Group fights to keep historic Route 66 bridge from demolition in Laclede County

Published: Jul. 2, 2019 at 7:27 PM CDT
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Built in the 1920's the 525-foot Gasconade River Bridge is one of the few steel-truss structures still left along old Route 66 and although it was closed in 2014 to make way for a new bridge nearby, it is considered a sacred treasure by lovers of the Mother Road who want to save it from its scheduled demolition next spring.

By state law, before MoDOT can demolish the bridge they have to offer it to the general public for anyone to refurbish or move it...for free!

Plus MoDOT will also throw in the $180,000 or so it would cost to demolish the structure.

But of course there's a catch.

The new owners would also have to assume the liability for the bridge and pay for its maintenance. In this case it's estimated that it would cost $2.5 million to restore the bridge to its past glory but that's not something that would be required unless the bridge was used for vehicular traffic again.

"If that bridge falls down, it's theirs (liability-wise)," explained MoDOT Central District Engineer Dave Silvester. "If someone gets injured, that responsibility is still there with that entity."

Those concerns about costs and liability though have kept away potential owners which is why on Tuesday a group that's been working for almost five years to save the bridge, known as the Gasconade Guardians, met with the Laclede County Commission to try and get the county to take over the historic structure.

The pitch by the Guardians to the commission was to turn the Gasconade structure into a pedestrian bridge which would keep it from having to be inspected by MoDOT (they only oversee vehicular traffic) and keep costs for improvements to a minimum since an engineering firm has already inspected the bridge and found it safe enough for pedestrian use.

A big part of the presentation also centered on the bridge sparking more tourism as it was pointed out that Route 66 tourists usually travel from east-to-west and the bridge would lead travelers right into Lebanon's many Route 66 sights such as the museum and historical motels.

"Laclede County saw about $57 million in tourism expenditures which creates about 1,090 jobs," explained Nicole McGinnis, Lebanon's Director of Tourism. "Adding the bridge is going to be a key component because it has such a history and honestly losing it would be just a black eye at this point."

"It's an icon of the road," added Missouri Route 66 Association President Rich Dinkela. "It's a old ruin of a structure that reminds us of how life was in America back in the 40's, 50's and early 60's. For the last three or four decades we've had this homogenized society that was brought forth by the interstate. Now we're seeing these communities find their identity again."

After listening to the presentation, the commissioners agreed to start a dialogue with MoDOT officials and look into ownership but are concerned about their already limited bridge budget where vehicular traffic takes precedent.

"So we certainly wouldn't want to take on any unencumbered expenses long term," said Presiding Commissioner Randy Angst. "But that shouldn't preclude us from taking a look at this."

While the future of this bridge is still very much up in the air, it does seem that a lot of people would prefer to see it live on.

"The bridge is Route 66 and it is Laclede County," said Judy Wallmark, a member of the Gasconade Guardians group. "That's why having the Laclede County Commission involved makes sense."

"We don't realize it until it's gone," McGinnis added. "We're looking back at pictures and wondering 'What happened? Why didn't we save that?'"