The Mother Road
When the U.S. government designated Route 66 as a federal highway in 1926, officials couldn’t have foreseen the pop culture icon that would emerge. The Mother Road, as it became known, originally ran 2,448 miles from Chicago, Ill., to Santa Monica, Calif., passing through the states of Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, and piquing the imagination of the travelers the world over.
In 1997 the EPA transferred ownership of the Times Beach property to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources for development as the Route 66 State Park. America’s most storied highway at first bypassed the Meramec River and Times Beach, a small summer resort town southwest of St. Louis. But in 1931, as traffic increased on the burgeoning motorway, a revised plan extended Route 66 westward across the river. Construction soon began on J-421, commonly called the Times Beach Bridge or the Route 66 Meramec River Bridge, which officially opened in 1932. Route 66 and the Meramec River Bridge transported millions of Missouri residents and visitors alike until the 1980s, when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) discovered dioxin contamination in Times Beach, resulting in the organization buying out and leveling the town so it could clean up the soil and debris. In the meantime, Route 66 was officially decommissioned in 1985, having been replaced by the Interstate Highway System.
Strong interest in the road remained, however, and in 1997 the EPA transferred ownership of the Times Beach property to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources for development as the Route 66 State Park. The Meramec River Bridge, owned by the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT), served as a connection between the park’s visitor center, housed in the old Bridgehead Inn on the east bank, and the 417 acres of river bluffs, forest and prairie on the western side.
Sadly, in the fall of 2009, MoDOT determined it could no longer invest the money needed to maintain the deteriorating Route 66 Meramec River Bridge and closed it for safety reasons.
Protected for Now, Urgency to Renew
The movement to preserve the bridge began even before its closure, when the structure was added to the National Register of Historic Places. In 2012, MoDOT had the concrete roadbed removed to reduce weight, thereby further protecting the rare Warren Truss.
Even so, deterioration persisted. MoDOT concluded that if a new owner with a viable redevelopment plan did not step forward by the end of 2016, demolition of the bridge would become necessary. The organization set aside $325,000 for the demolition, but specified the funds could go to help rehabilitate the bridge if an alternative plan emerged. MoDOT, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, Landmarks Association and Great Rivers Greenway all pledged funds, yet it wasn’t until Philip and Judith Stupp stepped forward with a final donation that the endowment was realized.
In 2015, Great Rivers Greenway completed a detailed feasibility study to determine the options and costs involved with renewing the bridge, including transforming it into a greenway where people could walk, run or bike. Fortified by the study, Missouri State Parks stepped forward to become the new owner, but only if supporters could raise $675,000 to combine with the $325,000 from MoDOT to establish a $1 million endowment to maintain the structure.
MoDOT, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, Landmarks Association and Great Rivers Greenway all pledged funds, yet it wasn’t until Philip and Judith Stupp stepped forward with a final donation that the endowment was realized. Missouri State Parks took ownership of the bridge in early 2017, with Missouri State Parks Foundation serving as the repository for funds needed to complete the restoration project, which is estimated at $10 million.
It was a positive outcome, stopping the immediate threat of demolition. Still, the battle has not been won. “Phase 2” of preserving, renewing and protecting the Route 66 Meramec River Bridge comes with a sense of urgency, as the remaining life of the truss is estimated at just eight years. The goal now is to raise additional funds through outreach efforts not only in Missouri but worldwide. Learn more about the Route 66 Meramec River Bridge here.