US Highway 81 was one of the original routes planned by the Joint Board on Interstate Highways in 1925, and commissioned by the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO, now AASHTO) in November 1926. It was designed to supersede an earlier route, the Meridian Highway, and still forms part of the larger Pan-American Highway.
Though it is today multiplexed with Interstate 29 for most of its length in North Dakota, US 81 originally began at the village of Pembina, just across the border from Manitoba. A few miles from Pembina comes the only stretch of US 81 still carried on separate pavement in North Dakota, which runs for some 60 miles before rejoining I-29 just north of Grand Forks. Continuing south, US 81 and I-29 call next at Fargo, home town of 1960s pop singer Bobby Vee, and more recently the subject of a film by the Coen Brothers. An hour’s drive south brings the highway to the border of South Dakota.
In South Dakota, US 81 remains part of I-29 until Watertown, where it leaves the interstate and the separation is permanent. From that point, the route assumes the status of a regional highway. It passes near Brookings, and east of the Laura Ingalls Wilder homestead; and crosses Interstate 90 some 30 miles to the west of Sioux Falls. US 81 spends another thirty miles in South Dakota before reaching Yankton and crossing the Missouri River into Nebraska.
The route’s first Nebraska stop comes at Norfolk, home town of entertainer Johnny Carson, host of the Tonight Show for many years. At Columbus, named after Columbus, Ohio by German immigrants from that city, US 81 has an intersection with the old Lincoln Highway, today’s US Highway 30. The route continues on to a junction with Interstate 80 at York, on its way to the Kansas border, 50 miles distant.
US 81 becomes a four-lane expressway just north of the Kansas/Nebraska border, and remains that way until a few miles north of Salina, where it’s routed on to Interstate 135. The route crosses Interstate 70 at the outskirts of Salina, an historic old city today known as the crossroads of Kansas. Leaving Salina, US 81 and I-135 head south to Wichita, Kansas’ largest city and once a destination for cattle being driven along the Chisholm Trail. Wichita has also been home to many prominent airplane manufacturers, among them Cessna, Beech, Lear, and a unit of Boeing.
Now roughly following the path of the old Chisholm Trail, US 81 separates from I-135 near the south end of Wichita and continues on its own pavement into Oklahoma, calling first at Enid. The route again converts to four-lane configuration until a few miles north of El Reno, where it reverts back to ordinary two-lane status. At El Reno, US 81 crosses another famous highway, old Route 66. The route continues south to Chickasha, where it crosses Interstate 44, also known in Oklahoma as the H. E. Bailey Turnpike. Further south, the traveler may stop in at the Chisholm Trail Museum near the village of Waurika.
After a few more miles, US 81 enters Texas and regains four-lane status for the run into the Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex. It is here, just north of Ft. Worth, that present-day US 81 comes to its end at an interchange with Interstate 35W, the result of a 1993 truncation. Historic US 81 continued south, though, following Interstate 35 through the famous old cities of Waco; Austin, Texas’ capital city; and San Antonio, before reaching its original terminus at Laredo. As the Pan-American Highway, the actual pavement continued on through Mexico and points south.
At the time of its commissioning, US 81 had a total length of 1769 miles; in its present form, the route has been cut back to 1234 miles. It remains an important highway, still performing its function of connecting North and South.
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Sanderson, Dale. "Highway Ends", End of US Highway 81
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Geelhart, Chris. The Unofficial South Dakota Highways Page
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Geelhart, Chris. North Dakota Highways
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