Twenty years ago the Kansas Department of Transportation (KDOT) began installing these gates at on-ramps along Interstate 70 (I-70) in western Kansas. Constructed in the 1950s, I-70 was the first segment of the Eisenhower Interstate System, the largest public works project in American history. Though developers designed a revolutionary system of highways that could handle high speeds and evacuate major urban centers, they failed to counter the effects of blizzards.
Snowstorms have plagued Kansas travelers for centuries. According to legend, a blizzard in 1855 froze the Kansas River solid. An 1873 snowstorm lasted days and buried homes and livestock. Perhaps the worst winter storm took place in 1886. During that blizzard a train packed with hungry cattle was stranded in Dodge City, and stagecoach passengers traveling from Kansas to Oklahoma discovered their driver frozen to death upon arrival.
With the rise of the automobile and the introduction of the Interstate Highway System, the volume of people and commerce moving on the roads increased; so did the potential for disaster. In 1987, two consecutive storms dumped 36 inches of snow on western Kansas, making highways impassible. Stubborn drivers and determined truckers ignored radio warnings and found themselves stranded. Their rescues diverted resources from clearing roads.
KDOT decided it was time for a new approach. Instead of simply announcing the closure of I-70 on the radio, the agency installed gates at every on-ramp from Russell to Kanarado in the 1990s. When closed, the gates physically prevented drivers from entering the highway, and allowed snowplows to work uninhibited.
Closing an interstate is not easy. Millions of tons of goods are shipped across I-70 every day. Though closures usually last less than 24 hours, the lost time is expensive. In Kansas, only the Secretary of the Department of Transportation has the authority to close an interstate. Typically, gates are closed in sequence starting near the Colorado border and moving east. As access is eliminated, shelters in towns along the highway begin to fill with stranded travelers. KDOT authorities coordinate with local emergency management personnel in each city to track holding capacity.
For many, these gates have become an icon for a cultural phenomenon: the closure of I-70. The event traditionally earns extensive media coverage. Many Kansans have come to associate the severity of a storm with its potential to shut down the state's main thoroughfare. Transcontinental travelers are often left with unique and long-lasting memories of their unplanned hiatus on the Kansas plains.
This 14-foot gate was used to close the ramp at Exit 17 near Goodland. Built by New Age Industries in Norton, Kansas, it bears the scars of battles with the elements and anxious drivers. The gate was replaced around 2000 to make way for a wider version. KDOT donated it to the Kansas Museum of History in 2007.
Entry: Snow Gate
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: March 2008
Date Modified: December 2014
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.