorite spot -- his Lincoln head monument -- and when he died in 2007, some of his ashes were indeed interred inside its hollow base. The Lincoln head pedestal is also filled with lightning rods, grounding the sculpture so that if struck by a craggy Wyoming thunderbolt, the hilltop Great Emancipator -- and Robert Russin -- won't explode.

Roadside Presidents
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Also see: Heads of State

Giant Head of Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln Memorial Monument

136 US Forest Service Rd 705 A, Laramie, WY
I-80 exit 323, on the northeast side. Eleven miles east of Laramie or 20 miles west of Cheyenne.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Ames Brothers PyramidAmes Brothers Pyramid, Buford, WY - 8 mi.
Tree in the RockTree in the Rock, Buford, WY - 9 mi.
Breakin' ThroughBreakin' Through, Laramie, WY - 8 mi.
In the region:
Chief Washakie Statue, Laramie, WY - 9 mi.

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