This highway once connected Canada to New Orleans and included a route through Southeast Kansas. This was the heyday of the region’s coal mining and bootlegging, and many historical buildings from the era are still standing, including one of the last known structures with its original “Jefferson Highway” signage.
2022 Jefferson Highway Association Annual Conference
Before Route 66 became famous, and even before the federal highway system itself, when automobiles were rare and dirt roads were the norm, towns collaborated to guide auto travelers along the best paved roads.
Starting in 1913, Lincoln Highway connected the east coast and the west coast. Jefferson Highway was formed in 1915, connecting Canada to New Orleans, and its Kansas route took travelers through the southeast corner of the state.
The path taken already had a long history. From 1836 to 1855, a military road connected Fort Leavenworth and Fort Scott in Kansas, to Fort Gibson, Oklahoma, then on to Fort Smith, Arkansas. This and other connecting trails then became known as Texas Road, and was used to drive cattle herds from Texas to the north. With the coal mining boom of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, numerous rail lines crisscrossed Southeast Kansas, meaning there were numerous communities and hotels for travelers.
When Jefferson Highway was established, its Kansas route took travelers from Kansas City south to Fort Scott. From there, they went southeast towards Arcadia and Mulberry, before heading west into Arma. Travelers then headed south into Franklin, then Pittsburg, an original “cardinal point” and a suggested overnight stopping point for vacationers touring the country. South of Pittsburg, the route split, with one path going southeast through Opolis and onto Joplin, Missouri, while the other went to Baxter Springs before going into Oklahoma.
U.S. 69 is along much of the route through Kansas, though between Fort Scott and Arma much of the original Jefferson Highway route has been long forgotten. For those wanting to “Get your kicks Route 66,” a portion of both highways overlap in Baxter Springs and into Northeast Oklahoma. Many of the popular Route 66 roadside attractions are just a short jaunt south of Crawford County.