Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The Meridian Highway, now U.S. Route 81, is a major north–south route that transects the Great Plains from Canada to Mexico. The highway follows the land division grid of the Great Plains from Winnipeg, Manitoba, through North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas to Mexico, parallel to the sixth principal meridian. Established in 1911–12, it was originally known as the Meridian Road. Later renamed the Meridian Highway, it has been called North America's first international automotive highway.

The Meridian Highway evolved primarily as a farm-to-market road, important to the rural areas, small towns, and cities through which it passed. The original route followed section line roads, running perpendicular to historic east–west transportation corridors. Reflecting its creation from existing farm-to-market rural roads, the original highway passed through each county seat along its route. In 1911 the Meridian Road Association was formed to mark, map, and promote the highway; in 1919 it became the Meridian Highway Association. Similar to contemporaneous good roads organizations, the Meridian Highway Association consisted of representatives from the states, counties, and cities along the route. The Meridian Highway promoters, however, perhaps in recognition of its divergence from more established routes, emphasized the absence of mountain passes and proclaimed that motorists could travel from Canada to Mexico without shifting gears. The association sold memberships and instituted widely publicized tours. When the association was a year old, in 1912, an automobile caravan was organized to travel the route south to Mexico, an event that was irregularly repeated in subsequent years.

As a north–south route that cut through the heart of the Great Plains, the Meridian Highway was relatively unrestricted by geographic barriers. The highway's few major river crossings, therefore, were of tremendous importance. A significant evolution of the route into a modern highway was the completion of the Meridian Highway Bridge in 1924 at the Missouri River between Yankton, South Dakota, and Nebraska.

Like other early named highways, the Meridian changed from its inception with road improvements that included abandonment of the route through urban areas and the establishment of improved two- or four-lane sections. In recent years, the Meridian Highway Association was reestablished as the U.S. 81 Association. Its goals include promotional activities to provide economic benefit for states and communities along the route. The association, however, is less concerned with preservation of the original route and instead hopes to transform U.S. 81 into a major four-lane north–south highway.

Carol Ahlgren National Park Service

Francis L. Long Papers, Record Group 2171, Nebraska State Historical Society, Lincoln NE.

Yankton Daily Press and Dakotan, Meridian Highway Bridge Souvenir Edition, Oct. 10–11, 1924.

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