Route 66 Series: Love Can Build a Bridge
Is it me, or are bridges kind of fantastic? I don’t mean the concrete behemoth interstate overpasses, which are marvels of engineering, but not always the prettiest to look at. I mean the charming, rusty, old-fashioned bridges on the much quieter highways. Bridges over bubbling streams, shaded by lush, whispering trees. Covered bridges with leaning sheds and calendar-worthy photo ops. Bridges that have passed out of history but not our hearts.
It’s a sin that I lived in Iowa for years and never saw the Bridges of Madison County, either the movie or the real version. But I have seen some pretty amazing bridges in my day. Europe boasted a good many. I’ve passed over the famous Brooklyn Bridge and San Francisco’s Golden Gate. The legendary London bridges have also seen my shoes shuffling over their ancient structures.
But I have to say, some of the prettiest bridges I have ever seen were tucked away on old Route 66, barely noticed anymore by the fast-paced world around them. Absolutely charming works of art, with rusted beams, gorgeous trusses, and delicate overhangs. Many can’t support cars anymore, but they still stand as a testament to the travelers they have ushered from one shore to the next over time. And they still welcome foot traffic, gazes from the occasional tourists, and photographers.
As we prepare to move from the terrifying Covid crisis to a post-pandemic world, I thought a tour of the Route 66 bridges was just the ticket. A symbolic way for me, and hopefully you, to start the mental shift from staying home, masking up, and social distancing to timidly taking our first steps over the bridge to a new normal. One I hope will see us taking better care of one another and the world around us. So, without further ado, here are some bridge highlights from our drive across the Old Mother Road.
And rather than saving the best for last, I think I’ll drop it for you right up front. One of the first bridges we encountered on 66, the Sugar Creek Covered Bridge is a page right out of the classiest postcard book. Situated nicely in a wooded area of Illinois, it’s more like something you’d see in a travel magazine than a quiet, practically abandoned corner of America’s Heartland. Built in 1880, it’s also one of the oldest covered bridges in Illinois. You can’t drive across it, since it sprung up before cars were really a thing. But as you can see, walking through it is more than enough.
The next bridge we found was the Big Piney Bridge, or “Devil’s Elbow Bridge” – a curious name for such a pretty spot. But once upon a time, the sharp curve in the river down below proved more than a pain in the elbow for local loggers. When the interstate bypassed Route 66, Devil’s Elbow Bridge fell into disrepair and became just as dangerous as the river. It wasn’t until 2013 that the nearby town restored it, bringing it up to all the modern safety codes without ditching any of that old-timey charm. Thanks to their efforts, it was one satanic hinge I felt quite peaceful walking on, with the Big Piney River underneath me, and the trees blowing in the wind up above.
And that brought us into Kansas, a state the 66 barely clips on the Southeastern corner. It’s easy to speed right through this tiny fraction of the Old Highway, but there’s a very special bridge that’s hard to ignore. It’s official name is Brush Creek Bridge, but Route 66 enthusiasts call it the “Marsh Arch.” A term inspired by its designer, Mr. James Barney Marsh. He actually built three of these bridges in Kansas, all with the unique “wagon wheel” arches on the sides. As both cars and the world started moving faster, developers destroyed two of these bridges to make room for more modern throughfares. But the Kansas Historic Route 66 Association fought long and hard to save the third and final Marsh Arch from the wrecking ball. Their efforts succeeded and the bridge has enjoyed a place on the National Register of Historic Places since 1983. Thank Goodness, because it allowed me to see the only remaining piece of James Barney Marsh’s rare Route 66 legacy.
Then came the Pryor Creek Bridge (featured image) – just one fine example of some of the rusty, historic old truss bridges to be found on Route 66. Summer had it looking extra gorgeous, framed with green foliage and shaded from the hot August sun. The bridge was originally built in 1926, when the Historic Route first opened. However, it’s delicate, diagonal beams and overhangs didn’t last long against the elements. It closed in 1932 and hasn’t seen any car traffic since. However, one can still safely walk across and take pictures. And its appearance makes you feel a bit like you’re walking through a time tunnel.
Rock Creek Bridge, nestled in the backroads of the small Oklahoma town of Sapulpa, was also built in the 1920s. And while it may not always impress the travelers of today, it provided a stunning truss-bridge experience during the peak of 66 travel. Especially with its red brick decking, quite rare in bridges built around that time. And don’t be fooled by its tender looks. Rock Creek Bridge has survived the test of time, and is one of the few scenic bridges still open to any light traffic that can clear the low-lying beams. Don’t be shy, give it a drive, and don’t forget to stop and take a photo.
In Tulsa resides another handsome Oklahoma cross over – the 11th Street Bridge, more commonly known as the Cyrus S. Avery Memorial Bridge (you might recognize that name from my post about the origins of Route 66. For a refresher, click here). This bridge first saw construction in 1916, before Route 66 had even germinated in wily Cy’s mind. Builders widened it in 1929 to make room for the swelling traffic on the symbolic “east meets west” part of the Mother Road. But unlike its skeletal truss counterpart in Sapulpa, this mighty work of concrete has been closed to traffic and cars since 1980. However, it is a proud member of the National Register of Historic Places, and a lovely, photogenic part of the “Cy Avery Plaza” memorial to honor Route 66’s creator.
And Oklahoma sure took the cake for impressive bridges, because another one captured our hearts in this very hot, hard-to-navigate state. The Lake Overholser Bridge, just outside of Oklahoma City and crossing the North Canadian River, is one of the largest surviving truss bridges of the Mother Road. Its reddish hue provides a stunning photo op with the blue river running under it, and the green grass sprinkled all around (provided the grass hasn’t browned from the staggering Oklahoma heat). It also remains open to any traffic that can clear the four-span camel-back trusses. It was a windy, hot day when we visited that bridge, but we still stopped for photographs and immensely enjoyed driving over it.
And last but certainly not least is the famed William H. Murray Bridge, better known as the “Pony Truss Bridge.” People come from all over the place to see this amazing work of bridge art, and it pops up as a prime feature on many Route 66 travel guides. The Oklahoma Highway Commission once called this super-stunner of a bridge the “most pretentious engineering project ever undertaken.” Perhaps because of its nearly 4,000 foot span, crowning it the longest truss bridge (by far) on the entire Route 66, and the route’s second-longest bridge over all. A bridge so long that when you stand on one end, you can’t even see the other. Then there’s the 38 (count them!) craftily engineered pony trusses on each side. And the strong, paved highway underneath it supported traffic from the small to the large for decades. Since there’s no side space, I wouldn’t recommend crossing it on foot. But there is ample room before you mount the bridge to stand safely off to the side and snap a photo. And you might want to do so quickly. Because sadly, this bridge may be closing to traffic in the very near future. Plagued with deterioration and constant upkeep, state officials think it would be much safter as a monument than a throughfare. And hey, now you might be able to safely walk across it – if you have that much energy anyway!
They say that love can build a bridge. Well, with some of the amazing pieces of architecture we saw on Route 66, it has to take something powerful to bring these ideas off the page and into real life. These beautiful bridges, and so many more, captured our imaginations for our entire drive down Route 66, and I swear you can feel the architects’ passion and artistry pouring out of the beams. Even today, they still draw onlookers to their charm and craftsmanship. They usher you onto a quieter shore, where people slow down to smell the roses and admire something beautiful together.
And no matter how fraught the times are, I will always prefer building bridges to building walls. Working together to keep all traffic on the road. To keep things from really collapsing.
I hope you have enjoyed this tour of the Bridges of the Mother Road. As we cross our own bridge into a new time, breaking out of our homes and rubbing our Covid-weary eyes, I wish you safe and happy travels. Wherever the road and its lovely bridges may take you.
Route 66 Travel
“Route 66 Crossings: Historic Bridges of the Mother Road” – J. Ross
“Route 66 Road Trip” – Moon/C. Taylor
“Route 66: The Mother Road” – M. Wallis
All photos by M.B. Henry. For more from our journey down Route 66, click here.