The old Jefferson Highway was the first transcontinental road to traverse the North American continent from north to south, and possibly the first dedicated international highway in the world.
So why is it nearly forgotten while Route 66, not nearly so historic or as long, is still celebrated with festivals and tons of memorabilia?
“It’s because of that TV show in the 1960s and its hit theme song,” said Mike Conlin, native of Canada who now lives in Metairie, La. “We need a song about the Jefferson Highway.”
With or without a song, it’s his mission to make the Jefferson Highway famous again. He and friend Gary Augustine, Prince George, British Columbia, are currently making their “Pine to Palm ’09” road trip to raise awareness of the highway.
“We’re also finding out about all the places along the highway, things that would make people want to stop and visit while they’re driving along the route,” Conlin said.
He and Augustine, who started their trip Nov. 4, were in Franklin and Pittsburg Friday to visit sites along the old highway. Serving as their guides were Phyllis Bitner and Randy Roberts, curator of Special Collections at Axe Library, Pittsburg State University.
The highway was conceived at a meeting in New Orleans in 1915, and was dedicated in 1919. The northern end was in Winnipeg, Canada, and the route traveled through Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas before ending in New Orleans. No federal funding was used in its construction.
“It was financed by township money and private money,” Roberts said. “Imagine a highway being built that way today.”
There was a rivalry between Missouri and Kansas, who both wanted the highway, and between sites in eastern and western Kansas. “The rivalry between the two Kansas groups actually got more contentious than the one between Kansas and Missouri,” Roberts said.
In the end, the eastern part of the state won, and Pittsburg was one of the stops on the highway.
“It went straight down Broadway, south to Centennial, then east, past the location of the current Mt. Carmel Regional Medical Center, then south to Opolis,” Roberts said. “By the 1920s there were big poles on Broadway to mark it. I’ve been told there’s still one highway marker somewhere in Crawford County, but I don’t know where it is. If anybody does know, I hope they get in touch with me.”
He added that highway advertising noted there were three convenient hotels for travelers around Seventh and Broadway — the Hotel Stilwell, the Leland Hotel and the Wick Hotel. The current Parrot Bey, 408 N. Locust, was the site of the Jefferson Highway Garage.
Bitner and Roberts took Conlin and Augustine to lunch at the Corner Bistro. The bistro’s parking lot was the location of a depot for the Jefferson Bus Lines, named for the highway.
Conlin said he became interested in the highway around three years ago after reading a newspaper article about it.
“A piece of it runs through Metairie,” he said. “I was homesick for Canada, and when I found out the highway started in Winnipeg, I felt a connection to it. I’m a map maker by trade, so I researched it and made a map of it. Then I decided to drive it and see where it goes.”
He was going to start in September, but Augustine, who had just purchased a mobile home, said he would come along if Conlin could plan the trip later.
The two were in Carthage, Mo., before coming to Pittsburg.
“A section of Route 66 runs right on top of the Jefferson Highway at Carthage,” Conlin said. “But a lot of the old highway route in Missouri is gravel today.”
He and Augustine plan to end in New Orleans by Nov. 18. Then Conlin will have to sort through all the notes and material he has collected during the trip.
“It will take me months to know all the stuff I’ve got,” he said. “It would be nice to do a documentary about this, but I haven’t had time to take the video camera out of the bag.”
In the meantime, he posts information online.
“If you Google the Jefferson Highway, I come up before Wikipedia does,” Conlin said. “That’s not easy.”