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October 7: Horseshoe Bend on Highway 85

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U.S. Highway 85 crosses the rugged Badlands south of Watford City in one of the most dramatic drives in North Dakota. The roadway runs for a few miles through the Little Missouri Valley in the area of Theodore Roosevelt National Park before climbing out of the Badlands.

But motorists used to drive a slightly different route. Decades ago, travelers drove the curves of Horseshoe Bend, which wound east of the current roadway and just north of the park entrance. The old road’s sharp corners meant drivers had to slow down to about 25 mph. The abandoned roadway’s sharply curved shape is still visible from the air.

Highway officials sought to move the roadway away from an active landslide that threatened the road’s stability at a time when the highway was seeing annual increases in truck traffic. On this date in 1976, a state environmental engineer wrote to local, state and federal officials and agencies to request their comments on plans for the road project. The two-mile project’s cost was more than $1.3 million.

Construction took place in the summer and fall of 1983. The McKenzie County Farmer newspaper published photos of the construction in the Badlands where dirt was being cut and scraped for the new road. A headline said: “It’s going to be quite a change …” The project was completed after several months, but for paving.

Highway 85 continues to be a major part of the state’s infrastructure as a main route through North Dakota’s busy Bakken oil field. The highway in recent years has seen improvements such as widened segments, truck bypasses and a new bridge over the Little Missouri River.

Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura


  • Federal Highway Administration. (1982). Finding of no significant impact for project no. F-7-085 ( ) 127 Horseshoe Bend in and near the north unit of Theodore Roosevelt national park on U.S. highway 85.
  • McKenzie County Farmer. 1983, July 27. Page 1: US 85 project started near TR Nat’l Park
  • McKenzie County Farmer. 1983, August 10. Page 1: It’s going to be quite a change …
  • McKenzie County Farmer. 1983, December 7. Page 8: Badlands road project on US 85 completed
  • Email communication with Frances Olson
  • Email communication with Bennet R. Kubischta

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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