Welcome to La Junta
Welcome to La Junta

Historic U.S. 50

US Highway 50

Route 50 Yard Sale

For More Information Contact: Ryan Stevens
La Junta Economic Development

US highway 50, the “Coast to Coast Highway” is famous. In this day and age of the sterile Interstates, when small towns are bypassed in favor of off ramps leading to generic chain businesses; where one exit is much the same as the one 100 miles back or 100 miles ahead, US 50 reveals the heart of a nation as she passes through the small towns and cities of America. US 50, one of the last transcontinental highways left intact in our highway system, crosses the continent from Ocean City, Maryland on the east coast to San Francisco, California on the west coast (In 1973 a section of US 50 was replaced by I-80 from Sacramento to San Francisco, CA). She climbs from sea level to reach the astounding elevation of 11,312 feet above sea level at Monarch Pass, Colorado before dropping back to sea level at the terminus of her 3073 mile route.

Vintage Auto in La Junta

History of US 50

But US Highway 50 didn't just happen by accident. The story of US Highway 50 starts almost two hundred years earlier when a young country began to grow westward. There were no established trails but the ones the early explorers and mountain men blazed themselves as they followed the traces left by the Native Americans.

It can be argued that Colorado’s US 50 owes its existence to Captain William Bicknell, who left Missouri in 1821 and headed west with a small pack train, and three companions. They successfully made the long arduous trip to Santa Fe (then in Mexico), where they made a small fortune selling their trade goods. The Santa Fe Trail was established and the route that Bicknell and his party blazed became the Mountain Branch of the Santa Fe Trail, a route that passed through the future location of La Junta.

US 50 Time Machine
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3rd Street looking west.

3rd Street looking west in the 1920s
  |  1930s  |  1950s  |  2009  

A half century later the railroads would follow Bicknell’s Santa Fe Trail establishing routes west that would someday become a part of US Highway 50. Because train engines were limited in the terrain they could cross, railroad routes were painstakingly chosen. The railroad had to follow the contours of the land, avoiding steep grades. The railroad also had to connect sources of water, as the steam engines of those days required substantial water. Many of the sidings and water stops became communities that would survive into the highway era. La Junta began in such a way as a railroad construction camp.

The advent of the automobile changed the face of America forever. The arrival of Ford’s Model T in 1908 had a dramatic effect on the American populace, as automobiles became accessible to the common man. Travel by automobile was hard in the early days though. The roads weren't designed for the horseless carriage. Dirt roads were little better than local trails designed for travel by horseback.

Travails of Early Travel

Trail organizations were started to address these problems. These were local groups that promoted the roads around the towns where they lived. There was no real national cohesion at this time. Local groups did what they pretty much wanted to in their own area. The lack of any national highway group led to a confusing array of maps and road guides. No two maps were alike. Each guide reflected the organization that had produced it. There was no correlation between early trail associations and maps often overlapped. In an effort to improve the interstate road system the Congress of the United States passed the Federal-Aid Road Act on July 11, 1916. Despite the Federal Aid Road Act there still was no standardization and navigating from town to town and state to state could be a nightmare. By the 1920s the public was confused and disgusted.

Pre Highway 50 Trails through La Junta in 1923:

1923 Auto Trails Map
1923 Auto Trails Legend

The Federal Government finally stepped in and made a concerted effort to bring the various trail organizations and automobile groups together. In 1921, an amendment to the Federal Aid Road Act was passed, requiring states to designate primary roads to be included in a state highway system. These roads would be designated U.S. highways. A plan for the nation’s highways was developed that laid out a highway system, established a systematic numbering system that replaced the previous tradition of naming roads (Lincoln Highway, National Old Trails Road, etc.) and a system of standardized, uniform directional, warning, and regulatory signs for the U.S. highway system.

On November 11, 1926 a bill was signed in Washington creating the American Highway System. US Highway 50, along with the rest of the early two-lane roads became a reality. Our country had entered a new era. The great roads were to be built. Roads to carry a nation on the move, through hard times, war, and rebirth.

A New Prosperity

US 50 Time Machine
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Guthrie Gas Station

Guthrie Gas Station in 1946
  |  2009  

The automobile provided a new economic base never seen before. Automobile service and tourism became major industries that provided a new source of income for many of the small towns connected by these new highways. The cars followed the ribbon of highway where there were parts to be sold, gas and oil to be bought, and repairs made. The hey-day of the service station lasted through the early 1970s. Many service stations were independently owned and operated small businesses. The service was real too. These were the days of full service stations where the attendant would gas up the car, check the oil and clean the windows without being asked. Clean restrooms were a must. Some gasoline companies employed special workers who would travel up and down the highway checking on the cleanliness of the restrooms at each station.

US 50 Time Machine
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Superior Gas Station

Superior Gas Station in the 1960s
  |  2009  

And then there were the people who drove those cars, "Mom and Pop" businesses sprang up to service the highway traveler. America was on the move and food, lodging and entertainment was in high demand for these travelers. With not much more than an idea and a determination to work hard a person could build a profitable business along the highway. Many a successful roadside business was started on a shoestring budget and a dream. With imagination a whole new world was created. Crates left over from WWII became walls of an old motor court. Oil cans became shingles used to roof an old service station. Cast away bottles and roadside trash became the material to create a wondrous roadside attraction. Diners could be ordered from a catalog and shipped by railroad to their destination.

From Hotels to Motels

Dad's Auto Camp in 1923.

One of the most interesting phenomena of highway business evolution is perhaps what happened in roadside lodging facilities. The earliest days of highway travel saw the advent of the auto camps, simple facilities often consisting of tents over a wooden frame that motorists could rent for a small fee. Over the years the tents gave way to small cabins. The individual cabin motif remained popular throughout the 1930s then gave way to the new auto courts with attached room facilities, laid out in an L or U shape. Travelers could park their automobile in front of their room, or in some cases in attached garages next to their room for convenience. This was the beginning of the modern motel. Motels were the next generation of lodging for the traveler, emerging dominant after the WWII. Many motels were unique in character to entice the weary traveler to stop and rest awhile. Swimming pools, free TVs, and air conditioning tempted the most seasoned highway adventurer. These were the modern motels in a day before the motel chains. The brightly-lit neon lights proclaimed the "Motel Rows" of a hundred towns along the highway. The real glass drinking glasses carefully sealed in waxed paper, individually wrapped bars of soap, and toilets sanitized for your protection greeted the tourist along US Highway 50 and the other two-lane highways.

US 50 Time Machine
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Cactus Auto Court

Cactus Auto Court in the 1930s
  |  1940s  |  2009  

US 50 Time Machine
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Silver State Tourist Court

Silver State Tourist Court in the 1930s
  |  1940  |  1960s  |  2009  

Midtown Motel on Old Highway 50

The next innovation in lodging began in the 1950s as the chain motels like the Holiday Inn, Travel lodge, and Best Western began to dot the highway landscape. The auto court L or U layout was still used but many motels evolved into two story structures to accommodate more travelers. The Midtown Motel in La Junta is a classic example of this trend. This two-story motif continued into the 1970s when it was gradually replaced by two and three story motels that abandoned the L or U shaped court for one or more central buildings with rooms accessed through a lobby - a trend that continues to this day.

Shadows of Old 50

Today as you travel through the towns and countryside along US Highway 50 be on the lookout for brief glimpses of the highway’s storied past. Many old gas stations, motor courts, and diners have disappeared or been converted to other uses, but here and there you can still find them tucked away between newer buildings and businesses - a window to another, perhaps slower, time in America’s past. Gas stations have been reborn as restaurants or trendy retail stores, old auto courts have a new life as apartments or even self-storage facilities. As you drive US Highway 50 be observant and look for the story behind the scenery. You are driving down the paths and trails of those that came before; US Highway 50 is their story and now it’s your story too.

US 50 Time Machine
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La Junta Court House.

La Junta Court House 1918
  |  1950s  |  2009  

US 50 Time Machine
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Presbyterian Church in the 1940s

Presbyterian Church in the 1940s
  |  2009  

Kansas Street is now 3rd Street
Kansas Street is now 3rd Street in La Junta
Old Street Signs on Presbyterian Church

Stop and explore US Highway 50. Remember, it’s not the destination that counts so much but the journey along the way – have fun on famous US 50!