July 13, 2024

Adventure Awaits Journeyers

Discovering the World Anew

Cruising Down Historic Route 66 in St. Louis

7 min read

Road trippers retracing the iconic highway find numerous places offering blasts from the past, plus a new park at the doorstep of a Mississippi River landmark

By Randy Mink, Senior Editor

Those eager to relive the heyday of automobile travel follow the path of historic Route 66, a ribbon of roadway that ran 2,400 miles between Chicago and California. Missouri claims about 300 miles of the fabled artery, a slice of Americana replaced decades ago by superhighways.

On the state’s eastern border with Illinois, reminders of days gone by captivate the cadre of passionate Mother Road fans traveling through St. Louis, the largest Route 66 city after Chicago and Los Angeles.

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Chain of Rocks Park in St. Louis Draws Route 66 Loyalists

The newest Route 66 development in Missouri is Chain of Rocks Park at Old Chain of Rocks Bridge, a steel landmark that spans the Mississippi River. Built in a desolate, once-abandoned area on the northern edge of St. Louis, the attractive park opened in April 2024 with a pavilion, event space, restrooms, a plaza for food trucks and a parking lot with spaces for cars and buses.

Once strewn with debris from the demolished Pruitt-Igoe public housing project, the greenspace is managed by Great Rivers Greenway, which, in cooperation with the Missouri Department of Conservation, will reconstruct a native prairie on a portion of the site.

Built as a private toll bridge in 1929, the mile-long Old Chain of Rocks Bridge today is mainly for pedestrians and bicyclists, serving as a link to various trails. But the morning I walked across to Madison, Illinois, I was joined by a caravan of classic cars from an automobile club that got special permission.

Old Chain of Rocks Bridge

Old Chain of Rocks Bridge carried Route 66 car traffic over the Mississippi River for 30 years. Today it welcomes hikers and bicyclists but also permits cars on special occasions. (Randy Mink Photo)

Old Chain of Rocks Bridge: A Relic from the Past

The bridge, which passes through wooded Chouteau Island, was designed with a 22-degree bend in the middle so that boats didn’t have to navigate the bridge piers and castle-like water intake towers for the local pumping station. Besides, a straight line would have put the bridge over a section of the river where the bedrock was insufficient to support the weight of the piers.

The bridge’s name comes from a treacherous stretch of rapids over a series of underwater stone ledges that at one time made it dangerous or even impossible to navigate.

The bridge started serving Route 66 travelers when the Mother Road was rerouted in 1936 and did so until 1965.  In 1967, the New Chain of Rocks Bridge carrying Interstate 270 opened just 2,000 feet upstream of the old bridge, which closed in 1968.

During Route 66’s glory days, the bridge’s western side faced a hill occupied by an amusement park, of which nothing remains. Rides included an oval-shaped Ferris wheel, The Comet roller coaster and The Swooper, a 46-horse carousel.

The bridge had beautifully landscaped approaches. A park-like setting around a pool and a large, ornate toll booth anchored the Missouri end. On the Illinois side, 400 elm trees lined the approach.

The original Chain of Rocks Bridge faced demolition in 1975, but the drop in scrap steel prices at the time made the teardown too expensive, so the aging relic just sat there and languished. It reopened to walking and bicycling in 1999 and remained open until 2019, when planning for the current park began.

The park appeals to birdwatchers as well as hikers, bikers and nostalgia buffs, as the Mississippi River Flyway is the most important resting point for migratory birds that winter on the Gulf Coast and in Central and South America. On my visit I saw white pelicans.

Maplewood commemorates the time when Route 66 ran through the community. (Randy Mink Photo)

Maplewood commemorates the time when Route 66 ran through the community. (Randy Mink Photo)

Maplewood’s Commercial Corridor: A Stroll Down Memory Lane

Route 66 fans in metro St. Louis also gravitate to Maplewood, a southwest suburban community with an old-school bowling alley and other businesses that date back decades. The Route 66 Tribute Walk along Manchester Road features sidewalk plaques that celebrate Mother Road history in the neighborhood and elsewhere in St. Louis. Light pole banners proclaim, “Get Your Kicks – Maplewood – The Original Route 66.” (The iconic highway’s original alignment included Manchester Road from 1926-1933.)

One plaque on Manchester recognizes Empire Supply, a third-generation window and door store established in 1931. Another third-generation family business, Scheidt True Value Hardware, has been around more than a century and occupies the old Maplewood Theatre building. Just south of Manchester is Saratoga Lanes, an eight-lane bowling alley born in 1916 and considered the oldest establishment of its kind west of the Mississippi.

Kakao Chocolate is one of many tempting stores on Manchester Road in Maplewood. (Randy Mink Photo)

Kakao Chocolate is one of many tempting stores on Manchester Road in Maplewood. (Randy Mink Photo)

Most shops on the three-block historic stretch of Manchester Road, however, are relatively new. Kakao Chocolate sells hot chocolate mix, cocoa grilling rub, chocolate fudge and burnt caramel sauces, and artisan chocolate bars from Central America, South America and Africa.

Foodies and home cooks like Tale to Table, a purveyor of gourmet foods and kitchen tools, and Penzeys Spices, for things like cinnamon, basil, dill weed, oregano, paprika, curry powder, chili powder and taco seasoning. Vom Fass deals in oils, vinegars, wines and spirits, while Airedale Antics offers holistic pet foods, supplies and grooming services. Bookworms will want to check out The Book House.

Treat yourself to some caramel cashew popcorn at Blissfully Popped or do some tasting at Chateau Maplewood Wine Bar & Shop. Beer and spirits drinkers can indulge at Maplewood Brewery & Distillery, which has 48 self-pour taps and wood-fired pizza.

The Best Beer, Eats and Treats in St. Louis

Of all Midwest craft beers, Schlafly is my favorite, so at lunchtime I walked over to Schlafly Bottleworks on Southwest Avenue, just off Manchester. Offering more than 60 styles of beer, Schlafly, “Home of the St, Louis Beer Revolution,” became the city’s first craft brewery in 1991and the first brewery in town to open after Prohibition.

The menu at Schlafly Bottleworks lists a number of beer-infused items, such as the Hefeweizen-battered cod, beer cheese soup and kraut and sausage with beer mustard. After washing down a bowl of chili and a giant pretzel with a glass of Schlafly Summer Lager, I was happy to learn that my receipt for the meal was good for a 15 percent discount in the beer shop. I bought a variety six-pack and made sure to get several bottles of an old favorite, the fragrant Raspberry Hefeweizen.

Ted Drewes Frozen Custard

Ted Drewes Frozen Custard

Whenever I’m in St. Louis, a must-stop is Ted Drewes Frozen Custard. The Chippewa Street location on historic Route 66, also in southwestern St. Louis, has been in business for more than 80 years. Ted’s signature milkshake has earned the name “concrete” because it’s so thick you can turn it upside down without spilling a drop. I usually go for the Fox Treat, a concrete or sundae with hot fudge, raspberries and macadamia nuts, or All Shook Up, a blend of bananas and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. The lines on a summer night look daunting but go pretty fast.

For a classic diner meal, whether breakfast or a burger, fries and milkshake for lunch, make a beeline to Spencer’s Grill in Kirkwood. The third-generation, family-owned eatery began serving Route 66 travelers in 1947.

Exhibits at the National Museum of Transportation in St. Louis recall the heyday of American automobile travel. (Randy Mink Photo)

Exhibits at the National Museum of Transportation in St. Louis recall the heyday of American automobile travel. (Randy Mink Photo)

Other Route 66 Sites in St. Louis and Beyond

The spirit of Route 66 also shines at St. Louis’ National Museum of Transportation, which, in addition to acres of railroad equipment, displays classic cars and features a replica facade of the 1941 Art Deco-style Coral Court Motel, a Route 66 landmark that met the wrecking ball in 1995.

In Eureka, west of St. Louis, I-44 exits take you to Route 66 State Park, situated along the Meramec River. One exit leads to the visitor center, a former 1935 roadhouse where museum exhibits tell the stories of Route 66 and Times Beach, a Route 66 community that occupied the riverfront from 1925 until the early 1980s. The gift shop has an extensive variety of Mother Road souvenirs, from games, puzzles and books to videos, T-shirts, metal signs, mugs and magnets.

Since the 1930s, motorists in Missouri have seen the name Meramec Caverns emblazoned on barns and billboards. An early fixture on Route 66, the quintessential show cave is located near Stanton, an hour or so outside of St. Louis via I-44. Delivering relief from the summer heat, the cave is a constant 60 degrees year-round. In a natural theater on the fourth level, tours conclude with a patriotic sound-and-light spectacle projected onto the Stage Curtains, a 70-foot-tall rock formation.

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Lead photo – Old Chain of Rocks Bridge, a Route 66 landmark in Missouri and Illinois. (Randy Mink Photo)


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