US HIGHWAY 36
KANSAS AND COLORADO
36, which dates back to 1926, with its eastern terminus in Ohio, originally
ran out to Denver. It is of an age similar to that
of U.S. Highway 66, with its more exciting termini of Chicago and Los
Angeles. Like "the 66", it was a long, two-lane blacktop running
from the Midwest to the West.
Ironically, 36 has largely survived,
while 66 has not, because it was a somewhat less important route, and thus did
not need to be supplanted by Interstates on its old roadbed. When the
Interstates were pushed west, I-80 was run across southern Nebraska, and I-70
across central Kansas, and old Hwy. 36, lying more or less midway between them,
was saved by virtue of its irrelevance.
I have a soft spot in my heart for Hwy.
36, because it was, for me, the road to our great extended family vacations in
the West. Every year, our family of six would pile into our station wagon and
drive out of the interminable flat cornfields of central Illinois, across
Missouri, then across Kansas, then across the high plains of eastern
Colorado; and at some point on the afternoon of the second day, someone in
the car would be the first to spot the Rockies, just faintly visible in the
rising afternoon clouds, still perhaps 50 or 60 miles in the distance. We'd
spend a month high in the mountains, camping or (later) at our cabin north of
Leadville, and at the end of that month, we'd come barreling down, shooting out
past Denver and back onto the plains we had traversed the month before, hitting
the same stops, this time in reverse order, back across the plains. And in the
earliest years, in the early- to mid-1960's, before we succumbed to the lure of
the Interstate, our vacation run from central Illinois to Denver and back the
other way would be on U.S. Hwy. 36.
I would be sitting there in the back
seat or way in the back with the sleeping bags and the cooler, looking out the
window at the little towns with their grain elevators, and the old barns, and
the Burma Shave signs and the billboards, and looking at the landscape gradually
changing from midwestern to western, as the sky grew and grew.
In Missouri, there was Hannibal,
Monroe City, Macon, Marceline, Brookfield, Chillicothe,
Cameron, and St. Joseph; then came Kansas, with Hiawatha,
Marysville, Belleville, Scandia, Mankato, Agra,
Smith Center, Athol, Phillipsburg, Norton, Oberlin,
Atwood, McDonald, Bird City, St. Francis; then
Colorado, and Idalia, Kirk, Joes, Cope, Anton,
Lindon, and Last Chance...the names of these places, announced
from countless water towers, became a sequence that had as much meaning for me
as the more familiar sounding litany from "Route 66". The order in
which they were encountered signaled either the beginning or the end of the
long summer vacation, either occasion being somehow momentous.
In recent years I have been making
annual trips out to Colorado, and whenever I can, I drive. Coming from
Wisconsin, I do not pick up Hwy. 36 until it is almost out of Missouri, but that
still leaves me with a run that takes me through the entire width of Kansas and
the eastern plains of Colorado. What follows is a highly selective review
of the places encountered on that run, with a highly arbitrary collection of
photographic images from along the way, cobbled together from several years'
worth of trips.
over the Missouri River at St. Joseph, Missouri, U.S. Highway 36 heads first through
Kansas (pop. 8,249 - down
from 9,268 a decade ago).
pulled into Wathena
(pop. 1,348, elevation 823) while heading west in August, 2001,
and rounding a corner onto the main drag, I was confronted by the sight of
scores of motorcycles glinting in the sun, and throttles revving and
It was a local motorcycle club on what
one member told me was, as I understood it, a sort of mobile card game? They
were traveling between bars in towns in the area, stopping at each for a few
hands? Whatever. It wasn't clear.
Or I wasn't clear -- I had about 500
miles under my belt at that point since pulling out of Madison that morning.
These two guys were standing in front
of a "Full Service Styling Salon", watching the show.
[Storefront in downtown Wathena]
Past Wathena, the Doniphan County towns of Blair and
Troy (the county seat) blink by. Then, as Hwy. 36 cuts through the rest of the county, no
more towns appear. Except . . . they're there. Fanning, Sparks and Highland, towns that lay directly on the original 36, are now off
to the north (on “Old 36”), as the “new and improved” route runs
across the remainder of Doniphan county a few miles to their south.
Brown County, Kansas
(pop. 10,724 - down from 11,128 a decade ago) lies to the west of Doniphan. Just past its county seat,
(pop. 3,417, elevation 1,136) the road meets up with “old 36”
(which passes directly through Hiawatha). Hiawatha
is, like most of the towns of any size along 36, an “intersection town”,
sitting at the crossing of U.S. 36 and U.S. 73.
Hiawatha, incorporated in 1857 under a different name, was given its present
name in 1870, inspired, of course, by Longfellow's "Song of Hiawatha",
which had been published in 1855. The town lies between the Kickapoo, Iowa
and Sac & Fox Indian Reservations.
Farther along Hwy. 36 in Brown County is the little town of Fairview.
County (pop. 10,717 - up from 10,446 a decade ago), which lies next to the west, 36 runs straight as an arrow.
(pop. 2,122, elevation 1,131), the county seat, sits in the middle;
Baileyville, towards the west.
The Seneca Theater, Seneca, Kansas.
Then comes Marshall
County, Kansas (pop. 10,965 - down from 11,705 a decade ago), and not far west of the little town of Home,
Hwy. 36 passes through the city
(pop. 3,271, elevation 1,202), where it intersects U.S. Hwy. 77.
has many features of which it is proud -- its fine old courthouse,
House Museum, the city's historic connection to the Pony Express, and its black
squirrels, to name just a few -- but the one that always draws me is the
old Union Pacific depot. Built
in 1901, it has a somewhat southwestern feel, with its red tile roof and
mustard-colored stucco walls.
What is most notable about it, though, is
the remarkable tile work with which it is decorated. It includes borders of
large orange and yellow flowers, but most striking are the friezes with the
Union Pacific shield flanked by gryphons, over a stylized face.
(or who) does the face represent? No clue. I have been able to find very
little about the history of the place.
building is still a working site, but of course there is no longer any passenger
traffic; it serves, I imagine, as a dispatch and communication center for
the freight lines that run (north-south) through town.
Just a few miles south of Marysville lies
Alcove Spring, a spot on the
Oregon Trail. Near the Independence Crossing of the Big Blue River, it was
a convenient campsite for pioneers waiting to cross the river, which was
often in flood stage when they reached this part of their trip. A nearby
spring feeds a small creek which, in the wet season forms a small waterfall
into a pool in the alcove. Many early pioneers carved inscriptions into the
An interesting note, is that it is the
site of the grave of the first member of the Donner party to die on their
ill-fated trip to the west. The elderly Sarah Keyes, even though 70 years
old, refused to be left behind when members of her family and the Donner family
set out in 1846. She died at Alcove Spring on May 29, 1846, and was buried
there, although the exact location of her grave is now unknown.
Kansas (pop. 6,483 - down from 7,073 a decade ago) is
next, and its county seat, which bears the name of: Washington (pop. 1,223,
elevation 1,335), where I bought myself a fine hat at the Western Store one
quiet morning. Washington is the only town that Hwy. 36 encounters during
its entire run across
Kansas (pop. 5,835, down from 6,482 a decade ago) is
next. The little town of Cuba lies off
to the south of the highway a few miles into the county, and then there is the county seat,
2,239, elevation 1,550), at the intersection with U.S. 81.
The Blair is a gorgeous old movie palace in Belleville.
attractions is the North Central Kansas Free Fair, held there every year.
attraction is the High Banks track, with its
half-mile dirt track and stone grandstand.
High Banks is a major midget racing venue, and is home to the Midget
stayed a few times at the Bel Villa Motel, in Belleville, Kansas, on my way out
to Colorado. It's a long day's drive from Madison. I was beat when I
pulled in there on this trip, in 2001.
West of Belleville, 36
passes through the little towns of Rydal, and then Scandia, and then just to the
west of Scandia, it crosses the North Fork of the Republican River. The
river was not named after the political party; instead, its name derived from
the fact that the valley through which it runs was the seat of the "Pawnee
Republic," a designation given to a principal division of the Pawnee (or Panis).
The Pawnee Indian Village Museum State Historic Site is eight miles north of US
36 on K-266.
Just to the west of the river, a large feed lot covers the low bluffs on the river valley.
These features have always seemed to me, as I have passed them, to herald
the highway’s entry into The West.
County, Kansas (pop. 3,791, down from 4251 a decade ago). Hwy. 36
passes by Formoso, and then the county seat Mankato
(pop. 976, elevation 1,776).
The Ute Theatre, in downtown Mankato, is currently an operating movie
house. Apparently it was out of operation for some time, but has been
refurbished and is showing movies again.
County, Kansas (pop. 4,536, down from 5,078 a decade ago); passes by
Bellaire, and then the county seat, Smith Center
(pop. 1,931, elevation 1,821) located at the intersection of at
U.S. 281. Farther west, the highway passes Athol and Kensington.
In Smith Center's Wagner Park, there stands an old Dutch-style windmill,
which was built in the 1870's and was originally used to grind grain in the
northern part of the county.
One of the claims to fame of Smith County, is that it is home to the
geographic center of the 48 contiguous continental states. That it is the
"geographic center" means, apparently, that it represents what would
literally be the center of gravity of the contiguous 48 states, where they would
be balanced on a single point. That point is about 14 miles northeast of
Smith Center, near the town of Lebanon.
Just northwest of Athol is a small cottage, built in 1871, which is said to
have been the actual "Home On The Range" which was the inspiration for
the famous song. The lyrics to "Home on the Range", written by Dr.
Brewster Higley (music by Daniel E. Kelley) were first published in the
December, 1873 issue of The Smith County "Pioneer".
central Kansas, U.S. Hwy. 36 is studded with eye-catching billboards advertising
Harold Warp's Pioneer
Village, in Minden, Nebraska. They reach their greatest
concentration in Smith County, where Kansas Hwy. 8 branches off of U.S. Hwy. 36,
leading to Minden, some 50 miles to the north. Travelling this route
as a child, I always envisioned wondrous sights and scenes that might await at
Pioneer Village, but we never went, as we were intent on making Colorado and
could not afford the side trip. As we passed Hwy. 8, and the signs began
facing the other way, the imagined wonders of Pioneer Village would fade from my
consciousness -- until they were restored by their appearance of the return
Phillips County, Kansas
(pop. 6,001, down from 6,590 a decade ago) U.S. Hwy. 36 passes by Agra, Gretna,
and the county seat, Phillipsburg
(pop. 2,668, elevation 2,200), which is
at the intersection with U.S. 183. Farther west are Stuttgart and Prairie View.
Apparently, some joker climber the Agra town water tower and painted a large
"Vi" in front of the town's name. Or, so I have heard.
When I passed through in August, 2001, I could see only that there was a large
freshly painted spot right in front of "Agra" on the water tower.
This abandoned farmhouse is built out of stone; a local farmer who
happened across me as I was taking photos of it one year told me that the stone
was quarried out of Kansas' Flint Hills. some distance to the south. This
building is located somewhere to the west of Phillipsburg, on a rise on the
north side of the highway. At this point, the highway is paralleling
railroad tracks which are shown on an old (1899) map as being those of the
"C R I & P" railroad.
This point on Highway 36 is where the High Plains really start, as a
geological phenomenon. Interestingly, there is a photograph of this same
old abandoned farmhouse at the GeoKansas website about the High
Plains, used to illustrate "Typical High Plains
Norton County, Kansas
(pop. 5,953, up slightly from 5,947 a decade ago). Here Hwy. 36 passes
through the county seat, Norton
(pop. 3,012, elevation 2,300), at U.S. 283, and then through Rockwell
In the mezzanine of the First State Bank in Norton, local banker W. W.
Rouse maintains his somewhat-renowned "Gallery
of Also-Rans", with pictures of and biographical materials about
unsuccessful candidates for presidents, from Thomas Jefferson to George Bush.
County, Kansas (pop. 3,472, down from 4,021 a decade ago). Towns on Hwy. 36
here are Norcatur (Norton and Decatur – get it?), then Kanona a couple miles to the south,
and then the county seat, Oberlin
(pop. 1,994, elevation 2,562) at the intersection with U.S. 83.
Kansas (pop. 2,966, down from 3,404 a decade ago). Highway 36 passes
through (or near) Midway, the county seat Atwood
(pop. 1,279, elevation 2,850), at
Kansas Hwy. 25, and then McDonald, near the Cheyene County line.
County, Kansas (pop. 3,165, down from 3,678 a decade ago) ; Bird
City, Wheeler, and the county seat, St.
Francis (pop. 1,497, elevation 3,320), which lies on a stretch of Hwy. 36's overlap with Kansas Hwy. 27, and just east of the
roadside memorials stand to the north of Hwy. 36, where it makes a sweeping turn
to south just east of the Colorado line.
Cheyenne Theater, St. Francis, Kansas.
36 enters Colorado in Yuma
County (pop. 9,841,
up 9.9% since 1990).
A few miles in, 36 hits
U.S. 385 and joins it for a few miles heading south; it then turns west again, and
soon passes through the little unincorporated towns of Idalia (est. as
Alva, PO est. 1887; renamed Idalia 1888), and then Joes (elevation 4,271)(near the insertion of Colorado Hwy. 59 from the north). (The county seat
of Yuma County, Colorado is Wray, well to the north, on U.S.
I passed through Idalia in 1995, my eyes, and my imagination, were caught by this
little Texaco station.
When I was a kid, and we drove to and from our summer
vacation in Colorado on Hwy. 36, we only stopped at Texaco stations, because my
Dad had a Texaco credit card.
Did we ever stop here? We could have, I am
sure, but I have to be honest and say that I don't specifically remember having
done so. Still, we would have passed the place, which is on the south side
of Hwy. 36 right in town.
I should say, "was". The
station was closed when I took these photos, and when I passed here in 2001, it
was not merely closed -- it was gone. There was just the empty lot where it had
Of course, gasoline stations of this size are not economically
viable nowadays, particularly not when then they are located on lonely stretches
like this part of Hwy. 36, where cars and trucks are few and far between.
an interesting contrast, take a look at my little profile of a High Plains mega-truck
stop: Shoemaker's, on I-80 just west of Lincoln, Nebraska. It is also
a Texaco gas station, but in a different world than the one this one lived in.
Passing through Joes in 2001,
I happened upon a tractor pull sponsored by the
East Central Colorado Antique Tractor Association.
Outside of Joes, I passed this roadside memorial, on the north side of the
highway, at the intersection with a local road.
Washington County, Colorado
since 1990) is next.
Just across the county line is Cope (pop. 626, elevation 4,426), at the intersection with the continuation of Colorado Hwy. 59 to the south.
along in Washington County lies Anton (pop. 240, elevation 4,870); still farther,
Lindon (pop. 136, elevation 4,899) ; then
finally, at the intersection with Colorado Hwy. 71, Last Chance
(elevation 4,780). (The county seat of Washington County, Colorado is Akron,
well to the north of Anton).
Last Chance truly was the "last chance" for gas, water, or anything
else, before a long, dry, unpopulated shot across the barren plains to Denver,
77 miles to the west. Now, the warning is not accurate. Highway 36 does continue to the west, straddling or paralleling the line between Adams County and Arapahoe County, but while it used to run straight on to Denver without hitting much of anything, it no longer does so. Only about 35 miles west of Last Chance, Hwy. 36 suddenly veers south and meets I-70, at Exit 316. From there on to the west, Hwy. 36 stays close to the Interstate, wandering at most a mile or so away as it runs into Denver.
When I was a child, looking out the windows of the family station wagon as we roared through on our way to our mountain vacations, there was something vaguely exciting to me about Last Chance. I suppose it was that suggestion of risk, of adventure, of setting off on a dangerous trek across a barren, deserted landscape -- would we make it?
As an adult, on the far side of middle age, there is something poignant to me about it. The "last chances" it speaks of to me now, are of a different kind.
Like everything else in this world, Last Chance is changing. For one thing, the signs on Hwy. 36 that announce the name of the place were
recently moved out, by several hundred yards at least. I suppose people were flying by so fast, that the name never even registered on them until they had passed the place. Moving the signs back seemed a kind of, "Hey! Here we are!" kind of move.
More ominously (at least to me), the Angel of the Dairy King has disappeared. The Angel was attached to a telephone pole, above a picnic table just outside the Dairy King (see photo). I had never been by there at any time other than midday, but it looked to me like the Angel would have been illuminated at night.
When a town's angel disappears, what kind of chances does it have left?
For more details about the western end of US
36, see the links below.
Miscellaneous links of interest: