A Bit of Missouri 66 History
by Joe Sonderman
You could make a case that the most historically significant sections of Route 66 are in Oklahoma, or the most scenic is in Arizona. But since I'm from the "Show Me State," you would have a hard time convincing me that Missouri isn't the best of the eight states that can boast a stretch of Route 66. The man who became the driving force behind Route 66 attended college in Missouri. Springfield can lay claim to being the birthplace of Route 66. A Missouri attraction became the most famous of the tourist stops along the highway. A motel in St. Louis became one of the most notorious. A traveler headed west on Route 66 left the plains of Illinois behind, crossing the mightiest of America's rivers. Passing through the largest city on the route between Chicago and LA, the motorist soon found themselves in the rolling hills of the Ozark Plateau. West of Springfield, the land flattens out, and the traveler begins to realize they are headed into the great American West.
In the definitive work on the highway, "Route 66- The Mother Road" Michael Wallis wrote that 66 was the road of dreamers and ramblers, drifters and writers." It was also "a road of commerce." Missouri had more than its share of mom and pop gas stations and cafes, "no-tell motels," tourist traps, curio stores and rock shops. Migrant workers headed west in search of a dream while Truckers "humpin to please" brought all manner of bounty to the great cities. GIs traveled the highway to Fort Leonard Wood. Then, the newly affluent generation came back, to follow the path of the beat writers or take their families to see the golden west. It was the people who made Route 66 a legend. The man who claimed to have invented the first drive up window, another who peddles frozen custard from a building ringed with wooden icicles, and a man who found a few rusty relics in a cave and turned it into a tourist attraction all played a role. So did the media, authors such as John Steinbeck and a songwriter by the name of Bobby Troup. So did the truck stop waitress, the gas pump jockey, the short order cook and the highway patrolman. Those people are still out there, waiting for you.
Route 66 officially celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2001. But it's really an old road. Route 66 was patched together from a myriad of Indian trails, farm-to-market routes and rutted paths through the Ozark woods. The first road west from St. Louis was merely and extension of Market Street. It was originally called Rue Bonhomme, after Joseph Hebert. His farm was along the route, and he was a good man, or "Bonhomme" en francais. The road led to Manchester, which later became the first path of Highway 66. The Osage Indians blazed a trail from the Ozark Highlands to the site where Pierre Laclede would decide to build his trading post in 1764. The route to St. Louis became known as the "Kickapoo Trace" the "Osage" or "Indian" roads. In 1822, the state made each county responsible for maintenance of its roads and all free males between the ages of 16 and 45 were required to help. The Missouri General Assembly established the first state road in 1835. That road followed the Road to Manchester, and then connected with the State Capitol in Jefferson City (later US 50).
The road between St. Louis and St. James saw traffic increase about the time Missouri joined the union, when Iron ore was discovered in the Meramec Valley. On February 6, 1837, the State of Missouri authorized a state road between St. Louis and Springfield. The route would become known as the "Springfield Road" in most areas. The increasing traffic led to a movement for better roads in Missouri. A few enterprising folks thought it might be a good idea to "improve" the route by laying planks, or even logs, side by side. They would recoup the cost by charging tolls. The state authorized dozens of plank road companies, but only a handful of these roads were ever built. The planks quickly rotted and warped, and travel over a road made of logs was a grueling experience in the days before shock absorbers. The companies quickly went bankrupt, and most of the plank roads reverted back to the state.
In the 1840's the US Government established a stage line along the route between St. Louis and Springfield. The road became a vital military thoroughfare during the Civil War. In 1858, the federal government strung telegraph lines along the road to Fort Smith, Arkansas. Stations were set up at St. Louis, Rolla, Lebanon, Marshfield and Springfield. The route soon became known as "The Telegraph Road" or "Wire Road." The Blue and the Grey marched along the dusty trail on their way to fight and die at Carthage and Wilson's Creek. Bushwackers and guerillas spread terror in the Ozark countryside. After the war, the government took down the wires, and left the lonely poles standing beside the road.
The road system in Missouri languished after the war. The railways dominated travel, and the rutted country lanes were maintained mainly to provide access to the railway. The bicycle enthusiasts were the first to push for good roads in Missouri in the late 1800's. The first automobiles came to the state in 1891. By 1911, there were over 16,000 automobiles registered in the state. In 1907, the state saw the need to appoint a State Highway Engineer under the Board of Agriculture to help counties with construction of roads that would someday be part of a state system.
Meanwhile, promoters were developing a tangled web of roads across the US. They gave their road an important sounding name, and painted color-coded stripes on fence posts, telegraph poles or any handy surface. Drivers followed the confusing colors to travel the "Lincoln Highway," the "Dixie Highway," or the "Old Spanish Trail." In 1917, an association mapped out the "Ozark Trail" from St. Louis to Romeroville, New Mexico. From there, it joined the "National Old Trails Road" to Los Angeles.
Missouri voters took action in 1920, approving a $60 million road bond issue. Governor Arthur Hyde led the push for the "Centennial Road Law." Proponents said the measure would "Lift Missouri Out of the Mud," by providing money for a state road system and means to obtain Federal funds. That same year, workers poured the first concrete pavement outside an urban center along the future Route 66. The $120,000 project extended 7.4 miles, from the Kansas border to Webb City.
In August 1922, the State Highway Commission designated seven roads totaling about 1,500 miles as primary roads connecting the major population centers. The routes would be numbered as: State Route 1 (later US 71); SR 2 (later US 40); SR 3 (US 65); SR 7 (US 63; SR 8 (US 36); SR 9 (US 61); and SR 14 - the future Route 66. The commission stated "a higher type of primary road is hereby designated between St. Louis and Joplin. The road will start at or near the end of the pavement on what is known as the Manchester Road in St. Louis County, thence south through or near Rolla, Lebanon and Springfield, to or near the Carthage-Webb City-Joplin population district."
The American Association of State Highway Officials, or AASHTO approved a new system for marking interstate highways. The report called for east-west highways to be assigned even numbers in November 1925. The north-south routes would be given odd numbers. The most important east-west routes would end in "0," and the principal north south routes would end in one or five. The one exception was the proposed Route "60." The important-sounding east-west number was not assigned to a completely transcontinental route. It was assigned to the highway between Chicago and Los Angeles, which crossed US 20, 30 40 and 50.
Cyrus Avery is often referred to as "The Father of Route 66." Avery's family operated a service station and restaurant complex outside Tulsa, so he had more than a passing interest in good roads. Avery headed the board that chose which existing state highways would make up part of the new federal system. Avery battled the politicians and the promoters of the various "trails" to make sure the highway that connected St. Louis and Chicago with Kansas was moved south, through his hometown of Tulsa.
Avery and Piepmeier continued their battle with the Governor of Kentucky on into April of 1926. At a meeting with Piepmeier in Springfield, Avery noticed that the catchy sounding number "66" was still unclaimed. On April 30, 1926, they fired off another telegram to federal officials, saying they would be willing to accept the number "66" for the Chicago to Los Angeles Route. It was the first reference to Route 66. Springfield can thus lay claim to being the "birthplace" of Route 66.
The Secretary of Agriculture approved the 96,000 mile Federal Highway System routes on November 11, 1926. That date is considered the official birth of Route 66, and Route 40, and Route 1, 30, 50 and all the rest! Within a few months, representatives from most of the states on the route founded the US Highway 66 Association. Its goal was to promote the highway and the businesses lining the route. John T. Woodruff of Springfield was named as the first president. Woodruff built the Kentwood Arms Hotel in Springfield along the future Route 66. He was also one of the original backers of the Ozark Trail. At the US 66 Association's first meeting in Tulsa, Cyrus Avery coined the name "The Main Street of America" for promotional materials. The State of Missouri granted the association a charter on April 6, 1927.
The Route 66 boosters went to work implanting the highway in the consciousness of the American public. Billboards went up, maps went out, and press releases flowed touting Route 66 construction. But it was good old-fashioned foot power that put Route 66 on the map for good. In 1928, promoter C.C. “Cash and Carry” Pyle, the man who brought Red Grange to the Chicago Bears, came up with the idea for a transcontinental foot race. The runners would travel from Los Angeles to Chicago along 66, then swing towards the finish line-in New York City! On March 4, 1928, 275 runners started in the "Bunion Derby." An army of reporters was close behind. There were just 72 runners left when they crossed the Mississippi at St. Louis on April 27. Only 70 runners made it to Chicago. Just 55 were left when a part-Cherokee Indian from the Route 66 town of Foyil, Oklahoma crossed the finish line in the Big Apple on May 26th. Andy Payne made the 3,400 mile run in 87 days, or about 573 hours of actual time on the road. Payne won 25,000 dollars, C.C. Pyle lost a pile of money, and Route 66 reaped the publicity.
As travel increased, businesses quickly sprang up to serve the traveler. CH Laessig opened the first gas station in the US on Theresa Street in St. Louis in 1905. Early motorists avoided the finery of the big city hotels. At first, travelers simply camped beside the road where they pleased. But local farmers soon had their fill of what they derisively called the "tin can tourists." Some communities, eager for the business travelers would bring to merchants, began sponsoring local free campgrounds. One such early campground was located in Forest Park. But those camps soon began attracting undesirables, and the city closed the Forest Park camp in 1928.
It wasn't long before the farmers and those who lived along the road began putting up a ramshackle cabin or two. Travelers soon demanded more amenities, such as indoor plumbing and attached garages. A good example of an early Route 66 auto camp that has survived to the present day is Camp Joy, in Lebanon. John's Modern Cabins, slowly deteriorating today along the road west of Rolla, shows how Spartan some of these early accommodations were. Missouri roadside architecture ran the gamut, from the white clap board cabins of the Abby Lee Court in Conway, to the streamline moderne splendor of the late Coral Courts in St. Louis or the old Diamonds in Villa Ridge. (Now the Tri-County Truck Stop) Many roadside entrepreneurs built from the materials they had close at hand. In the Missouri Ozarks, slabs of sandstone, also known as "Giraffe Rock" or any handy stones became the material of choice. Good examples of Ozark rocked buildings that survive today include the Shamrock Motel in Sullivan, the Wagon Wheel Motel in Cuba and the Gascozark Café and station in Gascozark.
When it was commissioned, Route 66 crossed the Mississippi on the McKinley Bridge, then basically followed 9th, Salisbury, Natural Bridge, Grand, Delmar, Sarah, Lindell, Boyle, Clayton Avenue through Forest Park and McCausland before turning west on Manchester. The highway would follow a myriad of city streets over the years. You would be hard pressed to find a major city street that doesn't claim a 66 alignment. The story of Route 66 through St. Louis gets complicated, but here goes. 66 was shifted to the Municipal or "Free Bridge" in 1929, and the Route over the McKinley was marked as "Optional 66."
The first paving work ever by the State of Missouri within the city limits of St. Louis began on August 31, 1932 along Watson Road. Watson was paved between Chippewa and the city limits with state money. The first cloverleaf interchange west of the Mississippi River was completed on August 20, 1931 at Watson Road and Lindbergh as part of the new Watson project. The new highway through Valley Park to Gray Summit opened in August 1933. At that time, the US 66 signs came down along Manchester, and were shifted south to 12th Street, Gravois, Chippewa and the new Watson Road. Merchants along Manchester fought in vain to keep the 66 shields up and have Watson Road designated as "Optional 66." Manchester was instead designated as US 50.
Finally, on November 9, 1967, US 66 was shifted to the new Poplar Street Bridge, down I-55 to the Gravois exit, then onto Gravois-Chippewa and Watson. AASHTO eliminated Route 66 between Chicago and Joplin on June 25, 1974. Joplin would serve as the eastern terminus of Route 66 until decertification in 1984. Workers removed the Route 66 signs along Gravois, Chippewa and Watson in February, 1975. That route was re-designated as State Highway 366. The 66 shields stayed put on I-44, until January of 1977, when Illinois completed work on Interstate 55.
I assume that if you have not stopped reading, you already know the story of the halcyon years of Route 66. We've heard the tales of the Oakies, seen "The Grapes of Wrath" and sang along to "Get Your Kicks on Route 66." The song that further ingrained Route 66 in the public's mind was born in Missouri. Songwriter Bobby Troup told the story in Michael Wallis' book, "Route 66, the Mother Road." Troup says on a trip west, his wife Cynthia first suggested he write a song about Route 40. Troup said that would be silly, since they would soon be traveling on Route 66. He says just outside St. Louis, his wife leaned over and whispered "Get Your Kicks on Route 66." Troup began piecing the song together in the car as they headed to California. The song was released in 1946, and has since been recorded by dozens of artists as diverse as Nat King Cole, the Rolling Stones and Depeche Mode.
The post-war era is considered the golden age of Route 66. Roadside hucksterism was at its height. The mom-and-pop establishments were looking for ways to set themselves apart from the competition. They turned to roadside reptile ranches, basket weaving, selling Ozark rocks and the legend of Jesse James. The most famous roadside attraction in Missouri was first discovered in 1720. "Salt Petre Cave" provided an important ingredient for gun-powder. Legend says that Jesse James hid out in the cave while riding with Quantrill's Guerillas during the Civil War. Locals from the nearby town of Stanton would stage huge dances in a subterranean ballroom.
In 1942, Dill said he found some rusty old relics in the cave that could be traced to Jesse James. In 1949, he claimed to have produced Jesse in person. The media ate up the story when Dill and his son-in-law brought 102 year-old J. Frank Dalton to Stanton and said he was the famous outlaw. Today, Meramec Caverns still retains much of the feel of an old roadside attraction. Your tour ends at the huge onyx "Stage Curtain," where red, white and blue lights form an American flag while Kate Smith's "God Bless America" blares.
Another Route 66 attraction has not survived. The Coral Courts Motel was a streamline moderne masterpiece. It opened in 1941. Architect Adolph Struebig designed the yellow tiled cottages with their attached garages and glass brick walls. Those garages and the fact that the units could be rented by the hour gave the hotel a racy reputation. The hourly rate was actually put in place to give truck drivers a chance to grab a little shuteye. The hotel made headlines around the nation in 1953. Carl Austin Hall holed up at the Coral Courts for a couple of days after kidnapping six-year-old Bobby Greenlease, the son of a wealthy Kansas City auto dealer. Hall claimed he had the entire $600,000 ransom with him the night he was arrested, but half of it disappeared. The mystery of the missing money was never officially solved. Some thought it might be stashed in the wall of the Coral Court. But the motel was torn down in the spring of 1995 to make room for a generic subdivision.
The Route 66 Association continued its work to promote the highway. In 1952, they launched a cross-country promotional caravan to dedicate 66 as "The Will Rogers Highway." (People had been calling 66 the Will Rogers Highway for years anyway) The tour coincided with the release of the movie, The Story of Will Rogers. The Association placed ads in travel publications and magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post.
During World War Two, General Dwight David Eisenhower witnessed the importance of good roads to the military built on speed. Germany's system of limited access high-speed autobahns were perfect for the lightning fast "blitzkrieg" of the German war machine. Eisenhower saw better roads as key to national defense, and a way to stimulate the economy. Congress passed his Federal Highway Aid Act in 1956, creating the Interstate Highway system. On August 2, 1956, Missouri became the first state to award a contract under the new Interstate Highway law. The first contract was for work on US 66 in Laclede County. Lebanon had the dubious honor of being the first town in Missouri by-passed by the Interstate. The nation's first actual Interstate construction took place west of the Missouri River in St. Charles on I-70 at Missouri Route 94.
While the Interstate began replacing the narrow and often dangerous two lane, a whole new generation was discovering the allure of Route 66. Beginning on October 7, 1960, the television series Route 66 beamed images of the "Mother Road" into the nation's living rooms. Route 66 told the story of a pair of young drifters, Buz Murdock (played by George Maharis) and Tod Stiles (portrayed by Martin Milner). Maharis left the show in 1963, and was replaced by Glen Corbett as Linc Case. The show was one of the most unique dramas of the 1960's, and one of the first series to leave Hollywood behind for locations on Route 66 and across the country. Much of episode #73, "Hey Moth, Come Eat the Flame" took place in St. Louis. Episode #75, "Where is Chick Lorrimer, Where has he gone" was filmed in St. Charles and around the St. Louis area.
Since Chevrolet was the sponsor of the show, Buz and Tod (that's right, only one "z" and one "d") traveled the road in a Corvette. The show firmly established the Corvette as an American icon. CBS cancelled the show in September 1964. By then, 116 episodes had aired. The shows had been lensed in 25 states, from Maine to California. Nelson Riddle's modern jazz theme song for the show became a hit single.
But then, a funny thing happened. The old road refused to die. Nostalgia buffs and roadside rebels continued to seek out the tourist traps, motels and gas stations that still held on for life on 66. People still saw and read The Grapes of Wrath and clung to memories of child hood vacations. They kept the "Mother Road" alive during those dark days. It was a media event when the very last section of Route 66 through Williams, Arizona was replaced by I-40 in 1984.
In 1990, Michael Wallis published "Route 66 - The Mother Road." His wonderful prose and pictures captured the romance of the road and inspired even more people, including myself, to take the next exit and discover America at a slower pace. By 1990, there was enough interest in Missouri to form the Missouri Route 66 Association. Its stated goal is "To preserve, promote and develop old Route 66 in Missouri."
The Association led the push for a that designated Route 66 as a historic highway through the state. Governor Ashcroft signed the bill in July 1990. The measure cleared the way for MO-DOT to begin erecting signs marking the historic right of way. The first sign went up at Kearney and Glenstone in Springfield on July 3, 1991. Since then, over 350 signs have marked the old alignment across the state. The association raises the funds for the signs and continues to work on additional marking.
In 1999, the state of Missouri opened The Route 66 State Park on the former site of the city of Times Beach. Times Beach was a small community where Route 66 crossed the Meramec River, 17 miles west of St. Louis. The town was born in 1925, the result of a promotion by the old St. Louis Star-Times newspaper. A six months subscription for $67.50 entitled the reader to a 20' by 100' lot in "Times Beach." The town developed into a summer resort, known for its ramshackle cottages built on stilts to protect from the flooding. Over the years, many of the cottages developed into attractive permanent homes. The population reached 1,240 people by 1970.
On February 22, 1983, the federal government announced a voluntary buy-out. Some 2000 people were re-located. The entire community was demolished. The "Times Beach" signs came down on I-44, and there was no trace of the once-thriving town. A gate installed across old Route 66 turned the site into a no-mans land. Today, there is some evidence that the threat was overestimated. But a massive and controversial cleanup effort was completed in the fall of 1997.The site is now Route 66 State Park.
On November 11, 2001, hundreds of people came to the park to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Route 66. The Missouri Route 66 Association continues to work on preserving the route for future generations. On May 4, 2009, the Missouri Department of Transportation opened a Route 66 themed rest area on eastbound I-44 at the 111 mile marker west of Conway.