by Tom Uhlenbrock Missouri State Parks

A highway landmark that once carried motorists on Historic Route 66 across the Meramec River in southwest St. Louis County may be reborn as a pedestrian walkway for hikers and bikers in Route 66 State Park.

Bill Bryan, director of Missouri State Parks, is supportive of the effort to save the bridge from a scheduled demolition date of early next year.

“It is an important part of the Mother Road, a connection to the Route 66 past,” Bryan said. “It’s one of the last bridges of its design, and significant from an architectural standpoint.”

The bridge built in 1931 has a Warren Truss support structure, one of four in Missouri. It is the longest of the four at 1,008 feet, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The owner of the bridge, the Missouri Department of Transportation, closed it to traffic in 2009 because the steel beams and concrete piers had fallen into disrepair. The deck and railings were removed to take weight off the aging truss.

The bridge had not been used for highway traffic since Interstate 44 opened in the 1960s about 100 yards upstream. However, it was the physical link between the museum, offices and visitor center at Route 66 State Park and the 419-acre park itself.

Visitors currently arriving from the east are directed to continue past the former entrance to the park on Lewis Road down the interstate, take the Hwy. 109 exit at Eureka, and double back to the park.

“You’ve really got to want to get there,” Bryan said of the detour.

Don Fink, park manager, said the bridge closure affects the experience of guests to the park.

“We get Route 66 enthusiasts traveling from Chicago to Los Angeles – they stop and see the visitor center but don’t go into the park,” Fink said. “When we get first-time park visitors, directing them into the park is not an easy task.”

An Asset Instead of a Liability

The Missouri Department of Transportation said the first step in saving the bridge was to find a new owner. Missouri State Parks, a division of the State Department of Natural Resources, agreed to accept ownership if an endowment was raised for future maintenance.

“It is important to raise sufficient funds to endow the bridge perpetually so it remains an asset instead of a liability,” said Bryan, the state parks director.

The Department of Natural Resources pledged $100,000 for the endowment fund, and the transportation department said it had set aside $325,000 for the remaining demolition, which could be added to the fund.

“We have $425,000 now and additional private monies are being raised,” Bryan said. “A significant portion of funds need to come from private donations.”

A coalition of St. Louis organizations is pooling its resources.  The organizations and major stakeholders involved in bringing attention to the bridge’s future include Great Rivers Greenway, Landmarks Association of St. Louis (a nonprofit dedicated to historical preservation), Trailnet (a bicycle and pedestrian advocacy organization) and the Open Space Council (a land and water conservation organization).

Great Rivers Greenways has funded a feasibility study, which said the minimal cost for restoring the bridge for pedestrian use was $5.5 million.

Among those partners, said Emma Klues of Great Rivers Greenway, is the city of Eureka, St. Louis County, federal transportation grants and historical grants from Route 66 organizations.

“If we can keep the bridge’s integrity intact, that’s ideal,” Klues said.

A Mosaic of Landscapes

Route 66 State Park, which sits on a bend of the Meramec with a bluff on the other side, is popular with walkers, bike riders, birdwatchers and equestrians.

The park trails are wide and level, some are paved, and pass by river bank, bottomland forest, wetlands, small lakes and open fields. The mosaic of landscapes invites a variety of birds and wildlife.

“We have a significant number of birds, from songbirds, hawks and owls and wild turkeys to great blue herons, little green herons, ducks and geese in the wetlands,” said Fink, the park manager.

“Most winters we’ll have bald eagles on the Meramec River, which can be seen from the east end of the bridge. Right out my office window, I’ve seen eagles flying over the river.”

The park headquarters is in the former Bridgehead Inn, a 1935 roadhouse that sat on the original Route 66. It has been remodeled as a visitor center with offices and a museum that tells the rich story of life along that stretch of river flood plain.

Vintage neon signs portray the restaurants and motor courts that catered to Route 66 travelers, and the gift shop sells hundreds of Route 66 items.

The park’s trails link to a new trail system to the west in Eureka, and eventually will link with portions of Castlewood State Park to the east in neighboring Ballwin.

The old Route 66 bridge awaiting repair is a vital connection not only to the park, but to the rest of the trail system in the Meramec valley.

“The connectivity is important to our park, from an operational standpoint and ease for visitors,” said Fink, the park manager. “The structure is significant as well for preserving a historic section of Route 66.”

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RT. 66 BRIDGE –  An effort is underway to turn the old bridge leading into Route 66 State Park in southwest St. Louis County into a pedestrian walkway. Tom Uhlenbrock/Missouri State Parks.