I recently had the opportunity to travel Route 66 between Mitchell, Illinois and Catoosa, Oklahoma. This was my fourth trip on this particular stretch since 1998. I have to say that the experience was bittersweet.
My melancholy over the trip has to do with those original highway businesses that have disappeared since I was last down this way in 2007. At least four have been demolished and there is no sign of their ever having been there. Some of the bridges have been closed or replaced, presumably for safety issues. Other restorations are showing their age and need some TLC.
The trip was not a total downer (how could it be?). Most of the original pavement that was there eight years ago remains. Additionally, the signage has been upgraded along the way, so use of the map turned out to be unnecessary (I still refuse to use GPS). This was true in Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma. Illinois has had a good signage program for years, and what I saw is still looking good.
One of the highlights of the trip was the restoration of the Boots Court in Carthage, Missouri which has been restored to its original appearance. The unsightly gable roof has been removed, and the façade is sporting pristine white paint with red awnings. The neon sign has been restored and repainted in (original?) red. This building is a gem that is worthy of maintaining.
Another highlight was entertaining old friends at Ted Drewes’ Frozen Custard on Chippewa Street in St. Louis. This establishment remains unchanged from my first visit in 1995, and is well maintained. There were thirty or forty people there even after 9:00 PM on a late Tuesday evening in late September. I am certain that as long as they want to keep it open, this business will continue to thrive.
In the category of reasons for optimism, There was a vintage bridge east of Vinita, Oklahoma that was bypassed by a newer structure, but given the way the road was realigned, it appeared that the old bridge will remain in place as a part of history. I was also pleased to see that a couple of the spans of the westbound Vertigris River Bridge near Catoosa were relocated near their original site and can thus be preserved without creating a hazard to the traveling public. The eastbound bridge is still carried by steel through trusses.
In the category of tired restorations, the Chain of Rocks Bridge could use a bit of paint again. The restoration of the late 1990s is showing its age as it approaches its late teens. It is clear from the fact that a parking lot has been constructed at the east end along with some signage placed there by the Route 66 Association of Illinois that there is a commitment to keeping the bridge alive. I look forward to walking it for years to come.
I’m not sure of the eventual fate of the truss bridge over the Gasconade River near Hazelgreen. The bridge is, of course now closed, and the rust on the superstructure is visible from the interstate. The first time I crossed this bridge was on a Sunday morning, and the minister was just climbing out of the river following a baptism. The memory of that occasion will keep this bridge on my mind in the future. I can only hope that there is some effort underway to preserve it.
There was one section of the bypass alignment around St. Louis that I hadn’t been on since I was five years old, so this was the first time driving it. Believe it or not, I still remember coming off the Chain of Rocks Bridge and making the right and left turns that put us on Dunn Road. Because of the construction of I-270 and all of the development that has taken place, most of this alignment looks quite different than it did 55 years ago.
There are only a few hundred miles of the old road that I haven’t traveled, and I’ve only been able to string together a few hundred miles at a time. I look forward to the time when I can string together a few weeks to drive the entire route.
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