One of the original purposes of the Federal Interstate Highway system, as the US highways were once known, was that those highways would carry consistent route numbers across state lines. That idea was, in some cases, cast aside with the advent of today’s Interstate highways. Nowhere is that more evident than in the present-day condition of US Highway 85. It’s been chopped into enough pieces that attempting to drive it from start to finish would require a set of good maps and a certain amount of patience.

US 85 was one of the original numbered highways planned by the Joint Board on Interstate Highways in 1925. Its routing was finalized and subsequently commissioned by the American Association of State Highway Officials (now AASHTO) late in 1926. At that time, US 85 was a true transcontinental highway, stretching from the Canadian border in North Dakota due south to El Paso, Texas.

Starting from El Paso, US 85 spent a few more miles in Texas and then entered New Mexico, hugging the historic Rio Grande along the way. The highway passed through the old university town of Socorro and Albuquerque, where it crossed the famous Route 66. US 85 continued north through New Mexico’s capital, Santa Fe, and entered Colorado through the Raton Pass.

Once in Colorado, US 85 passed through Pueblo, the famous clearinghouse city for United States government publications. From there, it ran through two more state capitals: Colorado’s, where the number was carried on Broadway in Denver; and, in Wyoming, through the old Union Pacific Railroad settlement that became the city of Cheyenne.

The highway continued north through eastern Wyoming and crossed into South Dakota on its way to Belle Fourche. Just before entering South Dakota, motorists could opt to follow a loop highway, Alternate US 85, to Mount Rushmore National Park, and then rejoin mainline US 85 near Deadwood.

Passing into North Dakota, at Bowman US 85 crossed US Highway 10, then the major SeattleDetroit highway. Heading north, US 85 ran nearby the north and south units of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The highway continued to Williston, where it crossed the northernmost federal route, US Highway 2. There, US 85 passed near the Fort Union Trading Post national historic site, one of the oldest and most important fur trading posts on the Missouri River. After some fifty miles, US 85 came to its northern end at the border with Saskatchewan, seven miles north of Fortuna, North Dakota.

In the 1950s, many sections of US 85, especially those in urban areas, were upgraded to four-lane status. These sections eventually became part of Interstate 25, which in turn replaced US 85 a few miles north of El Paso straight through to Denver. US 85 signs are posted in Texas, but they disappear through most of New Mexico, and signs aren’t seen again until well into southern Colorado. Just a few miles north of Denver, US 85 resumes its own pavement and signage all the way to its northern terminus, with a brief co-location on Interstate 25 in Cheyenne.

Even with the disruptions in signing, AASHTO maintains that US 85 remains a federally commissioned highway from start to finish. The lack of signage in New Mexico is apparently a problem at the state level.


SOURCES

Droz, Robert V., "Sequential List of US Highways", US Highways From US 1 to US 830. July 2003. <http://www.us-highways.com/us1830.htm> (November 2004)
Salek, Matthew E., "US 85", Colorado Highways. January 2004. <http://www.mesalek.com/colo/us85.html> (November 2004)
Rand McNally: The Rand McNally Road Atlas. Skokie, Illinois: editions of 1957 and 2004

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