(last updated 9/6/2022)
1992 was the first time I went through Norton. At the time I was not yet what I would describe as a "roadgeek", but I still thought this sign was worth stopping for a photo:
(I should note that there were two copies of this sign, one posted on each end of town.) I thought it was interesting that, for the word "Denver", the sign maker used the same colors as the Broncos football team; and for "Indianapolis" the same colors as the Colts. And, although black and white were used for the US 36 marker, the colors were the inverse of a standard US route marker. I also thought it was interesting because it doesn't seem like there would be an abundance of commerce between those two cities. But even if there was, I still found it odd to think of US 36 as the route of choice between Denver and Indianapolis, given the fact that the two cities are also linked by I-70.
I passed through Norton again about a decade later. By then the signs had been replaced, but the verbiage remained the same:
Allan Ferguson (author of a book about Route 36) informs me that the Kansas-based US 36 Highway Association and the Norton Chamber of Commerce were the organizations mainly responsible for those signs. But it seems odd that they didn't erect signs along US 36 all across the state (rather than just in Norton).
What prompted these signs? Multiple east-west routes cross the state of Kansas. Prior to the Interstates, each of these highways were shown on maps with identical line weights and colors. A driver planning a trip would get the impression that they had several options which were equally-viable. For example, here is an excerpt from a 1959 atlas, showing the area between Denver and Kansas City:
Norton is shown in the upper center. Someone heading east from Denver would likely choose either US 24 across Kansas (if they wanted to pass through Kansas City) or else US 36 (if they preferred to bypass Kansas City). And if their destination happened to be Indianapolis, they would almost certainly choose US 36, since it is the most direct route.
But when the Interstates were built, they were shown on maps with a thicker line weight and a more prominent color. For example, this 1986 map gives the impression that I-70 is the lone "main" route across Kansas, while the other routes are of only secondary importance:
Cartographers are not to be faulted for this. Interstates represented a whole new class of highways: faster speed limits, no stop lights or at-grade intersections, multiple lanes to make passing easier, etc. Due to these factors and more, instead of looking for the most direct route, travelers began to think in terms of "Can I get to my destination using Interstates?" As a result, thousands of towns throughout the U.S. that had been left out of the Interstate highway network began to find that they were losing traffic and commerce to towns that were located along the Interstate corridors.
For many travelers, US 36 no longer looked like the best option between Denver and Indianapolis, not when they could use I-70 instead. So US 36 across northern Kansas became one of those corridors that saw reduced traffic. So some organizations in Kansas decided to try and lure travelers back to US 36 by putting up the signs shown above. These signs pointed out that, despite the existence of I-70, the shortest distance between Denver and Indianapolis was still US 36. Is that actually true? Let's see, according to Google Maps...
OK, but again, most people are more concerned with time, not distance. So which route is faster?
On my most recent trip through Norton (2022), I saw that the signs had changed significantly (images on Google Street View indicate this happened sometime after 2018):
For one thing, although the shape of the shield on the highway marker is (approximately) correct for a US highway, it uses the colors of an Interstate highway shield. That is actually a common mistake among graphic designers, who may not know (or care) about the difference between a US highway and an Interstate highway. However, in this particular case I wonder if it may have been intentional (more on that below). Another notable difference is that the emphasis of the message has shifted from "shortest" to "fastest" (the sign for traffic heading the opposite direction says "Fastest Route to Indianapolis").
So what prompted this shift in focus? It appears to have been conceded that most drivers care more about "fast" (time) than "short" (distance). And secondly, these new signs do emphasize some information which is indeed relevant to drivers in the Norton area, and which may prompt them to stay on US 36 (as opposed to I-70).
Norton is essentially the same distance from Denver as it is from Kansas City, so a significant percentage of drivers approaching Norton from the east on US 36 are ultimately destined for the Denver area. These drivers may be tempted to take K-383 southwest out of Norton (a diagonal highway that leads to an I-70 connection at Colby). But if they did that, would they be on the fastest route to Denver? Let's see...
Regardless whether they choose US 36 or I-70, westbound drivers will pass through Norton either way. That is why I wondered if these signs might have been encouraged by town(s) further west on US 36. And sure enough, Allan informs me that someone in Norcatur was one of the main drivers on the latest version of these signs.
Now, regarding eastbound traffic...
Now, back to the US 36 shield that is colorized to look like an Interstate shield: was it just an oversight, or was it intentional? Possibly the thinking went something like this: "If we make the US 36 shield to look basically the same as an I-70 shield, then maybe drivers will think there's not much difference between the two roads. And if so, then maybe that will encourage them to just stay on US 36, since it's shorter anyway." Of course, it wouldn't take long on US 36 for drivers to notice that the old two-lane highway actually has quite a few differences compared to a four-lane, limited-access Interstate. But not all of the differences are negative. For example, there is very little traffic on US 36, and the scenery can be interesting. So maybe some drivers would actually prefer US 36 over I-70. And maybe they would choose US 36 again, next time they drive between Denver and Norton.