US 322, Tampa, US 67, US 522, US 31, US 51, US 176, US 44, US 113, Milwaukee, Original US 46 proposal, US 34, US 15, US 1, Minnesota rogue routes, US 301, Miami, Hardeeville, Walterboro, Fox Valley, Richmond, St. John IN, US 36, US 18, US 83, US 183, US 275, US 385, Rapid City, US 92, US 129, US 175, US 276, US 310, US 411[i], US 121[i], US 117[i], Wilson, Wilmington NC
When the US route system was conceived in the mid-1920s, one of the guidelines was that the longer, more important routes would be assigned 1- and 2-digit numbers. Given that, US 46 really seems like an outlier. At only 75 miles in length, it is the shortest of all 1- and 2-digit US routes. Not only that, but US 46 is entirely in one state (New Jersey). Why would AASHO consider a short, single-state highway to be worthy of a 2-digit US route designation? Historic documents in their route numbering archive reveal at least some of the answers. As it turns out, when US 46 was first proposed in the mid-1930s, it was envisioned as a route running between New York City and Cleveland, along the corridor shown on this map:
Some 1934 maps showed new US routes in Minnesota and/or extensions of US routes. This was due to a series of errors and misunderstandings involving AASHO, MNDoT, and commercial map publishers. By 1935 all of these misprints had been corrected. I will explain in more detail below, but first I will jump ahead to the final analysis:
It depends how you measure... and specifically what you measure. If you are familiar with the mileage signs posted at the terminus points of US 6 and US 20, you might point to those and say, "The answer is plain to see: US 20 is 160 miles longer than US 6."
If both of those signs were accurate, then obviously US 20 would be longer. But the fact is, only one of those signs is accurate, whereas the other significantly overstates the true mileage. I make that statement based on measurements I first took in 2016, and later verified in 2020, using a method that I believe to be quite accurate (and in some cases, more accurate than the "official" distances posted by state departments of transportation). So let's take a look at those mileages:
One of the many interesting things about this segment of US 34 is that it essentially follows the valley of the Colorado River between its headwaters in Rocky Mountain National Park and its confluence with the Fraser River in Granby. Consequently US 34 also provides access to all of the major water collection components of the Colorado-Big Thompson Project. Those include Grand Lake (Colorado's largest and deepest natural lake) and three artificial impoundments (Shadow Mountain Lake, Lake Granby, and Willow Creek Reservoir). Since there are many examples of highways which were originally built parallel to rivers, but which later had to be realigned because of water storage projects that were built in those valleys, I set out to explore whether US 34 had any historic alignments that existed prior to the reservoirs in the Middle Park area.
US 411[i], US 121[i], US 117[i], Wilson, Wilmington NC, Pee Dee, Florence, US 21, US 170, US 421, US 3, Chattanooga, US 72, US 222, US 541, US 411, US 138, US 119, US 522, Brownsville, US 83 history, US 99, US 51, US 63, US 20, Wilmington DE, Cincinnati, US 22, US 124, US 136, US 150, US 152, US 8, US 264, US 501, US 27, US 104, US 441, Apalachicola, Intra-state routes, Wrong-way overlaps
Of the "main" US highways (i.e. the one- and two-digit routes), the longest nine were all east-west routes (6, 20, 50, 30, 40, 60, 70, 80, 12). And if we take the longest 16 highways, only one of them is a north-south route (US 1, shown in red here):
That stands to reason, because the United States is roughly twice as wide from east to west as it is from north to south. So it makes sense that there would be more long east-west routes.
From humble beginnings to great lengths
US 83 was among the inaugural routes of 1926. But at the time, and for the next couple years, it was a very short route -- only about 170 miles long -- running between the capital cities of the two Dakotas:
However, by the early 1930s the US 83 designation had been extended not only north to the Canada border, but all the way down to the Mexico border too. This increased US 83's distance to nearly 1900 miles, and made it one of the longest north-south US routes. Additionally, as a result of US 83's new role as a trunk route, three newer US routes were numbered as branches of US 83. Two of these soon became quite lengthy themselves, and they still exist (US 183 and US 283). Just as these highways intertwine with each other, their history is also interrelated. This article examines the evolution of US 83, as well as the x83 routes that are part of its "family".