Hundreds of supporters turned out on a beautiful day in April (April 23, 2016) to encourage efforts to save the endangered Route 66 Gasconade River Bridge in Laclede County, Missouri. In the words of major organizer Rich Dinkela, “We are here to raise awareness and support for this bridge. It plays a large part in a lot of people’s history, and I think it’s worth saving. We want this bridge to be saved and want people to be able to use it again.”
The bridge was constructed in 1923 on what was then Missouri Highway 14. The route became U.S .66 in 1926. The bridge was bypassed in 1956 but continued to serve local traffic and provided an Interstate 44 incident by-pass route until it was closed due to safety concerns in December 2014. Since that time, groups like the Route 66 Gasconade River Bridge Guardians and the Route 66 Association of Missouri have been working to make sure the bridge is spared – repaired, not replaced.
The Rally in support of the Route 66 Gasconade River Bridge featured classic cars and booths hosted by the Guardians, Jim Ross and Shellee Graham, and the photography of Jax Welborn. (photosbyjax.com) Commemorative T-shirts and other memorabilia were available for purchase and are still available. (“Repair Don’t Replace” T-shirts are available for $20 by emailing Ramona Lehman at the Munger Moss in Lebanon at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Attendees were also able to hear the inspirational words of several great speakers, including Sam Torbitt, Shellee Graham, Waynesville Mayor Luge Hardiman, Joe Sonderman, State Representative Steve Lynch, Helen Pittman, Gary Sosniecki, Jim Ross, Route 66 Association of Missouri President Tommy Pike, Beth Wiles of Pulaski County Tourism, Bruce Conklin of Lebanon Tourism, Darrell Pollock, Jerry Plunkett and Judy Wallmark.
Representative Lynch was especially enthusiastic about efforts to save the Bridge, saying that “I am part of the Route 66 caucus, and we are looking at ways to try and promote Route 66 more than ever before. Right now it is fragmented. At every single meeting that I attend, I always bring up this bridge and the importance of travel down Route 66,” Lynch said. “As we look back at the decades prior to this and all that have come and the stories that are told, this is important history. It is a part of who we are in the country. It is part of who we are in Missouri and we must preserve it for those that come after us.”
Judy Wallmark of the Route 66 Gasconade River Bridge Guardians quoted from the multitude of individuals whop wrote letters and offered support of the Bridge, including well-known Route 66 Historian Jim Ross, who said “to lose this bridge would be to lose one of the most rare and historically significant bridges remaining on the Route.” Tour guide Dave Butel from Australia, conductor of three tours from Chicago to Santa Monica each year, said, “When the barricade was there, the whole feeling for the road was gone. The joy was gone.” His travelers from New Zealand and the United Kingdom felt cheated by the bridge closing and wondered why something so important to travelers around the world could not be repaired. Judy also quoted from locals such as Ronni Jeter, who recited the problems her family faces taking care of farmland on both sides of the river. Because they cannot drive tractors and hay equipment on the interstate, they have to drive 15 miles (one way) to get to their property on the other side.
Judy let it be known that these testimonials, and the support of individuals from Laclede County and around the world were taken to a meeting of the Lake Ozarks Council of Local Governments. Since that meeting, the Missouri Department of Transportation has made changes in the barricades to allow tourists to walk or bicycle across.
A significant development was announced at the Rally by Route 66 Association of Missouri President Tommy Pike. The Gasconade River Bridge has been included in the Missouri Department of Transportation’s draft Statewide Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) for the period 2017-2021. The plan is a blueprint for construction projects to come. MoDOT revenues were better than expected recently, enabling the agency to acquire federal funds to add 800 projects for the STIP.
According to MoDOT, the proposals that draw the most comments will be given the priority. Unfortunately, it leaves the Route 66 Gasconade River Bridge competing against a lot of other bridges in bad shape.
MoDOT officials, including area engineer Robert Lynch, told Pike and members of the Guardians that the tentative plan is to construct a new bridge next to the old one. The Route 66 Bridge would remain standing. However, there is nothing to ensure that it is maintained or restored.
According to Tommy Pike, any hope to find such funding rests with Laclede County taking ownership of the bridge. So far, the county is unwilling.
If the bridge cannot be restored for vehicle traffic, the Route 66 Gasconade River Bridge Guardians will support an alternative bridge across the Gasconade River, with the condition that the Route 66 Bridge remain in place.
HOWEVER, it is the Guardians’ position that MoDOT should work with others state agencies (including the Department of Natural Resources) and interested groups to make sure that the Route 66 Gasconade River Bridge is maintained for foot traffic, bicycle traffic and for future generations to enjoy a part of a State Park or a State Historic Site.
Route 66 brings tourist dollars into this state from around the world. However, if landmarks such as the bridge are lost, interest in Route 66 tourism will decline. Also, by statute, Route 66 is a “Historic Route,” and should be treated as any Historic Site, There is a public river access at the foot of the bridge which could be utilized as part of the site.
The Route 66 Gasconade River Bridge Guardians thanks all of those who attended the rally, those who purchased items, and those who have participated in the effort to save the historic structure. The members of the Route 66 Gasconade River Bridge Guardians are: Thomas Tate, Helen Pittman, Ramona Lehman, Judy Wallmark, Mary Martin, Jackie Welborn, Gary Sosniecki and Kip Welborn.
The old adage “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” comes to mind: Saving a structure like the Route 66 Gasconade River Bridge at one point may have seemed impossible, but if enough people show their support, on rare occasion even the naysayers might have a change of heart. If the opportunity allows, help us continue the effort by posting your comments or calling in your comments to MoDOT, and by posting your comments and interest, and keeping up with the Guardians’ efforts on their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/rt66gasconadebridgeguardians/ and https://www.facebook.com/search/top/?q=route%2066%20gasconade%20bridge%20-%20repair%20don%27t%20replace