This wonderful bridge is on old Route 66 in Canadian County, Oklahoma. At 3,944.3 feet, its 38 Camelback Pratt pony trusses undulate mesermisingly as you drive through.
This bridge’s future is uncertain. As I wrote here, this 1933 bridge didn’t fare well at its last inspection and officials recommend it be replaced. This isn’t like many other old Route 66 bridges, on some long ago alignment carrying only local traffic. This bridge is still part of the US highway system, carrying US 281 over the South Canadian River. While I stood here to make this photo, many semis whizzed by me.
Options on the table include building a new bridge nearby to carry US 281 and leaving this one in place for Route 66 drivers to continue to enjoy. I hope that option wins.
It is perhaps the most iconic bridge on all of Route 66, this yellow pony-truss bridge of an incredible 38 spans. Known by three names — the William H. Murray Bridge, the Bridgeport Bridge, and the Pony Bridge — it was built in 1933 to span the South Canadian River, 21 miles west of El Reno, Oklahoma. And it’s in trouble.
At its last inspection, this bridge rated 34.9 out of 100, earning it the “Structurally Deficient” label and a recommendation the bridge be replaced. I am sure it doesn’t help at all that this bridge carries US 281 and so needs to stand up to heavy trucks and high volume, and is only 24 feet wide, considerably narrower than the modern standard for highway bridges.
Yet it still stands, and is not entirely without hope. It is part of a segment of Route 66 listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the bridge itself is eligible for nomination to the NRHP. And now the preservationists are involved: Preservation Oklahoma features the bridge in its 2016 Endangered Places list.
Driving this bridge was a highlight of the Route 66 tour I took with my sons in 2013. At 3,944.3 feet — that’s nearly three quarters of a mile — the spans just kept on coming. They were mesmerizing, almost hypnotizing, as they undulated past.
Here’s hoping that this bridge has a long and happy life ahead of it. The Oklahoma Department of Transportation is studying several proposals for the US 281 crossing of the South Canadian River, and all of them involve either restoring this bridge or building a new one while leaving this one in place. Unfortunately, one alternative not off the table is to do nothing. Given the bridge’s current state, this might be why Preservation Oklahoma considers it endangered.
Every answer but “do nothing” takes money, of course. Here’s hoping Oklahoma can make enough money appear to keep this bridge open for generations to come.
Trip fatigue hit in Oklahoma. My sons felt it first. When we stopped for the night east of Tulsa on Wednesday, my youngest announced that he wouldn’t mind if we turned around for home in the morning. I felt for him, but we had one more day on the itinerary and (more importantly) nonrefundable hotel reservations near the Texas line. We pressed on. Thursday morning we stopped in Chandler to meet Jerry McClanahan at his home. He wrote the trip guide we were using – and on the Chandler page he listed his phone number and invtes travelers to call when they come to town! It was great to meet Jerry and see his Route 66 art; I even bought a print. But when we got back on the road I realized I felt it, too: the desire to be done.
As the miles passed I thought we’d never reach Oklahoma City. Then it swung into view as we rounded a curve: a 66-foot-tall soda-bottle sculpture. It was as welcome as an oasis in the desert, and we stopped. Pops is a gas station, convenience store, and diner that offers over 600 kinds of bottled sodas. It has to be the largest, most complete selection of carbonated, sweetened beverages in the world! Under the cantilevered canopy, the front windows are lined with pop bottles filled with every color of the rainbow. Inside, we paused for lunch, and my youngest boy excitedly assembled a custom six-pack of colorful sodas. I think he was glad we kept going one more day.
Ok, so I’m going to level with you. I wanted to write a whole post about just this bridge.
38, count them, thirty-eight glorious spans! It’s almost 4,000 feet long! It absolutely took my breath away. I forgive you if you don’t share my enthusiasm.
It’s officially known as the William H. Murray Bridge, but I guess the locals call it the Yellow Bridge, for obvious reasons. It was built in 1933. It carries US 281 (formerly US 66) over the South Canadian River.
Annnnnnnnnd… well, that’s all I can say about it. Well, there is one more thing. As I was taking pictures here, a passing state trooper slowed way down and looked at me like I was nuts. Ah, the slings and arrows we bridgefans suffer.
Fortunately, we also crossed several other great Route 66 bridges. Like this one that crosses the Big Piney River at Devil’s Elbow, Missouri.
It’s on a twisty and pretty old alignment of the road.
This bridge was built in 1923, too. It’s near the little town of Spencer, Missouri. Route 66 was rerouted nearby in 1960.
In Kansas, this 1923 Marsh arch bridge is known as the Rainbow Bridge. Even though another bridge was built alongside it in 1992 to carry Route 66 traffic, this bridge is still open to traffic for nostalgia’s sake.
It’s only open in one direction though, and not the one I was facing when I took this shot.
This 1924 bridge carries an old alignment of Route 66 just west of Oklahoma City. A restoration was completed in 2011.
Every old bridge on Route 66 probably gets an extra chance to live just because it’s associated with the Mother Road. I say right on!
If ever you drive Route 66, be sure to stop to see the many giant things placed along the way. It’s American kitsch at its finest.
Our very first stop on our Route 66 trip was to see the Gemini Giant in Wilmington, Illinois. It stands watch over the road next to the Launching Pad Diner.
If you think this 20-foot-tall fellow must be unique, think again. We found his brother holding a hot dog in Atlanta, Illinois.
These square-jawed giants are collectively known as Muffler Men. These fiberglass Muffler Men began appearing across the American landscape in the early 1960s. The first Muffler Man promoted a restaurant, the Paul Bunyan Cafe on Route 66 in Flagstaff, Arizona. He was dressed as the lumberjack of folklore and held an axe in his hands. Muffler Men got their common name when several were built to promote muffler shops; the men held giant mufflers in their hands. Many of them have been adapted for other uses as these two have. Thousands were produced. It’s hard telling how many remain, but four are known to stand along Route 66. This wiener-wielding fellow hasn’t always been in Atlanta. He stood watch until 2003 over a hot-dog stand in Cicero. When the stand closed, Atlanta claimed and restored this fellow.
This giant whale has been beached at a swimming hole near Catoosa, Oklahoma, since the 1970s. I gather that this became part of a much larger set of attractions at and near this site that did well through the late 1980s, but then was closed and fell into disrepair. The whale was later restored and serves as a Route 66 landmark.
I’m not sure how, but we missed the giant rocking chair near Cuba, Missouri. How do you not see a 46-foot-tall chair? We managed it somehow.
The point of our Route 66 trip was to take in America at ground level – to experience the countryside’s changing terrain as we moved west, to enjoy the small towns that dot the route, and to take in any tourist traps that interested us. But me being me, I also wanted to see some old-road infrastructure. So I favored the oldest alignments in hopes of finding some old pavement. I was not disappointed.
We found only one brick segment, just north of Auburn, IL. But oh, was it glorious – and well tended, too, with every brick in place and no asphalt patches. It lasted for about a mile.
A section of the old highway on the edge of Lexington, IL, is open only to pedestrians. It’s known as Memory Lane because it is lined with vintage-style billboards and Burma-Shave signs.
Route 66’s first alignment in much of southern Illinois was routed along what had been State Route 4 at about the same time it was being paved in concrete, which was in 1926. Notice the lack of expansion joints. Early concrete highways were usually a long ribbon of concrete, which then predictably cracked as the seasons warmed and cooled it. By the end of the 1920s, highway departments pretty much everywhere were placing a central expansion joint and usually regularly spaced lateral expansion joints in their concrete roads to retard cracking.
This stretch of concrete is most famous for the marks a turkey left in it while it was still wet.
About four miles west of Doolittle, MO, we found not only some abandoned Route 66, but some abandoned and obliterated Interstate 44. There isn’t much information about this stretch of I-44 on the Internet so I’m not sure why it was rerouted. But it had the unfortunate effect of cutting off this alignment of the Mother Road.
Here’s the abandoned stretch of Route 66. I-44 used to be on the right. We went here to see John’s Modern Cabins, a kind of motel, which I’ll write about in an upcoming post. The green arrow in the map excerpt above marks the location of this photo.
The segment of concrete pavement in this photo passes a restored former Phillips 66 service station in Spencer, Missouri. Notice the center expansion joint and the lack of cracking in this concrete.
One of the most significant stretches of old pavement is the “ribbon road” or “sidewalk highway” south of Miami, Oklahoma. This pavement is all of nine feet wide! That’s narrower than a single modern highway lane. The state of Oklahoma completed this road in 1922, and Route 66 was routed along it when it was “born” in 1927. The 1910s and 1920s were a highly experimental time for those who built highways.
Route 66 was realigned here in 1937, which is what saved this historic pavement – the old alignment became just a rural road and was not improved. This road is a concrete pad overlaid with a thin layer of asphalt. It is in very poor condition; the asphalt is missing in many places and is often covered in gravel.
My favorite stretch of old pavement begins just west of El Reno, Oklahoma, and runs for nearly 80 miles west to Elk City. It’s a concrete road, laid in about 1930. The first 40 miles or so west of El Reno are gloriously free of I-40, which parallels (and occasionally interrupts) it the rest of the way to Elk City. Driving these first 40 miles was among my most favorite experiences on the trip. This 80-year-old concrete is mostly in wonderful condition – with crumbling asphalt patches in most low spots, so even though the speed limit is 55, slow down where the road is patched.
Once upon a time, this road was choked with traffic. Route 66 was a very busy highway! Today, not so much.
I’ve geotagged all of these photos, so if you’d like to find these locations yourself, click them to see them on Flickr and use Flickr’s map to pinpoint them.