Troubled Bridge On Old Route 66

Once part of the famous Route 66, this 1009-foot-long bridge was built in 1931 and closed in 2009, and to discourage illicit foot and bike traffic and keep the rusty thing from collapsing under its own weight, the paving was removed and this is what you now see from the landed portion of Missouri’s Route 66 State Park, a tract of about 400 acres. In the distance with the red roofing is a famous roadhouse built in 1935, known as “Old Bridgehead Inn” or “Steiny’s,” depending on the era and whom you ask. It’s now Route 66 State Park’s visitor center and museum (closed November through February; it’s just as well, since there’s no dancing or beer).

I walked this bridge, spanning the Meramec River, back when it was still paved and linked the two segments of the park the river now separates. This photo was taken on State Park land that was formerly Times Beach, a working-class/poor-people townlet with four bars and four churches, 801 families, a mayor, and 23 miles of dirt roads. To keep the dust down, during the ’60s and ’70s they hired a guy to repeatedly spray used crankcase oil on the roads, but he’d mixed it with toxic waste: dioxin, used to manufacture the poison Agent Orange. Times Beach was so saturated with dioxin with that the EPA ordered the whole town evacuated in 1983, buying out the residents. The EPA then dug up 240,000 tons of contaminated soil, built an incinerator and incinerated it on the spot (finishing in 1998), and buried what was left of people’s houses, and now it’s land called Route 66 State Park where there’s no camping and nothing to see but this end of the bridge, and nobody lingers or picnics. Nobody who knows the story, anyway. A bike ride or run or hike around its edge (3.25 miles) is enough.

But once this was a happenin’ town with grocery and gas station, the bridge an infamous speed trap allowing Times Beach to support itself. I have a friend born in Times Beach in 1971. I mean really born there, not in a hospital. She’s blind in one eye and has chronic kidney problems. The bridge’s skeleton stays while the state hopes someone will fund its restoration.