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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Highway's History is Personal

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

The designation on the state highway map is State Highway 207, but south of Claude in Armstrong County that stretch of pavement is far better known as Hamblen Drive.

SH 207 extends 199.7 miles from the Texas-Oklahoma border to Post. In the process, the highway cuts through Palo Duro Canyon and crosses the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River. That segment, one Texasí most scenic drives, honors Will H. Hamblen, a one-time Armstrong County elected official who spent much of his life making that roadway a reality.

Born in 1876, Hamblen came to the Panhandle with his family on an immigrant train in 1890. They built a dugout on the south rim of Palo Duro, but the small shelter didnít have enough room for everyone, so Hamblen slept in the wagon until they could complete a larger residence.

As a boy Hamblen helped his father cut cedar posts in Palo Duro and haul them to Amarillo to sell for three cents each. When they first started making the trek, they followed an old Indian trail Ė blazed earlier by buffalo Ė across and then up the rugged canyon. A long, tough trip, the only alternative was bypassing the canyon via the newly founded Canyon.

Hamblen and his father removed rocks and did whatever else they could by hand and plow to improve the route across the canyon toward Claude. Their efforts benefited from state law, which provided that a countyís eligible men annually had to put in a few days working to maintain and improve roads passing through their property. That or they could pay a road tax.

By the time Hamblen married and settled on a section of land along the rim of Palo Duro near the small community of Wayside, he rankled at how long it took to get to the county seat at Claude. Going to the courthouse via the Canyon-to-Amarillo route was a 120-mile trip. The only other way was the still-rough route across the canyon.

Elected a county commissioner in 1928, Hamblen quickly got improvements underway on the cross-canyon road he and his father had begun nearly 40 years earlier. Men with picks and shovels working along side men operating mule-drawn slips, Fresnoes and wheel scrapers removed rough spots and lessened steep grades. Two years later, Hamblemís colleagues on the court voted to name the road in his honor.

While better than ever, the road still meant a rough ride across the canyon, especially the stretches up and down its steep, rocky sides. Following Congressional passage of the Public Works Administration Act in 1933, Hamblen secured federal funds to pay men $1 a day to further improve Hamblen Drive.

Showing up for work in Hamblenís Model A truck and another farmerís Model T, the men used dynamite, hand tools and mule teams to move boulders and tame cliffs. But one hill stood in the way. When the crew working up from the south met the hands assigned to the north crew, they couldnít agree on what side of the hill to go around. Finally, the foreman said he would turn his horse loose and see which route he chose. And thatís the way the road went.

With the new road, though it remained unpaved, the public had its first easy access to Palo Duro. Meanwhile, on the eastern side of the canyon Civilian Conservation Corps men blasted a drivable way down into what would become Palo Duro Canyon State Park.

On Nov. 24, 1952, a snowy day, Hamblen walked from his house to the post office. Picking up a letter concerning a traffic accident he had been in earlier that month, he headed across the street to talk with his insurance agent. But before he got there, he slipped on a patch of ice, suffering a fractured skull. Eight days later he died, 76 years old.

Two years later the Highway Department assumed maintenance of Hamblenís road and converted it to FM 284. In addition to paving it, the department built a 975-foot concrete bridge spanning Prairie Dog Town Fork.

Having the road under state maintenance amounted to a tremendous improvement, but Panhandle civic leaders wanted a state highway connecting Borger on the north with Post on the south. But that was only a small part of the dream. The grand vision entailed a roadway to Canada that would go north from Borger via Kansas and Nebraska and south beyond Post to San Angelo and Del Rio.

A year after Hamblenís death, Plainview newspaper publisher and attorney Marshall Formby gained appointment to the state Highway Commission. While it probably would have happened sooner or later, Formby pushed for the Panhandle segment of the proposed Canada to Mexico highway.

Accordingly, in 1958, Formby and his fellow commissioners designated FM 284 as a segment of SH 207. But the change involved more than nomenclature. The FMís 8-9 percent gradient would be reduced to the departmentís standard for highways Ė 6.5 percent.

A decade after Hamblen Drive became part of SH 207, the state put up a historical marker chronicling the routeís history. The marker stands eight miles northeast of Wayside at a roadside park overlooking Palo Duro Canyon at a point where Hamblenís road seems to go on forever.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" October 11, 2012 column

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