Like many of you this past Labor Day weekend, my wife and I took a drive to get out of our pandemic bubble. And as the NY Times ran this piece, we also got our kicks on Route 66. Their photographer went to the portion through Arizona and New Mexico; we stayed a lot closer to home, about an hour’s drive from St. Louis. This wasn’t our first time visiting this area, but we wanted to see a few sights from a safe distance, and also for my wife to visit an ancestral home not far off the Mother Road, as it is called.
St. Louis has a complicated relationship with Route 66: there are many different paths that the road took through the city to cross the Mississippi River at various bridges over the years the road was active. And for those of you that want to discover the road in other parts of the country, you will quickly find that patience is perhaps the biggest skill you’ll need. Different parts were decommissioned or rerouted after the freeways were constructed that brought about its demise. In our part of the country, that is I-44, which goes between St. Louis and Oklahoma City, where it connects up with I-40.
My favorite Route 66 memory spot within city limits has to be the old Chain of Rocks Bridge, which was opened in the 1930s and was featured in that now classic film “Escape From New York.” The bridge is now a bike/pedestrian path and it is one of the few bridges that is deliberately bent in the middle. It lies on the riverfront bike trail that I have been on often.
Once you leave the city and head west you need to be a determined tracker. Many parts of it are on the map as the I-44 service road, but that doesn’t tell the entire story about the actual original roadbed that in many cases no longer exists. Speaking of which, one of the places that you might have heard of is Times Beach. The beach refers to the Meramec River and the reason for its memory is this is the town that became contaminated with Dioxin. Now the streets remain but not much else, and the state has turned it into a state park. The visitor center is a former roadhouse that was built in 1936. Speaking of other bygone inns, in a few miles you’ll pass the Gardenway Motel near Gray’s Summit. The motel had 40 rooms and was built in 1945 and eventually closed in 2014. It was owned by the same family during its entire run. A separate advertising sign still stands down the road.
There are a lot of other classic signs nearby too, but like I said you have to spend some time exploring to find them. If you are looking to stay in one of the period motels that is still operating, you might try the Wagon Wheel in Cuba, a few miles further west.
Another example of the bygone era that Route 66 spanned was captured by this National Park Service webpage on the Green Book. This was a guide for Black motorists who couldn’t stay at the then-segregated lodgings mentioned above. Mrs. Hilliard’s Motel in St. Clair, which is in the area, operated briefly in the 1960s. The guide (which was published annually from 1936 to 1964 by Victor Green) had other recommended and safe places for Black travelers such as dining and gas stations. Our history museum has an excellent explanation of its use and some sample pages here, which you can contrast with what was portrayed in the 2018 film.
One of the things that I learned when traveling in Poland is that history is often what you don’t see, sometimes painfully removed, other times left to rot and decay. That will require some investigation. Route 66 is a real time capsule to be sure.