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Were it not for humble potash, Nebraska’s most scenic highway may not exist. Crucial to the production of fertilizer, potash had long been imported to America from Germany. But when the United States entered the first World War, imports were cut off, and fertilizer manufacturers scrambled to find a domestic source. Soon enough, scientists at the University of Nebraska developed a method to extract potash from the plains’ numerous alkali lakes. Like a railroad boomtown, the northwest Nebraska village of Antioch mushroomed overnight, from little more than a church and a schoolhouse to a “city” of more than 2,000 people, nearly every single one of them employed in potash production.

The state’s residents soon began pushing for better roads. In 1918, residents of central Nebraska gathered to recommend a state highway running parallel to the Burlington Railroad from Alliance to Broken Bow, a stretch of nearly 200 miles through the heart of the Nebraska Sandhills, the largest sand-dune formation in the western hemisphere. In Broken Bow, it could connect to an already existent highway leading to Grand Island, a larger community 80 miles east.

Ironically, the decline of the potash industry that sparked the idea also pushed the highway to fruition. By 1919, demand for Nebraska’s potash had already begun to wane, leaving many in Box Butte County without jobs. They were put to work by the Department of Roads, and by 1923, the nearly 300-mile trek through western Nebraska was passable. Three years later, the Potash Highway was incorporated into Nebraska Highway 2. Today, many tourists consider its western half, deemed the “Sandhills Journey Scenic…