Route 66 in the News

Forgotten Highway Rivals Route 66 in Historical Interest

2009-11-22 20:16:09

PITTSBURG, Kan. - The old Jefferson Highway was the first road to traverse North America from north to south and possibly the first dedicated international highway in the world.

So why is it nearly forgotten while Route 66 — which is not nearly so historic or as long — is celebrated with festivals and tons of memorabilia?

“It’s because of that TV show in the 1960s and its hit theme song,” said Mike Conlin, a native of Canada who now lives in Metairie, La. “We need a song about the Jefferson Highway.” With or without a song, it is Conlin’s mission to make the Jefferson Highway famous again.

Conlin and his friend Gary Augustine of Prince George, British Columbia, made their 2,373-mile “Pine to Palm ’09” road trip to raise awareness of the highway.

“We’re also finding out about all the places along the highway, things that would make people want to stop and visit while they’re driving along the route,” Conlin said.

He and Augustine, who started their trip Nov. 4, recently were in Franklin and Pittsburg to visit sites along the old highway.

The highway was conceived at a meeting in New Orleans in 1915 and dedicated in 1919.

The northern end was in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and the route traveled through Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas before ending in New Orleans.

No federal funds were used in its construction. “It was financed by township money and private money,” said Randy Roberts, a librarian at Pittsburg State University. Roberts and Phyllis Bitner were Conlin and Augustine’s guides while they stopped in Kansas.

“Imagine a highway being built that way today.” There was a rivalry between Missouri and Kansas, who both wanted the highway, and between sites in eastern and western Kansas.

“The rivalry between the two Kansas groups actually got more contentious than the one between Kansas and Missouri,” Roberts said. The eastern part of the state won, and Pittsburg was one of the stops on the highway.

“It went straight down Broadway, south to Centennial, then east, past the location of the current Mount Carmel Regional Medical Center, then south to Opolis,” Roberts said. “By the 1920s there were big poles on Broadway to mark it. I’ve been told there’s still one highway marker somewhere in Crawford County, but I don’t know where it is.

If anybody does know, I hope they get in touch with me.”

The current Parrot Bey, 408 N. Locust, was the site of the Jefferson Highway Garage. Bitner and Roberts took Conlin and Augustine to lunch at the Corner Bistro.

The bistro’s parking lot was once the site of a depot for Jefferson Bus Lines, named for the highway.

Conlin said he became interested in the highway about three years ago after reading a newspaper article about it.

“A piece of it runs through Metairie,” he said. “I was homesick for Canada, and when I found out the highway started in Winnipeg, I felt a connection to it. I’m a mapmaker by trade, so I researched it and made a map of it.

Then I decided to drive it and see where it goes.”

The two were in Carthage, Mo., before coming to Pittsburg.

“A section of Route 66 runs right on top of the Jefferson Highway at Carthage,” Conlin said. “But a lot of the old highway route in Missouri is gravel today.”

He and Augustine completed their trip Tuesday in New Orleans.

Conlin now must sort through all the notes and materials he collected on the trip.

“It will take me months to know all the stuff I’ve got,” he said. “It would be nice to do a documentary about this, but I haven’t had time to take the video camera out of the bag.”

~Nikki Patrick, Associated Press


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