“HISTORY NEVER LOOKS LIKE
HISTORY WHEN YOU
ARE LIVING THROUGH IT.”
John W Gardner
Legend has it that F.W. ‘Woody’ Hockaday, a Wichita service station operator, out of his own pocket, placed signs marking routes in Kansas and other parts of the Southwest. Rumor has it that his phone number was 96. But that is shot down since Highway 96 was numbered in Colorado as early as 1923. Also when looking into the phone directory for Wichita Hockaday’s number was ‘Murdock 102.’
K-96 developed as a highway from the west central to the southeast part of Kansas. Lining up with Colorado 96 East of Towner and Missouri 96 south of Pittsburg. The evolution took many decades with a major portion of the ‘highway as graded gravel’. There has been continual paving, realigning, and construction of K-96 for much of it’s life.
K-96 runs through the towns of Tribune, Leoti, Scott City, Dighton, Ness City, Great Bend, Ellinwood, Lyons, Sterling, Nickerson, Hutchinson, and Wichita. The current terminus being the interchange of K-96 & US 54/400 in East Wichita.
What used to be a state wide roadway has been re numbered in the Eastern part of Kansas and ceases to exist there. As with many highways in Kansas it has a history of wrecks and death. Mostly for the fact that the updating of the highway lay forty years behind what it should have been.
The stretch of highway between Severy and Fall River was a particularly bad for grinding crashes. That is because of the design of the highway was for model A’s and the modern car and truck traffic was way beyond the design. No shoulders and steep ditches marked this particular stretch leaving little room for error.
In a string of highway updates the conditions have been improved drastically. Yet there is no clear corridor to the southeast from Wichita to Joplin, hooking into the interstate system. (Yes I know about US 400, this is a separate story in the series).
The portion that claimed as many lives with a huge volume of traffic was between Wichita and Hutchinson. Up graded in sections K-96 was still one of the most dangerous highways to drive on. In places it still makes no sense to me why. One of the most dangerous intersections is 151 ST WEST(Bentley RD) and K-96. The four lane section here should be one of the safest in the state yet still claims many lives. The visibility is as good as any in the state with at least 12 car lengths between lanes, yet it still is host to grinding crashes.
The Federal DOT has rules about signage and little flexibility in the application of them. In the Amish community of Yoder the markings used to be there for the warning of slow moving vehicles. Horses and carriages are still the main mode of transportation for this group of people. Negotiating the major highway with horse and buggy I am sure has made for terrifying moments.
Yet for the unimagined process of the government the signs came down and late one night an Amish couple was struck and killed sending a jolt through the community and the state.
The planning that took decades with the construction now has a limited access highway connecting the two major towns of Wichita and Hutchinson as well as the by pass around the west side of Hutchinson.
Today there are still bad crashes in the western sections of K-96. The visions of a modern highway from the Southeast to the West still remain a dream.