Editor's Notebook


February 16, 2023

On May 29, 1924, the Kansas, Nebraska and Dakota Highway Association (K-N-D) selected the highway’s route through Nebraska. The route was to be nicknamed The Fisherman’s Highway. 

The highway traversed the state beginning on the Kansas stateline nearly one mile west of where Highway 14 now enters Nebraska to the southwest of Superior. It entered Superior on Second Street. At Bloom Street it turned north and followed Bloom and Idaho streets north out of town. 

The highway would continue north through the county seat towns of Nelson, Clay Center, Aurora, Central City, Fullerton, Albion and Neligh.  It would cross the Missouri River via a ferry in Knox County and then on to Tripp, South Dakota, where it joined the Sunshine Trail and continued north through Mitchell, Huron and Aberdeen into North Dakota. Over the years there have been numerous adjustments in its route but those adjustments have not been major.

When the route was picked, J. E. Portwood of Nelson was president of the association and A. C. Phelps of Superior was secretary-treasurer. The K-N-D was the forerunner of what we now know as Highway 14 in Nebraska and Kansas. It is known as Highway 37 in South Dakota and Highway 1 in North Dakota.

But from the beginning the lack of a bridge over the Missouri hindered the highway’s development into a major north-south route.

In August of 1925, a meeting was held near the northern Nebraska stateline at Niobrara and a standing committee with three representatives from South Dakota and three from Nebraska, including J. E. Portwood of Nelson, were selected to promote the construction of a bridge over the river. It was thought such a bridge would make the K-N-D one of the most important north-south roads in Nebraska. Portwood wasn’t able to attend that meeting as a heavy rain in the southern part of Nebraska turned the road to mud. It would take more than 40 years of promotion before all of the route across Nebraska was hard surfaced. I’m not sure when it was all gravelled but into the 1940s there were portions of the route in Kansas that had not been surfaced with gravel.

Bridge plans moved rapidly forward and it was expected a new bridge would be completed in August of 1931. Promotion of the new bridge was started by men from Albion, Neligh and Superior. One half of the cost was to be paid by investors along the highway. The bridge was to be operated as a toll bridge until the investors were repaid.

In 1929 the war department approved the Nebraska-Dakota Bridge company’s plan for a structure 1,800 feet long. The cost was estimated to be approximately $800,000. The bridge was to be located near Running Water, South Dakota. The location was 60 miles east to Yankton and 75 miles west to Wheeler where other bridges were located. By July 1929 there were only two spots which were not improved or under contract for improvements. One was the road between Albion and Fullerton, a particularly hilly portion. The other was a section between Neligh and Brunswick.

A newspaper story reported a steam-powered pile driver was in place and bridge construction set to begin. But then a problem developed related to the rock beneath that section of the river along with the Great Depression and construction stopped. In 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt vetoed a bill passed by Congress that would have allowed construction to proceed. In 1940, he signed a revised bill to permit construction, but the shortage of materials caused by World War II thwarted it. A third effort was stymied by the Korean War. A fourth attempt failed in the early 1980s. In 1995, Congress finally appropriated the money needed to complete the bridge at a cost of about $14 million.

During the 2011 Missouri River floods, the bridge became a dead end on the Nebraska side when that approach was flooded. People needing to cross the river to reach their jobs took to using boats, kayaks, chest waders and swamp bikes to get across the water that separated the bridge from dry ground on the Nebraska side of the river.

I’ve travelled the route of Highway 14 from its beginning near the Oklahoma line to near the North Dakota line. I find it a relaxing route and my preferred route. Highway 81 may be faster but I consider it to be more stressful.

Today Highway 14 crosses the Missouri River on a modern bridge known as the Standing Bear Bridge located near Niobrara, not far downstream from the confluence of the Niobrara River with the Missouri. The nearby South Dakota town is named Running Water, population 47. The bridge is named for Standing Bear, a Ponca chief born and buried nearby, who was the plaintiff in Standing Bear vs. Crook, a landmark 1879 U.S. District Court case that established the legal rights of Native Americans to move about freely. but I remember crossing the river on a ferry boat.

That’s the only location where I ever took my automobile across a river on a ferry. The approaches to the ferry crossings resembled a slightly improved county road. The ferry operator explained he had to adjust the route as the river channel changed. That day the crossing was not in a straight line as he navigated around the river shallows.

The ferry was powered by a modified Farmall tractor. The tractor’s rear wheels had been removed and replaced with paddle wheels. The ferry ran only in the sprin through fall months and it ceased operation in 1984. The first ferry at Running Water begane operation in 1874.

I don’t know why the highway was named Highway 14 in Kansas and Nebraska. Generally odd numbers are assigned to north-south highways and even numbers to east-west highways but keeping the same number assignment in the two states has reduced confusion.

Highway 14 isn’t the only highway in this area to not follow the highway numbering convention. When the Golden Rod Highway in Nuckolls County received a number, it was assigned Number 3.  There were two segments in Nuckolls County. South Three began in Superior and continued east only a mile or two north of the stateline. The route jogged north to Fairbury before turning back south to Steele City. From Steele City it turned north to serve Pawnee City and then back south and east to Falls City where it terminates. It’s number was eventually changed to Highway 8 when the northern section of the route was approved for inclusion in federal highway system and assigned number 136. The northern route was for a time known as North 3. It started about 3 miles south of Nelson and ran east to Fairbury before heading northeast, passing through Beatrice and ending at Brownsville. It is also known as the Heritage Highway. 

The route just designated as Number 3 ran pretty much straight west until it turned north at Orleans and terminated when it joined up with Highway 6 two miles north of Edison.

Today most everyone uses the number 14 to refer to the north-south highway but for many years newspaper reports referred to it as the K-N-D Highway with the number 14 in parenthesis.


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