I derive inspiration from odd places. I stumbled across a simple notation on a chart, no more than a throwaway comment really, and it fascinated me. I noticed a brief history of Highway 183 on the the US Highways website,(1)
Since 1930; original route North Platte, NE – Dresden, KS; extended north to Vivian, SD 1932 (planned 1930); extended south to Ballinger, TX 1938; extended south to Junction, TX 1939; switched places with US 83 from Pierre, SD to Oakley, KS 1941; current 1952; Last US highway to be completely paved @1967 (Final segment – Rose, NE to Taylor, NE); Was planned to extend to Corpus Christi?
Wait! Hold on a second. The last section of the U.S. highway system(2) wasn’t paved until 1967? How could that be?
First, let’s examine the terrain. That segment of Highway 183 traverses the Sandhill Country of north-central Nebraska, a vast area of twenty thousand square miles blanketed by sand dunes encompassing a quarter of the state. Most people do not realize they exist because the sand is covered by prairie grasses, nonetheless it lies right below the surface hiding in plain site. Nebraska’s Sand Hills comprise the largest dune complex found anywhere in the Western Hemisphere.
SOURCE: United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Sandhills Task Force
Glaciers scoured the shoulders of the Rocky Mountains. Winds and water pushed eroded dust, sands and gravel towards the east. Over time these forces created a distinct layer upon the lands extending hundreds of feet deep, so different from surrounding terrain that it’s considered a completely separate geological area and ecosystem. The Sand Hills are not considered part of the larger Great Plains that fill the vast midsection of the United States.
Settlers moving westward in the 19th Century largely bypassed these sandy hills. Crops did not fare well in this expanse of gritty soil and scant rainwater, and there was plenty of better choices elsewhere. The Homestead Act opened much of interior America to settlement in the latter 19th Century and into the 20th Century but there were few takers in this hidden corner. The offer, while generous when applied to other parts of the country, simply did not provide a means to scrape a living from the sand.
It wasn’t until the much later Kincaid Act of 1904 – designed specifically for Nebraska’s sand hill counties – did the population finally begin to climb. It amended the Homestead Act and allowed settlers to claim an entire township section (640 acres = one square mile), rather than limiting them to a quarter of a section or less as was typical elsewhere. This amount of acreage supported cattle ranching, still a dominant agribusiness here. Farming has become feasible only in the modern era with improvements to irrigation and fertilization.
Even so, the area remains sparsely populated when compared to its neighbors. The large preponderance of the Sand Hills remain untouched by plow. It continues to exist in nearly pristine condition with native prairie grasses intact, just like what the first settlers saw as they began to cross the plains more than a hundred and fifty years ago.
Highway 183’s Final Unpaved Segment
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It shouldn’t be too surprising then that the Taylor to Rose segment of U.S. Highway 183 remained unpaved longer than any other section of the U.S. highway system. Most of this segment fell within the boundaries of Loup County. Only 720 people lived in Loup County as of the 2000 Decennial Census, within an area of 570 square miles. Do the math and that works out to less than one person per square mile. That’s some serious emptiness.
During my research I discovered that Loup County actually maintains an up-to-date website in spite of its diminutive population. A little tear of nostalgia formed in the corner of my eye as I studied it, reminding me of those exciting early days of the web. Hopefully nobody thinks I’m being satirical because I’m not, however I suddenly felt transported back to 1994 by its old school design with its scrolling banners, simple graphics, tables and image maps. It even seems to have been coded by hand. Those of you who designed pages "back in the day" will know exactly what I’m talking about. The rest of you can chalk this up to babbling from the ancient one.
I wanted to see if Google Street View included any images from the final segment, but sadly they do not.
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Google brought me all the way into Taylor but left me hanging at the northern end of town. The segment of Highway 183 that I want to see was so tantalizingly close. The highway shield and arrow sat right there on a post, almost within touching distance, but the stretch of highway I want to explore simply taunted me from afar.
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However I could take a peek along Highway 183 a few miles south of town, as in this image. I dropped into Street View mode at a number of points surrounding my target and they all looked a lot like this. Feel free to use this as a mental proxy. It’s probably close.
Taylor and Rose
I’ve become spoiled by Street View. I should be thankful that Taylor has any coverage at all. Only about two hundred people live here. It’s also the County Seat for Loup (and there’s only one other town in the County), which points out once again the low population density in case that wasn’t readily apparent from everything else I’ve noted.
It seems to be a nice enough place with the typical small town values and pride.
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Taylor also has a website, and a pretty good one at that considering it was put together by the local schoolchildren. The old Nebraska sodbuster saying they chose to feature on the front page seems to resonate with me in particular: "Anybody can love the mountains, but it takes soul to love the prairie." Consider that for awhile and let it sink in.
Taylor also hides a tenacity that has allowed it to survive for more than a century. It’s had its ups, downs, and promises of what might have been over the years. As the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Virtual Nebraska explains,
Loup County may well hold the record for having the most miles of railroad grade built within its boundaries, but never having an inch of track laid. Extensions from branch lines at Sargent and Burwell were both anticipated between 1887 and 1920, but never came to fruition.
Townspeople erected the Pavillion Hotel in anticipation of that first anticipated railway line. Amazingly it survives to this day. It serves as Taylor’s most defining landmark and holds a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. The town, like the hotel, clings to the Sand Hills and refuses to let go.
Follow the formerly unpaved U.S. Highway 183 north another thirty miles and one will arrive at Rose in neighboring Rock County. Calling Rose a town would be a bit ambitious even in this nearly empty quarter, however it does seem to represent a few buildings scattered along the roadside.
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Rose also proves that there is some farming taking place within the Sand Hills. Crop circles appear on several sides of the settlement. No, I’m not talking about supposed UFOs. This has nothing to do with Unidentified Anythings, Flying or otherwise. Rather, I’m referring to those crop circles that result from center pivot irrigation. Maybe you’ve seen circles like these before when you’ve flown across the great midsection of the United States? Those circles are created by long sections of pipe on trusses that are mounted on wheels. The whole structure pivots, or rotates, in a circle as it waters crops along the way. Take a closer look at the image above and the wheel marks become visible within the circle like grooves on an old discarded LP record.
Every place hides a story. Even a remote stretch of U.S. Highway in an expanse of emptiness can be coaxed to reveal its secrets. It’s not that empty after all.
(1)It always concerns me when I can find only a single source for a fact. I’d much rather have an original source, but this will have to do and it’s a fun topic to discuss.
(2)The U.S. Highway System should not be confused with the Interstate Highway System. They are in fact different.