Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Two Roads Not Built: And That Has Made all the Difference for Highway 83

Available at bookstores and
 A couple of months ago, Sharleen Wurm, the director of The Last Indian Raid/Decatur County Museum in Oberlin, Kansas, came across a treasure.
Tucked away hidden in the museum’s storage was a scrapbook kept by a former member of the U.S. Canada Highway 83 Association. Who compiled it and when it was donated is unknown, but inside was a treasure trove of information about the association that spanned some 20 years from the early 1960s to early 1980s.
The organization began as the Great Plains Highway Association in 1926 and fizzled out sometime in the early 1990s. Because the highway continues as the number 83 for a few hundred miles into Manitoba, it was an international organization.
Once Sharleen alerted me to the scrapbook’s contents, she graciously made color photocopies of every page and mailed them to me. What a great gift for a road historian! Inside were the schedules of annual meetings, newspaper clippings, a document containing remembrances of the association written by past presidents, promotional items the association produced to promote travel on the road such as brochures, postcards and restaurant placemats. And even some poetry! Yes, poems written about Highway 83.
One of the most interesting documents to me was a six-page type written report by a retired grade school principal and ardent Highway 83 booster Ira Laidig of Oberlin, who took it upon himself to travel the length of Highway 83 from his hometown all the way to Brownsville, Texas, to drum up support for the association and Interstate 27.
Interstate 27? Where is that? 
In the 1960s, there were two roads not taken, or to be more precise, never built. Going through the newspaper clips and Laidig’s report, I learned of two roads that the association was heavily supporting a half century ago. One I am very glad never came to fruition. The other I wish had.
As the Interstate system was being built out in the 1960s, Congress authorized the construction of Interstate 27, which would have replaced U.S. Route 83 from Westhope down to Brownsville.
Highway 83 Association scrapbook found in Oberlin, KS.
So what happened? Congress authorized it, but the appropriations committee never funded it. Members of the association wrote letters and lobbied as best they could, but the money never materialized.
Meanwhile up north, Canadian members of the association were trying to convince their national government to extend Highway 83 past its terminus Swan River all the way to Hudson Bay. They too were unsuccessful.
So inside the box Sharleen mailed me was the tail of two roads not taken. Laidig as he traveled south on Highway 83 found various degrees of support for the association and the new interstate. Ray Hettic, a past association president from Liberal, Kansas, for example, was not enthusiastic about the idea.
Towns had to pay $100 to remain a member of the association. Some chambers of commerce were big supporters of the organization with many local businessmen and women attending annual meetings and promoting U.S. 83. Other towns were apathetic.
I am grateful the association was not successful and I-27 was never built. I hate soulless, mind-numbing Interstates and I have a hard time picturing what the
communities along present-day 83 would look like if they had been bypassed by a superhighway. I certainly would have never written The Last American Highway books, or this column.
But it’s too bad about the road to Hudson Bay. Wouldn’t that be an adventure to head north on 83 and drive until reaching Hudson Bay? There are other provincial roads beyond Swan River, but they don’t quite make it there.
One interesting thing to consider is that I-27 is most likely still on the books. I asked a colleague of mine at work who specializes in legislative affairs in Washington, D.C., if acts passed by appropriators and signed into law ever expire. They don’t unless a lawmaker wrote legislation in a subsequent act to rescind it. I’m not 100 percent sure, but it’s more than likely an Interstate replacing U.S. 83 still exists on paper. All it would require is some funding.
(The number 27 was eventually appropriated for another road near Lubbock, Texas.)
And when I say some, I actually mean a whole lot. Estimates on how much it costs to construct a four-lane Interstate in a rural area varies, but looking at different estimates, $8 million per mile is a good average. Highway 83 is about 1,885 miles long. Subtract the sections that are already Interstate such as the 83 Expressway in the Rio Grande Valley, the short stretches of I-94 in North Dakota, I-90 in South Dakota and bypasses in towns like Abilene and Laredo, that could be whittled down to 1,785 miles, or so.
That would come to about $142.8 billion to convert U.S. 83 to an Interstate.
For that, and many other reasons, I’m certain that “The Last American Highway” will remain “The Last American Highway” for quite some time. 

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

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  Contact Stew Magnuson at stewmag (a)

No comments:

Post a Comment