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Lincoln Highway: Nebraska February 17, 2012

Posted by Jenny in history, travel.
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100th meridian sign in Cozad, Nebraska

In this series of posts, we journey on the Lincoln Highway from New York City to San Francisco, taking it state by state. Go here for an introduction.

Ahhh… now we are truly getting into the West, where we might see antelope or prairie dogs, where the sky keeps getting larger and the air has a tang of dryness.

The current highway map of Nebraska shows some nice shapes. I-80 is the dominant line across the state, taking the lovely yin-yang curve of the Platte River for much of its length before it leaves the river and straightens into a purposeful line in the more rectilinear patterns of eastern Nebraska. The split of I-80 and US 26 at Ogallala reflects the widening separation of the North Platte and the South Platte. We notice that certain counties in western Nebraska have practically no roads in them.

The route of the Lincoln Highway follows US 30 all the way across, which in turn follows the curves of the Platte. Where I-80 tracks the Platte, US 30 runs like a shadow just north of it. There is just one significant exception: the original 1913 route entered Nebraska from Iowa slightly further south, going through Omaha because that’s where the bridge over the Missouri was located. It then headed northwest to hit Fremont.

After a bridge was built at Blair in 1929, the Highway was routed that way for a more direct connection westward from Iowa. In fact, another early named highway made that connection through Blair, the “Bee-Line,” but although highway construction started in 1923, the route didn’t get much traffic until the bridge went into place.

Blair bridge during floods in 2011

The old and new routes joined in Fremont.

Downtown Fremont

Continuing west, we reach Columbus, which has some interesting attractions, including Glur’s Tavern.

Glur's Tavern

Glur’s (I love that name) is said to be the oldest bar west of the Missouri operating continuously in the same building. It opened in 1876 as Bucher’s Saloon, and there is still a “Saloon” sign over the door. The Glurs bought the place in 1914. It features old photographs on the wall and ancient wooden floorboards.

Columbus also boasts the Lincoln Highway Garage, built in 1915 to handle any malfunctioning vehicles making the grand journey along the Highway. It has an imposing appearance, and the word “GARAGE” is etched in the formal lettering style you might expect on a tombstone.

The Lincoln Highway Garage in Columbus

The Highway passes through the small town of Duncan, where a marker can be seen.

Lincoln Highway marker in Duncan

The marker is located at the end of a 2.4-mile section that is largely unchanged from the 1920s, a road lined with hackberry trees.

At Grand Island, I-80 comes in from the east to join US 30 in its following of the Platte. Grand Island has one of those very elegant county courthouses that we have noted all along the way. It was built 1901.

Hall County Courthouse, Grand Island

The courthouse survived the famous Grand Island Tornadoes of 1980. Several features made this event a meteorological freak. It was a slow-moving supercell complex that moved across town at only 8 mph, and most of them looped around to recross places they had already devastated—I can only dimly imagine the horrific experience of the residents. Three of the tornadoes were anticyclonic, meaning they spun clockwise rather than counterclockwise as is usually the case in the Northern Hemisphere: cyclones generally follow the Coriolis Effect, which causes water to spin down the bathtub drain in opposite directions in the two hemispheres.

Two tornadoes are visible in this picture from Grand Island.

The Highway passes through Kearney, which can be seen in this panorama from 1909.

Kearney panorama

In Lexington, it is possible to visit the Heartland Museum of Military Vehicles. What’s really interesting about the museum’s collection of tanks, ambulances, snow tractors, and other vehicles is that most were acquired within a 150-mile radius of Lexington, according to the museum website. They were used in the 1940s and 1950s for farming purposes when tractors were in short supply, then as time went on were generally left idle somewhere on the property. The collection of vehicles was started by four men in 1986 in part so that veterans would have a chance to visit and enjoy them. The museum has restored them, and many are operational.

Heartland Museum of Military Vehicles

Now we come to Cozad, which sits astride the 100th meridian (see photo at top). It is also known as the place where artist Robert Henri (born Robert Henry Cozad) lived during his childhood. The town was founded by his father, John Jackson Cozad, a gambler and real estate developer who also founded Cozaddale, Ohio, thus sprinkling that strange-sounding name across the country.

In 1882, John Cozad fatally shot a local rancher over a cattle grazing dispute. Apparently he was cleared—it must have been considered an act of self-defense—but the townspeople turned against the Cozad family, which fled to Denver. They all changed their names and continued moving from place to place across the country, ending in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where the now-styled Robert Henri started his successful career painting Parisian-looking scenes of urban landscapes and portraits of refined people. Quite an act of self-invention!

Robert Henri, 1897

The town never changed its name and now even features a Robert Henri museum.

The Highway passes through Gothenburg, which like much of the route through Nebraska, was along the route of the Pony Express. A station from the Express can be visited there.

Gothenburg Pony Express station

We pass through Ogallala.

Front Street, Ogallala

One of the points of interest around Ogallala is Boot Hill, a cemetery that got its name because many of its occupants “died with their boots on.”

West of Ogallala, US 30, I-80 (and the Highway) go straight west toward Sidney and Kimball, while I-76 picks up the route of the South Platte toward Colorado, a state that lobbied hard to be included along the Lincoln Highway but was ultimately not made part of the route.

Out toward the Wyoming border, we reach Kimball, which calls itself the “High Point of Nebraska” because the state high point, Panorama Point (5,424′) is located not far away. In fact, another Nebraska town is actually the elevational high point at its town center (4,876′).

Kimball is the location of the historic Wheat Growers Hotel, opened in an elegant ceremony in 1918. It is an imposing brick edifice with the words WHEAT GROWERS HOTEL blazoned across its front. It had days of glory when the ballroom was often in use and notable people stayed there, including the young Eisenhower during his 1919 Transcontinental Military Convoy. The hotel fell upon hard times in the mid 1920s, but managed to survive the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Yet time took its toll, and the aging facility closed in 1988.

Citizens of Kimball have been engaged in a dedicated effort to preserve and restore this “grand old lady.” You can buy the hotel and fix it up if you like, and in so doing make an enormous contribution to the region. For further information, check out this website.

The jewel of Kimball, Nebraska

Past Kimball, we approach the Wyoming border and head toward the town of Pine Bluff.

Transcontinental Military Convoy in western Nebraska, 1919