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Where we're always on the road, and it's always 1962! ™

US-6 The Longest Highway - Day 29

Across the High Prairie

We reached the end of our 28th day of our US-6 journey at Imperial, Nebraska yesterday, passing through the halfway point in mileage. Hello again, Don Milne here and as your Roadtrip-'62 ™ guide, I can assure you that it will not be another driving 28 days until we reach the end of the trip. That’s because from here west, we will see far fewer cities, and that means less to stop for. We will begin to see some higher mileage days. For example, day 27 was 137 miles, and day 28 was 157 miles. Today, I’m hoping to get 201 miles! It should be our last day on the prairie, and the driest, as we drive into the rain shadow of the Rocky Mountains. Let’s keep our eyes peeled and if you see them first, let me know when you get your first glimpse of the mountains. I hope you’re having fun on this virtual roadtrip, but there's nothing like the real thing! At any time, click on an underlined word below to learn more about the places on the trip. Let’s get back on the road again!

 
Pawnee Street, downtown Lamar, Nebraska
Pawnee Street, downtown Lamar, Nebraska (Public domain photo by Ammodramus at Wikimedia Commons.)

We’ll still see farming on the dry prairie, but it looks a bit different. You may have noticed a few circular fields along the way, but from here on out that is about all we’ll see. Most of the irrigation from here west is from pumped groundwater, distributed from center pivot irrigation onto fields up to a mile in diameter. People had farmed out here before the 1960s and early 1970s, but this innovation meant they no longer had to rely on the few reservoirs along the South Platte River. As a result, land prices sky-rocketed from around $2-$20 an acre to as high as $300-$500 an acre! Also as a result, people moved off the land to the larger towns, where it was easier to find groceries, churches, and other amenities. Smaller towns like Lamar, Nebraska faded away and local businesses closed, feeding the loop of fewer and fewer services. Today Lamar has only a post office, two small churches, the school, and a fire department. We pass about two miles from the remains of Lamar and shortly after, we cross into Colorado. The first thing we see here is another grain elevator right across the state line. The grain elevators will be the most obvious landmark in every city today until we get nearly to Denver.

We meet US-385 at Holyoke, Colorado. This route has the unusual distinction of being the second highway to bear this number, as the original route became part of US-87 around 1935. The current US-385 was created in 1959, just in time for us to see the signs! It runs about 1,206 miles from Deadwood, South Dakota, near Mt. Rushmore, to Big Bend National Park in Texas. Holyoke is a town of grain elevators; I think I saw at least 4 around town. It also seems to be a town of small, older motels. We pass the Cedar Inn just inside town on the east side. It may be closed but was open as late as 2008. The Golden Plains Motel contains some new rooms and older remodeled rooms. And the Burge Hotel is an historic hotel building with modern updates, run today on the bed and breakfast concept. The hotel is an example of southwest, mission-influenced architecture, which we begin to see more of as we continue west.

 
Ringneck pheasant rooster
Ringneck pheasant rooster in tall grass. (Public domain photo from Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic License.)

Perhaps the reason such a small town can support so many motels is that Holyoke is a center for hunting, especially ringneck pheasants. So popular is this sport that the pheasant appears on the county seal. The Phillips County Pheasants Forever Chapter is the organization responsible in large part for the successful hunts. One of their projects takes advantage of the corners of irrigated circular fields, which sit on square parcels of land. They have helped farmers convert these 7-acre field corners to pheasant habitat by planting trees and switchgrass for year-round cover for the birds. There is a small history museum here, the Phillips County Museum, which was established in 1967. The town also hosts two events that I could not find the age of, the Phillips County Fair and the Phillips County Raceway. The fail is the typical agricultural fail with 4-H projects, gardening, livestock, a rodeo, talent show, parade, fireworks, and antique tractor pull. The raceway is a fast 3/8ths mile dirt oval track, just north of town.

Next up is tiny Paoli, Colorado, which has something from 1962 that no other town along our route has: a mayor. Virgil Harms, 89, has been mayor of the town since 1961! There has been no official election in all that time, because it would cost too much, so he just keeps serving. And I can see why the town doesn’t want to spend money. It’s only about 9 blocks of sparsely set houses, with a population of about 34 and a couple of agricultural businesses that do not quite make it look like a town. Beyond here is the more substantial town of Haxtun, Colorado. The Haxtun Corn Festival, now in its 94th year, is held in late September. This festival was around in 1962 and has a number of activities that were likely around then, including carnival rides, a parade, antique tractor pull, quilt show, crop and garden show, baking contest, demolition derby, the Fireman’s pancake breakfast, and food vendors. Though Haxtun shares in the pheasant hunt of northeast Colorado, its last old motel, the 6-Hwy Motel, closed sometime after 2002. The building is a roofless shell now.

 
Haxtun Town Hall, Haxtun, Colorado
Haxtun Town Hall, Haxtun, Colorado (Photo by Jeffrey Beall at Flickr, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.)

At west edge of town, US-6 has a permanently-mounted Road Closed sign on a gate that can be closed across the highway. There is another one up ahead at the west edge of Merino, Colorado. I’ve seen these in National Parks when they need to close mountain passes in winter. It appears that there is a frequent need to close the highway but I’m not sure why. Perhaps due to blizzards on the open plains to the west? We pass by today and then pass by Dailey, Colorado. Dailey is another town that has nearly disappeared and in fact I saw fewer buildings than back at Paoli. It faded out after the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s, when farming became impossible for a few years. The first building built there was in 1914 and was used as a general store. It serves the same purpose today at the Overland Trail museum in Sterling, Colorado. We’ll stop and see it later.

Fleming, Colorado features another abandoned motel building, in mid-town on south side of US-6. Ever since leaving Imperial, the landscape has been mile after mile of the flattest, most treeless land we’ve seen yet. West of here, it becomes slightly rolling cattle rangeland, with no visible crops, homes, or even irrigation for miles. As I mentioned when we began today, there are just very few reasons to stop along the way. We next reach a larger town though, Sterling, Colorado. As with Phillips County that we just drove through, Logan County is also a sportsman’s paradise. The county features world class fishing as well as both small and big game hunting. The most popular game includes quail, rabbit, raccoon, bobcat, deer, geese, and pronghorn. Sterling was recently named one of the “25 Best Pheasant Hunting Towns in America” by Pheasants Forever. Also in Sterling, we meet the end of highway US-138, which runs only 72 miles, from here back to Big Springs, Nebraska. It was originally a spur of US-38, which is what this portion of US-6 was signed as until 1931. Sterling is a large enough town that our US-6 uses a pair of one-way streets through part of the city.

 
Union Pacific Railroad Depot, Sterling, Colorado
Union Pacific Railroad Depot, Sterling, Colorado (Photo by Jeffrey Beall at Flickr, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.)

Because the city is the county seat, it also boasts a courthouse; in this case a very nice domed courthouse built in 1909. Yet another beautiful old building we could have seen in 1962 is the Union Pacific railroad depot. The thing that’s different from 1962 though, is it’s location: it’s a depot with no railroad running by! The depot was constructed in 1902-1903 and served for eighty years. When it was no longer needed for railroad purposes, the red brick and stone depot was moved a couple of blocks to its present site in order to preserve it. The architecture is an interesting Victorian era mix of elements from Jacobethan, Italian Villa and Romanesque revival styles. The three-story tower features round design elements intended for a clock face, though it never contained one. It now houses the Logan County Chamber of Commerce and other commercial entities, and has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Time to spend some time in Sterling this morning, as we stop at the Overland Trail Museum. The museum was opened in 1936, so we could have seen it back in 1962. The museum was named after the Overland Trail branch of the Oregon Trail. The Overland Trail followed the south bank of the South Platte River through town and northeastern Colorado. It is said that between 1862 and 1868, the Overland Trail was the most heavily traveled road in America, and maybe even in the world. Besides the old general store moved from Dailey, you can walk through a 19th-century village including a barbershop, schoolhouse, church, barn, and blacksmith's shop. Displays include local fossils, branding irons, saddles, and other farm and ranch equipment, handmade toys and dolls, and mounted taxidermy animals. Maps and photographs allow you to follow the development of the Sterling area, and the historic westward migration of gold seekers. The collection even extends into more modern times, with antique electronics, old television sets and phonographs.

 
The New Bluebird Café and Texaco Service, ca. 1962 postcard
The New Bluebird Café and Texaco Service, ca. 1962 (from Cardboard America, used by permission.)

Some of the hunting and fishing around Sterling takes place at North Sterling State Park. The park was established in 1992, so it’s too new for us to stop at. It surrounds a reservoir on the South Platte River, so it also draws boaters and water skiers. The rock outcrops contain fossils of mostly Cretaceous origin. Sterling is also home to the Logan County Fair & Rodeo, and the Sugar Beets Days Arts and Crafts Festival, which is in its 35th year, so also too new for us. If you were staying here, there are also several old, small motels to choose from, perhaps catering to the seasonal hunting trade. The Crest Motel seems the most interesting to me. It’s a very nice looking place and photos show the rooms are also updated very nicely. This motel is in a quiet residential neighborhood across from a Catholic church and began life as a traditional motor court. Today they bill themselves as “Sterling's only Boutique Hotel.“ The owners have another motel just two blocks south, the Oakwood Inn, which includes a two-story portion that may date from the 1970s. Also nearby is the Colonial Motel, which kind of looks its age and is next door to an even older, closed motel. Another business, the Bluebird Café and Texaco Station, is also gone. In 1962, we could have received complete service and gas for our car, bought a snack or lunch, and bought postcards and more. But today, the building is home to the Sterling American Legion Post.

For a time, Sterling was known as the City of Living Trees. I first saw the carved trees in 1994: at that time there were 16 carved trees, some painted. The sculptures were carved by local artist Bradford Rhea from dead cottonwood and elm trees, beginning around 1984. They do not date back to 1962, so our roadtrip would have seen the giant trees in full leaf. By the early 1980s, the trees had died from Dutch Elm Disease and other causes and were scheduled for removal, but Mr. Rhea prevailed on the city to let him carve them instead. After many years standing as a tourist attraction, the wood had badly rotted and most of the trees were removed. Two sculptures now reside in the Sterling Public Library. The most spectacular sculpture, a group of five giraffes titled “Skygrazers”, was bronzed and returned to its home in Sterling’s Columbine Park. Most of the others are in a warehouse, awaiting restoration if funds can be raised. So driving through town today, we see neither the natural trees nor the sculptures on the roadside.

 

Ending of a Truth or Consequences show from 1966, but the host and contestant are taking their fashion cues from the Kennedys so it still looks like 1962!

 

Columbine Park is near the south edge of town and is a nice spot to watch trains pass, as the mainline is right across the street. The track parallels US-6 southwest to Merino, Colorado. The South Platte River runs near US-6 from here to Ft. Morgan, Colorado. We last saw its parent, the Platte River, back on Day 26 of this trip, near Ashland, Nebraska. Passing through Atwood, Colorado, I notice that the landscape is all flat farm cropland again, probably because of irrigation now that we are near the South Platte River valley. With more farms there are more homes, so Atwood is a pinch bigger than some of the towns we saw earlier today. The next town, Merino, is undertaking an unusual water systems improvement project. Since 2013, they have been working to address violation of the uranium contaminant levels in their water supply! I guess I won’t stop for a drink. Merino was the birthplace and early home of radio and television host and producer Ralph Edwards. You may not remember the name today, but we could have watched one of his TV shows in 1962: Truth or Consequences. The show aired for 38 years on a combination of radio and television. Though Edwards originated and produced many TV shows, he is probably best known for creating and hosting “This Is Your Life.” On this show, which ended in 1961, he would surprise some unsuspecting person (usually a celebrity) with a review of the subject's personal and professional life, including some surprise guests.

Messex, Colorado is a virtual ghost town, with its population in the 2010 census being just 2; it had been several hundred in the past. Earlier in 2015, the area suffered from a flood on the South Platte River when a levee adjacent to the railroad line broke. The breach tore through a half-mile wide span 4 feet deep but may not have impacted US-6, as it sits on the other side of the railroad from the break. So we can continue on to Hillrose, Colorado, which has a downtown consisting of a couple of blocks of vacant, single story buildings on an actual dirt street (probably gravel, actually). Talk about small towns! They have a pleasant little roadside park here if you just need a stop, though. But I’m continuing on the Brush, Colorado, where I will hunt for lunch. Speaking of hunting, there are several Colorado State Wildlife Areas nearby. I’m actually quite surprised to find that hunting is such a big deal here on the prairie: I always associate it with forests.

 
Mutton bustin’ at a rodeo
Mutton bustin’ at a rodeo (Photo by Gary Paulson at Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic License.)

Time again for that hunt for a good restaurant that dates back to at least 1962. To read with lunch, I’ll pick up a copy of The Brush News-Tribune, which has been a published here 1896. Brush is a fair-sized town, with quite a few restaurants. Beginning right at the east edge of town as we come in, located with the High Plains Livestock Exchange, is Drovers Restaurant. If you want to stop and chat with locals, this might be the place. Two years ago, they changed the name to Drovers Culinary Café, but the current owner has worked there off and on since 1977 and the place looks much older. Many of the eateries are downtown along Clayton Street. I’m sure the names and owners have changed, though some of the buildings may have bee restaurants since 1962 or earlier. One likely place is the former Desky Hotel building, with an old (1960s?) Pepsi sign painted on the brick side advertising “Cattlemen’s Inn”. It currently seems to be the Corral Sports Bar & Grill. The Desky sign on that building is a Federal Electric "Hotel" sign, which seems to date from the 1909-1925 period. I don’t know if it is still lit at night.

Other choices along Clayton Street include Olde Tyme Country Store, The Rising Sun Bakery (which may be better for donuts and dessert), and Carrillos Restaurant. Elsewhere around town we find True Grits Steakhouse, which has a John Wayne décor and meals are named after his movies, Sassy's Diner located at Brush Livestock, Home Plate 2, and The Gathering Place. Actually, passing by and looking up information on this group, perhaps they are all too new for us. After lunch, a look around town doesn’t find much to interest tourists; this is farm country. An important crop of the area is something I’m used to seeing back home in Saginaw, Michigan. They grow a lot of sugar beets around here, so much so that the Brush High School mascot is the Beetdigger, signifying the importance of the annual sugar beet crop. The town also pays homage to cattle raising, with The Brush Rodeo each year. The first rodeo in Brush was in 1884, and it brought a trainload of visitors from Denver to view the show. Today, it is known as the largest amateur rodeo in the world. It’s held in July for three days complete with the typical small town festival activites of a parade and fireworks, and besides the usual action you can watch mutton bustin’, where kids try to ride a sheep just like the grownups ride a bucking bronco!

 
abandoned Valley Drive-In sign, Ft. Morgan, Colorado
abandoned Valley Drive-In sign, Ft. Morgan, Colorado (Photo by jeterga at Cinema Treasures, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.)

Brush has the small Brush Area Museum & Cultural Center that has been in a former school building since 1994, but since I saw one history museum before lunch, I’ll be moving on. If you want some historical artifacts of your own, you might stop at one of the several antique stores in town. If we were staying the night, there are a few small, old motels to check out. The Kozy Kort Motel has a sign that appears to date from the 1950s, so the motel probably does too. It looks rather run down on the exterior, and since maintenance of the sign doesn’t seem to be important, it may be used as apartments. The Empire Motel is a nice looking brick motel right at the west edge of town. It was once a Budget Host, but no longer. Back in 1962, we probably could have also chosen from the Trav-O-Tel Motel, but it’s now a residential facility. Not even a sign remains at this very run down, 1930s style travel court. Leaving town, route US-34 travels with us. This is the third time we have crossed paths with US-34 on our journey. It joined us just east of Brush and in 1962 it would be with us for 26 miles to Wiggins, Colorado. Today, US-6 joins the I-76 freeway just east of Brush, while US-34 travels the old road by itself to Ft. Morgan, Colorado. Of course, we will drive the old road.

The first thing I noticed as I hit the east edge of town is the abandoned Valley Drive-In. The theatre opened in about 1956 and closed at the end of the 2010 season. The sign and screen are still there. Movie theatres all over the country are being forced to buy digital projection systems at a cost of about $80,000 per projector. For many smaller venues, such as drive-ins that are only open for part of the year, this is simply too expensive. The owner has said he will invest in a new system for his indoor Cover 4 Theatre, also in Ft, Morgan. We can’t go to the drive-in, but we can listen to the same radio station we could have in 1962. KFTM radio, at 1400 on the AM dial, has its studio and tower out on the west side of town. It first aired in 1949 and today broadcasts news, local weather, sports, agricultural information, and music in non-traditional, themed programs such as Colorado artists, blues, and Beatles.

 
Rainbow Bridge, Ft. Morgan, Colorado
Rainbow Bridge, Ft. Morgan, Colorado (Photo by Jeffrey Beall at Flickr, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.)

Also on the west side of Ft. Morgan is the I-76 Speedway. This ¼ mile high-banked dirt track features races of Late Models, Midgets, Modifieds, Street Stocks, Econos, 1200 Outlaws, Dwarfs, Mini Stocks, Mini Sprints, and Trucks: whew, just about anything! But it only opened in 1966, so we will not be stopping to watch a race. North of town is something old that has remained as an historic landmark. The Rainbow Bridge on highway CO-52 was built in 1922-1923 and consists of a series of beautiful concrete arches that gave it the name. During a flood of the South Platte River in 1953, the bridge held against a 10-foot wall of water virtually undamaged. Since it’s replacement by a new bridge just to the west, it has been open to foot traffic, connected to a local trail. It’s a great place to view the South Platte River valley.

Since we already visited one historical museum today, we will not be stopping at the Fort Morgan Museum. It may not be old enough for us anyway. It features Native American artifacts, as well as exhibits celebrating local agricultural roots. The soda fountain from the old Hillrose Drug Store has been refurbished and is a favorite exhibit of the museum. There is also an exhibit on Glenn Miller, perhaps Fort Morgan High School’s most well-known alumni. The big band musician unfortunately died during a tour providing entertainment to soldiers during World War II, but his musical influence continues to this day. Another celebrity has ties to Ft. Morgan, science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, who is buried here in Riverside Cemetery next to his twin sister Jane, who died as an infant. During 1962, Dick’s novel “The Man in the High Castle” was published. It is considered a defining novel of alternate history and it won a Hugo Award the next year. Also in 1962, his 1953 story "Impostor" was adapted for the British television series Out of This World.

 
The Man in the High Castle, 1962
The Man in the High Castle, 1962 book club edition (from online sale advertisement)

The main business in Ft. Morgan is Cargill’s beef processing facility, which makes the company the largest employer in Morgan County. While I’m sure it keeps the town going, I’m not sure what keeps the several local motels going. However, there are several old but rather good-looking accommodations to check out if you decide to stay here. There is the Deluxe Motel, which looked good before several rooms were damaged by a fire in February of 2015. Also the Central Motel, in the center of town of course, which is very sharp and still AAA listed. And we pass the Ft. Morgan Motel just west of city center and Sand's Inn Park Terrace. The last motel was remodeled in 2012, but looks like a late 1970s building to me. The Sands Motel on the west side of town was owned by the same people at some point. Next door to that is Santiago’s Mexican Restaurant, which occupies a building similar to a Howard Johnsons restaurant, complete with a copula. There is also an old neon Motel sign sitting in a vacant lot near downtown on US-6 that probably was someplace to stay back in 1962. Another closed motel is the El Rancho Motel, a few miles west of town, with its driveway fenced off.

Our US-6 route was already reconstructed as a freeway in 1960, from Ft. Morgan to Roggen, Colorado. Thus, the I-76 freeway appears to be built right on top of the old route, though the easterly frontage road might be the old road for about the first mile. Alongside of us is the railroad again, which we follow to Denver. Just before the US-34 exit at Wiggins, Colorado, we cross the dry wash of the Bijou Creek. I suppose it only has water flowing immediately during and after one of the high prairie’s infrequent rainstorms. Kiowa Creek west of town is the same. At this same exit, there is a modern freeway rest area off the freeway on old US-6, Central Avenue. So we get off here and follow the old road into Wiggins, which was established in 1882. Because it never incorporated as a city and floods there was no legal entity that could act in the case of emergencies, Wiggins residents paid out of pocket for repairs from three devastating floods. The Flood of 1973 was the final straw, and in 1974, the town finally incorporated. Today, there is a lot of vacant land, few homes, and no obvious downtown. The street grid that indicates the town was once much larger and that probably accounts for Wiggins Telephone. The company has been providing local telephone service as an independent phone cooperative since 1951. Today, the coop has the only state-of-the-art fiber optic network in the region.

 
Roggen Farmers' Elevator Association elevator, Roggen, Colorado
Roggen Farmers' Elevator Association elevator, Roggen, Colorado, with Rocky Mountains in the distance (Photo by Chris May at Flickr, used by permission.)

Just west of Wiggins, old US-6 disappears under the I-76 freeway again, though a frontage road on the north side may be the old road about halfway to Roggen. The freeway speed limit is 75mph! There is no frontage road for most of the distance, because there is nothing that needs access. The countryside is just about empty: no buildings, no trees, no crops, no power lines. Where there is some of the old road, parts have even gone back to gravel instead of pavement, because there is little traffic. But there are cattle guards at some side roads, so this must be rangeland. That will change after Keenesburg, Colorado, where it appears we might enter another irrigation district. Back in 1962, the old Conoco station in Roggen was still open. But the grocery store next to the post office closed about 1963. The abandoned Prairie Lodge Motel sits now with all the doors wide open. Roggen is another town of about 8 half-vacant blocks and there is not much here except Roggen Telephone and the Roggen Farmers' Elevator Association. This small telephone utility was started in 1928 and now also includes wireless internet service. The grain elevator was built in 1950 by Mayer-Osborn company of Denver, a contractor responsible for many elevators in Colorado, Nebraska and Iowa. At that time, increased production prompted many elevators to replace aging wooden structures with concrete and steel.

Keenesburg is a real town with a real downtown of occupied, one-story buildings. The city hosts the South East Weld County Fair in mid-August, which includes a tractor pull and rodeo. It is also home to The Wild Animal Sanctuary, which is just a few miles off US-6 but actually closer to Hudson, Colorado. The sanctuary is the oldest and largest nonprofit sanctuary in the United State dedicated exclusively to rescuing captive exotic and endangered large carnivores. But it was founded in 1980, so we will not be stopping. From this location on the Great Plains, about 35 miles northeast of Denver, the snow-capped Rockies are visible. The first time I came upon this view I thought it was amazing. The mountains reminded me a bit of large hills because I had no experience with real, snow-capped mountains. But the haze associated with the view told me there was something different. On that trip, my wife and I were heading west on US-34 and as we continued, the mountains steadily loomed larger. Eventually, you could see how huge they really were compared to the flat prairie we were crossing. It was truly an awesome sight, and we get some of the same view from US-6, though we are not heading due west. Beyond Keenesburg, we cross another dry creek, Box Elder Creek. These creeks must be dry most of the time, as the creekbeds are clearly used for driving, as if the gravel is just another gravel road.

 
Interior of Pepper Pod, Hudson, Colorado
Interior of Pepper Pod, Hudson, Colorado (Photo from The Pepper Pod)

If I could have held out for lunch until Hudson, Colorado, I would have liked to try the Pepper Pod. This restaurant is currently celebrating 102 years in business! The Pepper Pod began as a modest cafe on the old Main Street in Hudson. But as business thrived, they built a new, pueblo-themed building next to US-6. In 1956, the current larger building was constructed near the new interstate freeway, now I-76. Ownership has changed but the restaurant is still a landmark, which has many menu items made from recipes over 100 years old. These include the salad dressings, soups, breads, and gravies, which are all made from scratch. Hudson is also home to Denver Plastics, which was founded in 1961 to manufacture a line of highly automated specialized machinery. The company eventually got into the growth industry of the 1960s: plastics. Today, they produce a variety of proprietary products for the packaging, irrigation and building industries, along with the specialized equipment for the construction trades.

About five miles south of Hudson, we hit the first sign of the Denver metropolitan area, a housing development at the CO-7 interchange for Brighton, Colorado. Commercial development begins at the next interchange. Barr Lake State Park is on the east side of the freeway, with old US-6 used for park access. The lake itself was a bison wallow 150 years ago, not a lake. This natural depression in the prairie collected and held water in the spring and many animals congregated in the area. By the 1860s cowboys brought their steers through the area because the grasses and water from the wallow made an important rest stop on the way from Texas to Wyoming. But the area looked ripe for farming and in 1886, construction began on the Burlington Canal. This canal diverted water from the South Platte River into the wallow and created Oasis Reservoir. In 1908, the local irrigation company increased the size of Oasis Dam, combining Oasis Reservoir and the smaller Burlington Reservoir to create today’s Barr Lake. Because the lake was downstream from Denver, it became a dumping point for Denver’s untreated wastewater for over 70 years. By the 1950s, it was an ugly place, and we would not be stopping here in 1962! The flood of 1965 flushed the lake clean and clean water legislation then helped keep it clean, so that in 1977 the state opened Barr Lake State Park to the public. Today the lake has fish aplenty, and over 350 species of birds have been spotted in the park, which you might see while kayaking or from the nearly 9 mile trail that encircles the lake.

 
South entrance gate, Rocky Mountain Arsenal, Commerce City, Colorado
South entrance gate to Rocky Mountain Arsenal, Commerce City, Colorado, 1960 (Public domain photo by U.S. Army, from Library of Congress.)

At Commerce City, Colorado, we hit US-85, which travels together with us most of the way through the Denver area. Route US-85 runs for 1,479 miles from the Canadian border at Fortuna, North Dakota to the Mexican border at El Paso, Texas. The route is also known as the CanAm Highway. You might have trouble trying to follow the highway though, as there are no US-85 signs in New Mexico and many parts in Colorado are also unsigned. Both states eliminated signing as the I-25 freeway was built from 1970 to 1990, because most of the freeway was built right over the old highway. Commerce City today encompasses a number of smaller, old settlements including Commerce Town, Adams City, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal property, Eno, Derby, Dupont, and Henderson. Denver tried to annex the area in 1952, but the proposal was defeated. Commerce Town voted to incorporate later that year, and in 1962 Commerce Town annexed part of Derby. That moved increased the population over fourfold, enough for the town to gain city status as Commerce City. It took until 1970 for the population to reach 16,000 people and it reached only 22,000 by the year 2000. But in just the next six years the city’s population nearly doubled, to more than 40,000!

The Commerce City Historical Society maintains a small museum showcasing the history of the old towns here, but of course it’s much newer than 1962. We are well within the Denver metro area by this point, with major housing developments alternating with vacant land along the way and commercial development at every crossroad. This area was just beginning to become part of suburbia in 1962, though expectations of growth resulted in relocation of US-6 onto the present freeway route back in 1954. The old road ran adjacent to the former Rocky Mountain Arsenal. Similar to the Kingsbury Ordnance Plant we saw back at Kingsford Heights, Indiana, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal was built during World War II to manufacture munitions. As with the other site, it was selected for its great distance from the coasts to minimize danger of attacks, a sufficient labor force nearby; weather conducive to outdoor work, appropriate soil, and being close to a major transportation hub, Stapleton Airfield. The arsenal was completed in 1942 and closed in 1992. It manufactured rocket fuel and both conventional and chemical munitions, including white phosphorus, napalm, mustard gas, lewisite, and chlorine gas, through 1969. From the 1970s until 1985, Rocky Mountain Arsenal was used as a destruction site for munitions.

 
1960 program from the Mile High Kennel Club, Denver, Colorado
1960 program from the Mile High Kennel Club, Denver, Colorado (from online auction sale)

Rocky Mountain Arsenal also contained a deep injection well, 12,045 feet deep, that was constructed in 1961. The injected fluids included pesticides, insecticides, organic solvents excess raw chemicals, heavy metals, and biological and chemical warfare material. The Army discontinued use of the well in 1966 because the fluid injection had triggered a series of earthquakes in the area. It was permanently sealed in 1985. Parts of the site were also leased to private companies, such as Shell Oil, for their manufacture of pesticides, between 1952 and 1982. Of course, the site is a hazardous waste site according to the Colorado Department of Public and Environmental Health. But nature had moved in while people had moved on! In 1986, a winter communal roost of bald eagles, an endangered species, was discovered. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service surveyed the site and found more than 330 species of wildlife inhabiting the former arsenal including deer, coyotes, white pelicans and owls. In 1992, most of the site became the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, one of the largest urban wildlife refuges in the nation with more than 15,000 acres of land. A cleanup program by the Army, Shell Oil Co., and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was completed in 2010, and a visitor center opened the next year.

Back in 1962, another place we would have seen that is no longer around was The Mile High Kennel Club. This was a greyhound racing park known nationally as “The Big Store.” The track opened in 1949 and closed in 2008. Like the track we saw in Jacksonville, Florida on our US-23 trip, it became a victim of off-track gambling, the state lottery, casino gambling, and professional sports teams. Three other dog racing tracks in the area had closed since 2003 and there are none left in Colorado today. In 2013, dog racing was outlawed in Colorado, so that piece of 1962 will not be coming back. The City of Commerce City has purchased the land and is developing it into a 65-acre mixed-use project. The modern development will be quite a change from the older area along US-6, where we pass the iconic sign of Deno's 6 & 85 Restaurant & Lounge. The restaurant has been here for over 50 years and the gigantic sign is a testimony to that earlier time, as they don’t make them like that anymore. The interior has been remodeled sometime in the last 10 years, but the exterior fits right in with the nearby Triangle T Motel, Super A Motel, and the local pawn shops, old mobile home parks, and liquor stores. We also cross US-36 here, but in 1962 that highway was farther south in Denver, so I’ll discuss it later.

 
Denver Coliseum, Denver, Colorado
Denver Coliseum, Denver, Colorado (Photo by Jeffrey Beall at Flickr, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.)

As I mentioned, we travel along with US-85 through most of Denver, but on the old roads instead of the freeway that was opened in 1957. While I also mentioned that the old roads were more interesting, I will give the freeway one thumbs up: because some of it was built on a bridge running on top of 46th Avenue (US-6), you get fantastic views of the mountains to the west! The freeway also passes right next to The Denver Coliseum: you can almost reach out and touch the building. This arena was built in 1951 and holds 10,200 people. Over the years, it has hosted all types of events, ranging from rock concerts, circuses, high school sports, community events, professional hockey and basketball, ice skating, and roller derbies. It also hosts rodeos during the annual National Western Stock Show, as their grounds are just across the freeway. After an interchange leading US-6 onto the I-25 freeway, also US-87 and locally known as Valley Highway, the route also passes the Sports Authority Field at Mile High, the replacement football and baseball stadium for the old Mile High Stadium. These freeways are 8-lanes or more wide, with complicated spaghetti-style interchanges: you can bet they were much simpler when built in 1957.

This all freeway route rejoins the old US-6 route at the 6th Avenue Freeway. But let’s go back to the US-85 junction and get to this point the old way. We start out in an industrial area but are soon driving underneath I-70 on 46th Street, which is basically the original 4-lane divided highway. This takes us through a short residential area, where the Colonial Manor motel is located. The motel has a has a colonial style exterior, great vintage sign, and looks well kept, though on-line reviews are poor. Definitely looks like early 1960s, but I have another place in mind for tonight. We quickly end up back in an industrial neighborhood where we come upon the Forney Museum of Transportation. I’m thinking of spending the rest of the afternoon here, as it’s huge.

 
1962 Studebaker Lark Daytona, Forney Museum, Denver, Colorado
1962 Studebaker Lark Daytona convertible at Forney Museum, Denver, Colorado (Photo by Piotrus, at Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.)

The Forney Museum of Transportation was incorporated in 1961 to show Mr. J. D. Forney’s collection of transportation vehicles. However, he had been showing the collection in an industrial building, charging just 25 cents for adults, since the late 1950s. We would have seen the vehicles and related artifacts there, as they did not move to the newly-constructed Cinderella City shopping mall until 1965. The museum moved to the current location in stages between 1999 and 2001. J. D. Forney made his fortune after designing the "Instant Heat Soldering Iron" in the early 1930s. He also developed a 110V transformer to operate the soldering iron and then a small welder. In the late 1930s, he designed a larger welder that would work with the electricity available from the new Rural Electrification Authority’s farm electrical system. This was a huge success with farmers, who could now perform their own on-site equipment maintenance. The company is still in business, not so much as a manufacturer, but distributing welding equipment, abrasives, hydraulic and air pressure fittings, cutting tools, and safety equipment.

Mr. Forney often traded his welders for old cars and other transportation equipment, which supplemented purchases for his collection. Restorations were performed at his company facilities, which employed experienced welders, mechanics, carpenters, machinists, painters, etc. His antique automobiles became a favorite in parades and events in communities around Ft. Collins, Colorado for years before the museum opened. Today, the museum houses a one-of-a-kind collection of over 600 historical artifacts relating to transportation. In addition to cars, there are motorcycles, the Union Pacific 'Big Boy' steam locomotive #4005 and other locomotives, an 1888 Denver cable car, aircraft, carriages, fire apparatus, sleighs, bicycles, a 500 Piece Matchbox Car Collection and other toys, farm tractors, and more. Still on display is the first item of the collection, a 1921 Kissel automobile purchased for J. D. by his wife Rae and son Jack. The museum also holds special events, such as December’s Rocky Mountain Train Show, the largest train show west of the Mississippi.

 
The National Western Statue, Denver, Colorado
The National Western Statue, Denver, Colorado, commissioned by the Western Stock Show Association and designed by sculptor Herb Mignery. (Photo by Wally Gobetz at Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.)

After the museum, we head down Broadway Street, which was once US-6, past a Pepsi Beverages Company plant that looks like it could have been here in 1962. It’s a simple red brick building that sets just before we come to a redeveloped area, with a lot of new, colorful, boxy apartment buildings and vacant land available for more development. The neighborhood then becomes more industrial again with a number of old warehouse buildings that have been converted into apartments. As we pass the huge Benjamin Moore Paints sign on top of a building, the skyscrapers of downtown are visible ahead from 20th Street. I think this is the first time we’ve driven through an urban canyon since Cleveland, Ohio. From here through downtown to 6th Avenue, Broadway runs as a southbound one-way street paired with Lincoln Street being northbound. A right turn onto Tremont Place brings us to tonight’s lodging, the Sheraton Denver Downtown Hotel. The hotel is a downtown landmark completed in 1960, so it would have been almost brand new for our Roadtrip-’62 ™ journey.

In a stroke of coincidence between Cleveland and Denver, both the Sheraton Denver Downtown Hotel and Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame buildings were designed by world-renowned architect I.M. Pei. The Sheraton, along with the former adjacent May D&F department store and a public space named Zeckendorf Plaza, also included Henry Cobb and others on the design team. Zeckendorf Plaza originally included an outdoor skating rink reminiscent of New York’s Rockefeller Plaza, and a miniature golf course! The department store linked to a truly unique retail showroom with a “hyperbolic paraboloid” rooftop. At the time, this was the country’s widest concrete shell hyperbolic parabaloid and consisted of four of these shapes put together. But since the late 1990s, a rather standard box building stands where Mr. Pei’s beautiful modernist architecture, ice rink and golf course once stood. The hotel had been sold and by 1995 the new owners submitted plans to remove the public spaces. Their plan was fought by the Modern Architecture Preservation League, the Colorado Historical Society, several chapters of the American Institute of Architects, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, but eventually the developers won and the plaza and adjacent building were demolished. The exterior of the department store building was recovered to hide some of the mid-century modern touches, but at least the hotel is still here. Sadly, demolition of great architecture seems to be part of the Denver experience. Pei’s earlier project, the Mile High Center also designed with Henry Cobb, has had its two-story barrel-vault structure with a stainless steel roof demolished. The Mile High Tower portion of that project, Denver’s first skyscraper, still survives. Both the Mile High Center and the May D&F Department store projects were built for William Zeckendorf’s Webb & Knapp real estate firm.

 
Ice skating at Zeckendorf Plaza, Denver, Colorado, 1962 postcard
Ice skating at Zeckendorf Plaza, Denver, Colorado (1962 postcard, from online auction)
 

After we check in, I’ll hunt around downtown for dinner. Maybe I’ll eat right at the hotel. If you come in the fall, you can take in a Bronco’s football game, maybe on a Monday night. Though most of Denver’s professional sports teams are too new for us, the Broncos began playing here in 1960. At that time, they were a charter member of the old American Football League. They played at the former Mile High Stadium from 1960-2000, and today play at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. They frequently figure in the playoffs and Superbowl, but actually had rather dismal records back in the 1960s. The Broncos did not even not have a winning season until 1973. But we would have recognized them. The 1962 uniform, designed by Laura North-Allen, consisted of white pants, orange helmets, and either orange or white jerseys, which looks very similar to their current “color” uniform except for the absence of Navy blue. But I’m not a big football fan, and I’m here in the summer, so I’ll be staying at the Sheraton tonight and looking out wistfully at the ghost of Zeckendorf Plaza.

 

All photos by the author and Copyright © 2015 - Milne Enterprises, Inc., except as noted.

All other content Copyright © 2015 - Milne Enterprises, Inc.

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What's the weather in 1962?

Weather on September 1, 1962 for Denver, CO, from the National Climatic Data Center:

  • Low = 45°F
  • High = 82°F
  • Precipitation = none
  • Mean Wind Speed = 4mph

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