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US-20 - The Second Longest Road Trip

On the Road in 1962

Originally the second longest highway, US-20 became the longest US-numbered route in 1964, by virtue of California eliminating US-6 southwest of Bishop, California. Highway US-20 spans 3,365 miles from Boston, Massachusetts to Newport, Oregon. Like US-89, US-20 technically is split in two parts because the route through Yellowstone National Park is not signed. This 80-mile gap is not counted in the US-20 length given above. Roadtrip-'62 ™ saw a few of the sights at the Boston end in my article on US-1. Originally, US-20 began in Boston at the State House, but it has since been moved west to the intersection of Beacon Street at Commonwealth Avenue.

Historic US-20 Route Sign
Historic US-20 Sign (From Historic US Route 20 Association. Visit them, become a member, and help them to promote travel along the original 1926 alignment of US-20.)

For much of its length, US-20 is roughly parallel to the I-90 freeway, which is the longest Interstate Highway, but unlike many routes, US-20 was never shortened by the states it passes through. As we leave Boston, the route follows the old Boston Post Road and passes by Longfellow's Wayside Inn in Sudbury, Massachusetts. This inn is the oldest continually operated inn in the United States. It’s currently operated by a non-profit organization and is still offering dining, lodging, and space for special events. The inn exists today largely because of the efforts of Henry Ford, who also created Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan and helped with the development of Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia. These sites and others reflected Mr. Ford’s deep interest in preserving American history. He purchased the inn and an additional 3000 acres of adjacent land in 1923 and created a living museum, adding eight new buildings and other antiques to the site. In 1926, after engineers determined that heavy truck traffic on US-20 was damaging the inn’s foundations, he paid for design and construction of a mile-and-a-half-long bypass road. When complete, he sold it to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for $1 and reportedly never cashed the check. This bypass is still US-20 today. The mill on the property was constructed by Henry Ford and opened in 1929. Between 1952 and 1967, it ground cracked wheat flour for Pepperidge Farm breads!

Richard's Wild Irish Rose Wine Red Label
Richard's Wild Irish Rose Wine Red Label (Photo from online auction.)

Through New York, US-20 runs roughly parallel to the New York State Thruway. But it does not go through any of the major cities along the way, except Albany, New York. We pass well south of Utica, Syracuse, and Rochester and along the northern edge of the Finger Lakes Region. There are small cities along our route at each of the five lakes. The area is well-known today as a wine region, with specialty brands and wind tasting available along the way. It was also a wine region back in 1962, with Canandaigua Wine Company being the best known company. They had been in business since 1945 and created their big breakthrough product in 1954: Richard's Wild Irish Rose dessert wines. Through a unique franchising arrangement, this brand fueled growth right through 1962. At that time, Canandaigua Industries doubled its gross sales in just two years. The company has continued to grow through acquisitions and is now Constellation Brands, the world's largest wine and spirits distributor.

At Buffalo, New York, we meet Lake Erie, which we will travel along the shore of for the next 190 miles to Lakewood, Ohio. Lake Erie I part of the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway System, a series of locks, canals, and river dredging that allow ocean-going ships to penetrate the heartland of North America all the way to Duluth, Minnesota; Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada; and Chicago, Illinois. Buffalo is near the Welland Canal portion that allows ships to bypass Niagara Falls. The full St. Lawrence Seaway was opened to navigation in 1959 and you can read more on the Roadtrip-'62 ™ A Sailing We Shall Go page. Strangely, shipbuilding in Buffalo, which had been a major industry since 1812, shut down in 1962 with the closure of the American Ship Building Company. I say strangely because I would have expected that shipbuilding would have become more viable with improved access to the Atlantic Ocean.

Sculptures on the lawn of Albright–Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York
Sculptures on the lawn of Albright–Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York (Photo by Mark Hogan at Flickr, licensed under Creative Common Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic License.)

Also in Buffalo is the Albright–Knox Art Gallery, whose second building was opened in January, 1962. This new wing designed by Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill of New York, who was a designer of significant skyscrapers of the era. It is an elegant, modernist glass and marble structure which contrasts with the original Greek Revivalist building. The new wing was completed in time for the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, the parent organization of the gallery. Major funding came from Seymour H. Knox, Jr., which is why the former Albright Art Gallery was renamed the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. The museum tries to collect acquire key works from a wide variety of artists and styles. It not only includes Impressionistic and Post-Impressionistic styles, but also early twentieth century art movements such as cubism, surrealism, and constructivism. You can find pop art, and other styles popularized around 1962 by artists such as Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol. And outdoors on the grounds are sculptures from 1962, “The Cry” by Isamu Noguchi and “Directional I” by Lyman Kipp.

In West Springfield, Pennsylvania, we meet our US-6 roadtrip, or more precisely, US-6N. This is a spur from the main highway and its end point at US-20 is actually where the main US-6 route once ended! That was before US-6 was given a number of extensions that finally pushed it to become the longest US-numbered route, overcoming our US-20 for many years. We’ll meet the main US-6 route at Euclid, Ohio and travel together with it for about 30 miles to the west side of Cleveland, Ohio. Through the Cleveland area, there were two signed routes for each of these highways back in 1962. We could use either US-6ALT or US-20ALT in addition to the regularly signed routes. You can see all the sights of the Cleveland area on three Roadtrip-'62 ™ pages. One covering the eastern part beginning at Euclid, one for central Cleveland, and one covering the western part ending at Rocky River.

Dunes and Lake Michigan at Indiana Dunes State Park Postcard
Dunes and Lake Michigan at Indiana Dunes State Park (Postcard from online auction.)

Highway US-20 heads inland and eventually US-6 crosses it again at Fremont, Ohio. Amazingly, we will meet it once more in Gary, Indiana! Between Fremont and Perrysburg, Ohio, US-20 dates back to the late 1830s, when it was opened to help settle the Western Reserve lands of Ohio. Some of the stone mile markers still exist along the route. At Perrysburg, we cross several highways including our US-23 roadtrip, because of its location similar to Chicago, at the end of one of the Great Lakes. At one time, we would have hit US-23, US-24, US-25, US-68, and come within a couple of miles of US-223. Today, all are gone except for US-23 and US-24. Perrysburg itself is an odd place: the only city other than Washington, D.C laid out by U.S. government surveyors, in 1816. Sounds like an old-fashioned Congressional earmark project to me.

Speaking of Chicago, we reach the outskirts at Portage, Indiana. Portage is near the west end of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. The east end of the park, which was authorized by Congress in 1966, is near Michigan City, Indiana. Though this park is too new for our roadtrip, the Indiana Dunes State Park opened in 1926. It’s surrounded on all four sides by the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, creating a huge natural area in the midst of urban sprawl. We can enjoy swimming, hiking trails, and the dune landscape at the three miles of beach along Lake Michigan’s southern shore. Also at Portage, we come within less than a mile of meeting US-6 again!

Dolphins at Shedd Aquarium, Chicago, Illinois
Dolphins at Shedd Aquarium, Chicago, Illinois

Chicago is the most confusing nest of US-numbered highways anywhere in the nation! Just listing the routes that meet US-20 sounds confusing. In 1962, I found US-12, US-14, US-30ALT, US-34, US-41, US-45, US-54, and US-66. And there were the business routes US-12BUS and US-20BUS besides. Our trip could use the US-20 route through the suburbs or the US-20BUS route that went downtown. My favorite thing to do in Chicago is to go directly downtown, park in the underground Grant Park garage and walk the city. Within walking distance of the garage are shopping on Michigan Avenue’s Magnificent Mile, the Shedd Aquarium, Field Museum of Natural History, the Buckingham Fountain Flower Gardens, Lake Michigan shore, more shopping in the State Street area, festivals at Millennium Park, and the Art Institute of Chicago. There are probably some smaller places of interest nearby too. More than enough for 2-3 days, right downtown! Pick a hotel and stay right in the center of it all: there are many that were here in 1962 and still in business. The historic Palmer House or Silversmith Hotel are just a couple.

Julien Dubuque Bridge, Dubuque, Iowa
Julien Dubuque Bridge, Dubuque, Iowa (Photo by Dirk Hansen at Flickr, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.)

At the west side of Illinois, US-20 crosses the Mississippi River on the Julien Dubuque Bridge into Dubuque, Iowa. We’re about half way across the country now and it’s a good place to reflect on how US-20 came to be. Before the US-numbered highway system was adopted in 1926 after a couple of years of planning. I discuss the planning and background in more detail on another page, including the old auto trail organizations. These groups worked with cities, tourist attractions and merchants to promote various routes for long-distance automobile travel. One group created the Yellowstone Trail as a preferred way to travel from the east to Yellowstone National Park, beginning in 1912. The Yellowstone Trail Association began small but eventually promoted, "A good road from Plymouth Rock to Puget Sound". Indeed, in the end it reached from Plymouth, Massachusetts to Seattle, Washington, via Yellowstone National Park. The trail was very well marked from Chicago to Yellowstone along what we will now travel as US-20, but was only marked in short sections east of Chicago. Once the US-20 signs went up in 1926-1927, the older trail signs began to come down. Today, the Historic US Route 20 Association is installing markers along abandoned parts of the highway.

In 1962, US-20 was just a 2-lane road across the farmlands of Iowa, with only two short stretches of divided 4-lane highway outside of Dubuque and near Moville. And these were relatively new, having been constructed in 1958 and 1959, respectively. Ever since, some Iowans have worked to get a four-lane highway on the US-20 alignment. In the 1990s, the Iowa Department of Transportation established a list of six priority corridors where highways would be expanded from two lanes to four lanes, but even then US-20 did not make the list. Traffic counts were deemed too low due to the sparse population. But in recent years, traffic counts on a section near Rockwell City, Iowa have shown a significant increase in traffic from 2,500 vehicles a day in 2012 to 7,500 vehicles daily in 2018. In the face of this rise, the state continued building divided sections and in 2015 committed to complete the final 30.5 miles. A ribbon-cutting ceremony was held in Holstein, Iowa on October 19, 2018 and you can now drive from Dubuque to Sioux City on a four lane divided highway comparable to I-80 in the south. We will drive as much of the old two-lane as possible.

Sergeant Floyd Monument, Sioux City, Iowa
Sergeant Floyd Monument, Sioux City, Iowa (Public domain photo by Brian Kell at Wimimedia Commons.)

Sioux City, Iowa has a couple of attractions we could have seen in 1962. The Sioux City Art Center began as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project in 1937 when community supporters received a Federal grant. The museum began acquiring their permanent collection the next year, focused primarily on artists from Iowa and the greater Midwest. Federal assistance ended in 1940, but the city voted to continue funding the Art Center. It now houses more than 1,000 works in a wide variety of mediums and styles, though the heart of the permanent collection is artists from the Upper Midwest, many of whom have ties to Sioux City. Pieces by Thomas Hart Benton, Salvador Dalí, Claes Oldenburg, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Dale Chihuly, and Grant Wood are included. A significant work by Grant Wood is one of his Corn Room murals. He painted four murals in 1927 for Omaha businessman Eugene Eppley for hotels in Council Bluffs, Cedar Rapids, Waterloo, and Sioux City. The one here was originally painted as a decoration for the Martin Hotel dining room in Sioux City. Though it still existed in 1962, we would not have seen it because it had been papered over in the early 1950s and forgotten. In 1979, historian Leah Hartman interviewed Carl Eybers, who had been Wood's assistant in painting the mural. This led to its being rediscovered and removed from the hotel and conserved by the Sioux City Art Center. It is now on permanent display. After occupying four temporary locations over the years, the Art Center built a new permanent location and moved in 1997.

On a bluff overlooking the Missouri River valley stands the Sergeant Floyd Monument. This 100-foot sandstone obelisk commemorates the burial site of U.S. Army Sergeant Charles Floyd, the only man to die on the 1804 Lewis and Clark Expedition, which passed though Sioux City. He was buried here but over the years, the gravesite along the Missouri River bank eroded. When Floyd's expedition journal was published in 1894, new interest was sparked and his remains were moved and a small monument built. The current monument was constructed in 1901 and his grave was moved again to this site on 23 acres overlooking the river. In 1960, the monument was recognized by the U.S. Department of Interior as the first National Historic Landmark. We leave Sioux City on the Sergeant Floyd Memorial Bridge, which also carries I-129 and US-75 over the Missouri River. The river becomes shallower beyond Sioux City and there are several dams in both South Dakota and North Dakota, placing the navigational head of the Missouri River here. Highway US-20 continues west across the increasingly drier prairies of Nebraska.


Discussion of artifacts at the Museum of the Fur Trade, Chadron, Nebraska.

In the far western part of the state at Chadron, Nebraska, is the Museum of the Fur Trade. This museum, which was here in 1962, is on the site of James Bordeaux’s trading post. The sod-roofed post was established for the American Fur Company in 1837 to conduct business with American Indians who spent their winters in the area. It lies only 60 miles south of the Black Hills in South Dakota in the only hilly, forested region in Nebraska. The museum was established in 1953 next to the old trading post. Having fallen into ruins after trading halted in 1876, the post was reconstructed on its original foundation in 1956 and opened that year. The Museum of the Fur Trade is dedicated to preserving the rich history of the North American fur trade and achieves that goal by displaying over 6,000 authentic artifacts. The museum displays over 800 guns that were manufactured between 1640 and 1911 in England, Belgium and the United States. It also has unopened cans of gun powder dating back to the mid-nineteenth century, specialized weapons, paints, pigments, blankets, cloth, decorative items, tools, and more. There is also an Indian Heirloom Garden of authentic Indian crops. Most of the seeds to begin the garden were obtained directly from the Indians over 125 years ago by Oscar H. Will, a pioneer Dakota horticulturist. After harvest, seeds are saved annually and replanted, and surplus is sold in the gift shop. The gift shop also offers real animal pelts including raccon, bobcat, wolverine and more.

Through Wyoming, US-20 is mostly paired with other US-numbered routes, as there are few roads through the middle of the state for long-distance highways to take. Our route meets US-26 at Orin, Wyoming and travels with it for 162 miles to Shoshoni, Wyoming. It then meets US-14 at Greybull, Wyoming and we travel together for the 107 miles to Yellowstone National Park. In my opinion, the most interesting place on US-20 is Yellowstone National Park! Someday, Roadtrip-'62 ™ will have to do an entire post on Yellowstone. The next 80 miles through the park are not technically US-20, but when we come out the other side at West Yellowstone, Montana, we are back on that highway. Shortly, we cross the Continental Divide at Targhee Pass and enter Idaho at 7,072 feet. I stayed just down the road in Island Park, Idaho the last time I visited Yellowstone and thoroughly enjoyed the great mountain scenery of the area.

Breeder Reactor-I, Idaho National Laboratory, Atomic City, Idaho, 1951
Experimental Breeder Reactor-I, Idaho National Laboratory, Atomic City, Idaho, Landmark where usable electricity was first generated from nuclear energy in this 1951 experiment. (Photo from Idaho National Laboratory at Flickr, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.)

Route US-20 passes the Idaho National Laboratory or the former Atomic Energy Commission near Atomic City, Idaho (how fitting). Known today as the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, its primary function back in the 1950s and 1960s was the testing of nuclear reactor design. Various organizations have built more than 50 reactors here, including the first that created a usable amount of electricity from nuclear power. Another pioneering reactor was the power plant for the world's first nuclear submarine, the USS Nautilus. Although many are now decommissioned, the site had the largest concentration of nuclear reactors in the world. That first electricity generated from nuclear power happened in 1951 and provided only enough power for four 200 watt light bulbs. Later, it came to power the entire site and after perfecting the design, a sister reactor provided electricity to the entire nearby town of Arco, Idaho in 1955. Today you can get tours of part of the laboratory. Many other firsts in reactor design were made here, including in the first reactor to achieve a self-sustaining chain reaction using plutonium instead of uranium as the major fuel component, in 1963. Unfortunately, this was also the site of the world's first fatal atomic accident on January 3, 1961. Three operators were killed when manually removing a control rod, creating high levels of radiation in the building. The men were so heavily exposed to radiation that their hands had to be buried separately with other radioactive waste, and their bodies were interred in lead coffins.

lava flows, Craters of the Moon National Monument, Idaho
Cooled, rippled lava flows at Craters of the Moon National Monument, Idaho (Public domain photo from the National Park Service.)

Nearby is the Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve, a vast expanse of ancient lava flows roughly the size of the entire state of Rhode Island. The area was established as a National Monument in 1924 and expanded significantly in 2000. It encompasses three lava fields along the Great Rift of Idaho, a still-active volcanic area. The park contains more than 25 volcanic cones along with almost every variety of basaltic lava, lava tubes (a type of cave), and other volcanic features. The most recent volcanic eruptions ended about 2,100 years ago and were likely seen by the Shoshone tribes. Their legend tells of a serpent on a mountain angered by lightning, who coiled and squeezed the mountain until liquid rock flowed, fire shot from the mountain and it exploded. There is a visitors center at the start of a seven-mile loop road which provides numerous opportunities to explore the park, including trails to take you over, under, and around the volcanic features.

West from Craters of the Moon, maps from 1962 show our route as TEMP US-20. The intended route was not fully paved yet, but US-20 was moved north off of US-26 in later years. We cross Oregon through a true desert between Burns and Bend, before reaching the western terminus at Newport, Oregon, at an intersection with US-101, within a mile of the Pacific Ocean. Newport is largely a city of beaches and tourist shops, with a crab fishing fleet thrown in. In fact, the city bills itself as “The Dungeness Crab Capital of the world!” The tourist trade is more laid back today then in the past, when during the early 1900s, Nye Beach was the top tourist attraction on the coast. It had hot sea baths, taffy stores, agate shops and more. There are two lighthouses on the beaches you can visit. Oregon’s tallest and second oldest active lighthouse is the 93-foot-tall Yaquina Head Lighthouse, which was completed in 1872.

Tufted Puffin in tide pool, Oregon coast
Tufted Puffin in a tide pool on the Oregon coast

The beaches are quite varied, with something for everyone. You can surf, go clamming, watch the gray whales migrate offshore in either December or March, wander among secluded sand dunes, look for sea life in the tide pools, or bird watch on the cliffs or shore. You might see common murres, pigeon guillemots, or tufted puffins like my friend in the photo. And when you’re done, visit the shops and restaurants and check out the art deco buildings of the Deco District, which is Newport's downtown. If you head out of town to the south on US-101, you’ll cross the Yaquina Bay Bridge. It is one of eleven major bridges on the Oregon Coast Highway designed by Conde McCullough and it replaced the last ferry crossing on the highway in 1936. With the main arch being 246 feet above sea level, over 600 feet between piers, and only two lanes wide, it seems that nothing is supporting you out there! Highway US-101 travels the Pacific Coast past a lot more breathtaking scenery, which we’ll see on a future Roadtrip-'62 ™ journey. See you down the road!


All photos by the author and Copyright © 2019, 2021 - Donald Dale Milne, except as noted.

All other content Copyright © 2019, 2021 - Donald Dale Milne.

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