The electronic signs in the eastbound lane of Route 66 approaching Hazelgreen, Missouri, no longer alert drivers that the Gasconade River Bridge is closed.
Missouri Department of Transportation workers reprogrammed the signs Friday afternoon to read “RIVER BRIDGE OPEN” and, fittingly, “GET YOUR KICKS ON ROUTE 66.”
Route 66 in Laclede County became whole again shortly after 1 p.m. when the new, $4.4-million Gasconade River Bridge opened to traffic following a ceremonial ribbon cutting.
About 100 Route 66 enthusiasts – some from out of state – attended the ceremony celebrating the bridge’s opening. About 85 cars, trucks and motorcycles – many of them dating back to the Route 66 era – were the first to cross the span.
Jax Welborn, a member of the Route 66 Gasconade River Bridge Guardians from Pulaski County, led the caravan riding her 2007 Harley-Davidson Sportster. Mac Myers, president of the Cave State Cruisers, followed in his 1952 Chevy truck. About 50 of the vehicles that followed were driven by members of the car club, which has been supportive of Route 66 activities in the region.
“Roamin Rich” Dinkela, president of the Route 66 Association of Missouri and also a member of the Guardians, was master of ceremonies. “We’re here to continue the evolution of Route 66,” Dinkela said.
“Things change, people go away, new people come in, and the same happens for the roads and bridges as well. Some things change, the old goes out, the new comes in.”
Dinkela explained that the new bridge eliminates a significant detour that has impacted drivers since MoDOT closed the old bridge in December 2014. “We’re really excited to see this section of road open again.”
The new bridge, he said, “is going to help out the locals. It’s going to help out the tourists.”
Although this was a day for the new bridge, Dinkela made several references to the old bridge, still spanning the river parallel and to the south of the new bridge. The Guardians have not given up their efforts to save the steel-truss structure, built from 1922 to 1924, which is popular internationally with Route 66 tourists.
Alex Curchin, general counsel for Missouri Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe, presented Dinkela with a declaration signed by Kehoe recognizing the Guardians “for their advocacy, representation and efforts to keep the historical Gasconade River Bridge a part of the famous Route 66 journey for many from around the world …”
“As someone who grew up in Missouri,” Curchin said, “I appreciate the lure of Route 66 and the impact it has on tourism.”
State Rep. Suzie Pollock of Lebanon noted that the bridge is in her 123rd district “and I’m so happy to have this road open.”
Darrell Pollock, executive director of the Lebanon Area Chamber of Commerce and also a Laclede County commissioner, joked that he hopes he looks as good as the old bridge when he gets close to 100 years old. On a serious note, Pollock said he appreciates all the interest in Route 66.
Pollock said conversations continue on whether the county should assume ownership of the old bridge, a request made last month by the Guardians.
Lebanon tourism director Nicole McGinnis, who also is a member of the Lebanon-Laclede County Route 66 Society board, talked about the resurgence of Route 66 in recent years and how it impacts Lebanon and Laclede County.
Central District Engineer Dave Sylvester explained the process MoDOT went through in deciding to build a new bridge on a new alignment, including meeting with the Guardians, other Route 66 groups and citizens. He called the new bridge the “best value for taxpayer dollars.”
Laclede County Presiding Commissioner Randy Angst cited “all the good things going on in the city (of Lebanon) and Laclede County,” adding: “It’s a great day for Lebanon and Laclede County. It’s a great day for Route 66.”
Participating in the ribbon cutting were Dinkela, McGinnis, Angst, Guardians secretary-treasurer Judy Wallmark, Darrell Pollock, Suzie Pollock, Sylvester, Welborn, Lebanon-Laclede County Route 66 Society President Bill Jones and Myers.