Planning for the Interstate Highway System (IHS) was begun in the 1930s. However, World War II and the Korean War meant that very little was done for several years. As outlined in a recent FreightWaves article about President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the IHS was authorized and funded in 1956. Construction, reconstruction and expansion of the IHS has been going on ever since.
Forty-seven years ago (October 19, 1974) a ceremony took place to celebrate the completion of the last segment of Interstate 80 (I-80) in Nebraska. The ceremony was held five miles west of Sidney, Nebraska, and about 5,000 people attended the event. Nebraska Governor (and future U.S. Senator) J. James Exon told the crowd, “It is the end of a long, long trail for dedicated people who worked on the I-80 project in Nebraska.”
First state to finish its portion of the IHS
Nebraska became the first state to complete its share of the original IHS. I-80 is the interstate highway that most closely follows the coast-to-coast route of the historic Lincoln Highway. I-80 traverses the United States between the New York City metropolitan area and San Francisco. Its length is 2,899.59 miles, and it is the second-longest interstate highway after I-90 (which runs for 3,020.44 miles between Boston and Seattle).
“Some say it is a historic day, and I agree that it is a most historic day, and it is an event we can be proud of,” Exon stated during the ceremony that marked the completion of Nebraska’s 455.3-mile section of I-80. “We will remember it for a long time because it links the state east and west and soon Nebraskans will see another link, the East Coast with the West Coast.”
The final link in I-80 between the East Coast and the West Coast was completed in 1986, when the last section of the interstate was finished on the western edge of Salt Lake City.
At the 1974 ceremony John Kemp, regional administrator for the Federal Highway Administration, praised the Nebraska Department of Roads (known as NDOR, which became part of the Nebraska Department of Transportation on June 30, 2017), for its oversight of I-80’s design and construction. “The Department of Roads has done a tremendous job,” Kemp said. “You have a wonderful highway. Use it safely and enjoy it.”
NDOR’s director and state engineer, Thomas D. Doyle, commended the strong public support for constructing I-80 across Nebraska. He stated, “The people of Nebraska were very cooperative and are the real builders of the highway.”
At the Sidney I-80 East Rest Area, a marker from the Nebraska State Historical Society was formally unveiled. In part it states, “Nebraska’s interstate highway system is the most significant and the largest single public works project ever undertaken in this state. Beginning 19 years ago on March 8, 1955 with a small portion near [the city of] Kimball, year by year and mile by mile it progressed steadily across the state.”
Other interesting facts
Nebraska’s section of I-80 is the only interstate highway that crosses from one end of the state to the other. And except for a three-mile segment of I-76 near the state line with Colorado, I-80 is the only primary (two-digit) interstate in Nebraska. Also, the longest straight segment of the entire IHS is in Nebraska – approximately 72 miles of I-80 between Grand Island and Lincoln.
Nebraska is in the approximate center of the continental United States. This means that for trucking, I-80 is within a two-day distance of 95% of the country. Also, I-80 is the most heavily traveled interstate in the U.S.
The primary photo in this FreightWaves Classics article is the Archway. It is located three miles east of Kearney, Nebraska. The Archway was previously known as the Great Platte River Road Archway Monument. It is an arch, or bridge, that spans more than 300 feet above I-80.
Opened in July 2000, it is a museum focused on the westward expansion of the United States, as well as the American “fascination with the car and road travel.” It contains a historical experience that explains the story of the development of Nebraska and the Platte River Valley.
The trail along the Platte River, which came to be known as the Great Platte River Road, has been a thoroughfare for travel across the continent since prehistoric times. During the mid-1800s, many travelers assembled at Fort Kearny before heading west on the Oregon Trail, the California Trail and Mormon Trail.
The IHS is not perfect. Begun in the mid-1950s when the U.S. population was half of what it is now, in most cities it has become woefully inadequate to handle the volume of traffic. With all of its faults, however, I would rather be in a car or truck on an interstate than trying to cross the U.S. in a covered wagon. How about you?