U.S. Highway 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.


Crossing over the Missouri River at St. Joseph, Missouri, U.S. Highway 36 heads first through Doniphan County, Kansas (pop. 8,249 - down from 9,268 a decade ago). 

I 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 roaring.   

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, Hiawatha (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.



Cutting across Nemaha County (pop. 10,717 - up from 10,446 a decade ago), which lies next to the west, 36 runs straight as an arrow.  

Seneca (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 of Marysville (pop. 3,271, elevation 1,202), where it intersects U.S. Hwy. 77. 

Marysville has many features of which it is proud -- its fine old courthouse, the Koester 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.

What (or who) does the face represent?  No clue.  I have been able to find very little about the history of the place.

The 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 sandstone here.

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.  


Washington County, 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 this county.  


Republic County, 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, Belleville (pop. 2,239, elevation 1,550), at the intersection with U.S. 81.

The Blair is a gorgeous old movie palace in Belleville.


One of Belleville's major attractions is the North Central Kansas Free Fair, held there every year. 




Another 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 Nationals.




I've 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.



Jewell 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.




Smith 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".

Throughout 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 trip. 



In 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 flatlands". 



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 and Reager.

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.


Decatur 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. 




Rawlins County, 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.  




Cheyenne 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 Republican River.

These roadside memorials stand to the north of Hwy. 36, where it makes a sweeping turn to south just east of the Colorado line. 


The Cheyenne Theater,  St. Francis, Kansas.





Highway 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. 385).

When 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.  


Or, 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 been.  


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.

For 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 (pop. 4,926 up 2.4% 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. 

 Farther 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).   

Once, 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:

Interactive Kansas County Map - links to sites about the counties and the towns in them      
GeoKansas - Kansas geology - what's under the road
US Highway 36 in Colorado - for serious highway buffs who need to know every twist and turn
[West] End of US Highway 36  - ditto
American Highway Project - documenting the vanishing world along the American highway








the old same place

© 2004 David B. Nance