Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Mystery of The Great Plains Highway (Partly) Solved

Note: Since this blog was first published on Aug. 26 I have received lots of new information from readers.  I believe this information will lead to many of my questions being answered. Thanks to all who tracked down the information for me or provided tips.  I hope to dig up some documents and maybe more maps of the Great Plains Highway.

For years I searched for the Great Plains Highway.
Before the United States had numbered, federal highways, there were named “trails,” usually informal routes crisscrossing the United States such as the Lincoln Highway, Bankhead Highway, Dixie Highway and hundreds of others. The government had little to do with them. The Good Roads Movement created these routes to promote travel through their towns. The movement comprised both captains of industry—oil, tire and car companies specifically—along with small-town chambers of commerce members who wanted to improve their local roads and connect their towns to the world via the automobile.
 Early in my research about Highway 83 for The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83 I came across a reference to the Great Plains
Highway on a map of Cherry County. It showed it to the west of Brownlee, Nebraska, roughly where State Highway 97 is today. That was back in 2009.
Then I found another reference in an article in a South Dakota newspaper.
Then nothing. Internet searches came up empty. I searched eBay for items, and never found anything. I would occasionally return to my search, but never turned up anything online.
More recently, I came across a third reference in a book about the Fleagle Gang, a group of murderous bank robbers that will be a chapter in the Nebraska-Kansas-Oklahoma Last American Highway book coming out in February. The author referenced present-day Highway 83 where the gang had committed one of its murders as the Great Plains Highway.
That reference renewed my desire to find out if anything new had popped up online. Many old newspapers are now available on the web that weren’t there five years ago. But again, nothing.
Then about two weeks ago, something miraculous happened. A member of the Fans of U.S. Route 83 page on Facebook  Russell S. Rein (aka ypsi-slim) posted a 1930 map of The Great Plains Highway on the page.
You can imagine my eyes popping out of my head the morning I opened up my iPad and saw that.
There it was, my white whale. The exact route of the Great Plains Highway!
It wasn’t long before I connected with Russell on the phone. It turns out we are kindred spirits and he is an avid collector of memorabilia connected to the old named highway trails. He is also the co-author of an Images of America book, Dixie Highway in Indiana, available on amazon.com.
Where did he get the map? Was my first question. eBay, of course. It was put up for auction when I wasn’t paying attention, and no one else bid on it.
He graciously agreed to send me the map in exchange for a copy of The Last American Highway. (He will be on my comp list for the next two books as well.
Now that I have the map in hand, what can be learned from it?
For one, interestingly, the map is from 1930, and shows Highway 83 in its early iterations. It was published at a time when the old named roads were falling away in favor of the numbered roads system we know today.
The Great Plains Highway for the most part followed present-day Highway 83 from Minot, North Dakota, to Abilene, Texas, some 1,235 miles. 83 is numbered today up to Swan River, Manitoba. The Great Plains Highway veered northwest to Regina, Saskatchewan. After Abilene, the Great Plains Highway went south through San Antonio before terminating in Laredo.
In 1930, none of the highway was paved, according to the key, except, one would imagine, as it passed through major towns.
Highway 83 was also disjointed. Its origins were in North Dakota. But after Pierre, South Dakota, it reappears farther south in bits and pieces.
As for the Great Plains Highway, I still have many questions. When was the association inaugurated? Did it pre-date the creation of the federal highway system in 1926? Whose idea was it to connect Regina and Laredo? And why?
Most of these trails had a logo or symbol to help guide drivers. Was there one in this case? It's not on the map.
The map includes the names of officers in towns along the road. Its headquarters was in North Platte, Nebraska. I am including a picture of the list in this blog. I’m hoping the descendants of these chamber of commerce types may have some information sitting in a closet or an attic somewhere. I already recognize one name on the list. W.B. LaMaster in Perryton, Texas, who went on to become active in the U.S. Canada Highway 83 Association. I spoke to his grandson in Perryton several years ago. It’s not a stretch to believe that the Great Plains Highway Association became the U.S. Canada Highway 83 Association later.
As a side note, can you imagine in those days with only the U.S. mail and telegrams to communicate, creating an association that spanned 1,889 miles of unimproved road? I wonder who was the first to drive it.
I’m certain that newspapers in these small towns ran stories when the association kicked off. But going through microfilm of old newspapers in archives is a painstaking, needle-in-a-haystack process, and I will need some kind of tip to know what dates to start a search. I’m also wondering if there was an earlier Great Plains Highway map that pre-dates 1926.
I’m hoping this blog is read far and wide and those with information can contact me at stewmag (a) yahoo.com. I won’t be able to publish the full story of The Great Plains Highway Association in the Nebraska-Kansas-Oklahoma version of The Last American Highway because I am putting the finishing touches on that manuscript now. But I hope to have a full picture of the association and its history in the Texas version, which I hope to publish in 2016.
 I’m also going to publish a Wikipedia page in hopes of raising its profile. Because if it’s not in Wikipedia, it doesn’t exist. Now thanks to Russell S. Rein, the Great Plains Highway may live again in the historical record.

Stew Magnuson is the author of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, available at Amazon.com and bookstores and gift shops along Highway 83. 

To join the Fans of U.S. Route 83 group on Facebook, CLICK HERE. And check out the U.S. Route 83 Travel page at www.usroute83.com.  Contact Stew Magnuson at stewmag (a) yahoo.com