Saturday, March 13, 2010

Impromptu Miller County Tour

Sue and I had a late lunch on this dreary, drizzly day, and on a complete whim decided not to head straight home from the fast-food establishment we had patronized. (Well? We had a coupon, okay?)

So we tooled down Highway 54 south, toward the Lake. Oops, I mean west, toward the Lake. From the Jefferson City perspective, it’s nonsense that Highway 54, which heads north and south through town, is officially an east/west route, and Highway 63, which heads north one direction and east the other direction, is a north/south route. But anyway.

We drove “west” on 54, through Brazito and past Etterville and got as far as the Eldon exits, but instead of visiting the land of Lloyd Belt Automotive—Where You’re Always a Good Deal Better!—we turned east onto Missouri 52 and drove to Tuscumbia.

Tuscumbia made national headlines a year ago when President Obama signed the federal economic recovery bill, because its crumbling, historic bridge over the Osage River was one of the first projects in the nation to result from the bill. The idea is to create new jobs for people while also improving the infrastructure: They are building a new bridge alongside the old one.

It’s truly sad that the old bridge is slated for demolition, because it is indeed a breathtaking structure. . . . But at this point, “breathtaking” takes on a new meaning when you stop to look at its state of dilapidation. I mean, it’s bad enough that it’s one of those old bridges that seem uncomfortably narrow by today’s standards. But worse than that, it’s crumbling down.

Soon after ground was broken for the new bridge in February of last year, we visited the bridge and were amazed to watch pieces of concrete fall off as traffic rumbled over it. We wandered around, exploring beneath the structure, but we felt safer if we stood to the side of it. The ground under the bridge is littered with chunks of concrete and iron. It is literally falling apart.

Yes, it is sad that the powers that be are planning to destroy the historic old bridge, which is eligible for placement on the National Register of Historic Places. You’d think it could be saved as a pedestrian footbridge, a curiosity and a monument to the engineering feats of the past, offering exciting views of the beautiful Osage below.

Right there at the heart of Miller County, whose total population is about 24,000 in 600 square miles, Tuscumbia, the county seat, could really use a nifty tourist attraction like the funky old 1930 cantilever through truss bridge.

But if funding was unavailable to keep it in repair over the last number of decades, there certainly won’t be money for such fixes once the new bridge is open. And it doesn’t look like Miller County itself has the buckaroos to pay for its preservation, plus the creation of an adjoining park, and so on.

I was driving, so I wasn’t able to look at the bridge much. Like I say, it’s narrow, and there were little piles of concrete debris along the edges where the bridge is disintegrating. I kept my eyes on the road! On this informative page is a YouTube showing the experience, heading northward (though we were driving south). You’ll see the bridge is also inclined.

The link above also includes a Google “street views” of the bridge. If you position the view so that you’re looking at the part over the north bank of the river, you can clearly see the bare iron support rods exposed as the concrete has crumbled away. Yikes!

And as we continued our drive through Miller County, we noticed that its roads must not be a very high priority for MoDOT in general. Pothole after pothole, some blackened with little lumps of asphalt, amid a patchwork of different road surfaces. And I kept grumbling, “Nice place to put a road!”

So, from on the south side of Tuscumbia, we turned left at the Red Oak Inn, thus staying on Highway 52 (Highways 52 and 17 merge to cross the river), and followed an impressive ridge paralleling the Osage. This is the kind of road that sports car lovers and motorcyclists crave: curves and hills, long steep grades. Creek-bottom lows and ridgeline highs.

We continued into the town of St. Elizabeth. The town itself has about nine square blocks and the community is home to a population of about three hundred (they have about a hundred more folks than the county seat, Tuscumbia). We drove through St. Elizabeth at about ten till five, and cars were parked all around the Catholic church: Time for mass.

We were exploring St. Elizabeth’s nine square blocks, and driving past St. Elizabeth R-IV school, when we heard the church bells ring: Five o’clock; mass is starting!

Here is a fun fact: The Catholic church at St. Elizabeth, Missouri, is the St. Lawrence Parish. Don’t that beat all?

We kept on Highway 52, east, and crossed over Big Tavern Creek. After that we drove on Highway 133 to Meta (home of Diamond Pet Foods), then proceeded north on Route B. This gave us a quick taste of the northwest corner of Maries County and the southwest corner of Osage County, then another very brief corner of Miller again.

Back in Cole County, we drove through the community of St. Thomas (where the parish name indeed matches the name of the burg), paused a while at the MDC Osage River access there (all right, it was a potty break, okay?), and enjoyed the view of the river beneath the highway bridge, where an old ferry used to be.

. . . And from there we drove home, via Wardsville, which is increasingly now a Haystack Acres, Pastureville, Hayseed Estates, a rather homogenous modern suburb of Jeff. Blair-Oaks-Falcons-ville.

I’m sorry I don’t have any pictures to share with you, but alas. It was an impromptu trip; we only left the house to grab a burger. Plus, it was gray and drizzly, anyway, and don’t worry: We’ll go back when it’s better weather and take good pictures then.


Anonymous said...

St. Elizabeth, St. Lawrence, logical to those who know the story. I challenge you to figure out how Charlietown figures into this saintly equation!

Julianna Schroeder said...

How’s this for an answer?

Owen Riggs donated land on the east bank of the Osage, and St. E, a port town, was platted in 1869. St. E of Thuringia apparently was the namesake of the town, the church, and Riggs’s daughter. Riggs, apparently in financial trouble, then sold 6,000 acres, including the townsite, to Charlie Holtschneider of Westphalia. In 1879, Charlie H. donated land for a new parish, St. Lawrence, and a new town was established 3 miles inland from St. Elizabeth. Originally that town was going to be called Charlestown or Charlietown (to honor C.H.), or Lawrenceton (for the parish), but those names were rejected because they were already used elsewhere in the state. Meanwhile, St. E, along the river, declined, and its post office was moved to Charlestown. So the p.o. name and town name were different, which was against federal post office rules. But they lived with it anyway. In 1961 “Charlestown” was officially changed to “St. Elizabeth” to match the name of its post office.

Source: Bill Earngey, Missouri Roadsides: The Traveler’s Companion (Columbia: Univ. of Mo. Press, 1995), 230.

Anonymous said...

A slightly different version than others I'm familiar with, but has the essential elements. As I recall reading Owen was murdered on his return from a cattle drive to Sedalia by a band of thieves interested in the purse he was carrying. Here is another version you may find interesting. Happy travels.

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed your travelogue of the roads I drive every day and the story about Charleytown, which is also slightly different from the ones I've heard. Yes it would be nice to keep the old bridge, but alas no money around to keep it safe enough to walk on. Like all bridges it moves when heavy vehicles drive over it.
It would have been nice if CNN had been as good at gathering facts as you are.

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed your travelogue of the roads I drive every day and the story about Charleytown, which is also slightly different from the ones I've heard. Yes it would be nice to keep the old bridge, but alas no money around to keep it safe enough to walk on. Like all bridges it moves when heavy vehicles drive over it.
It would have been nice if CNN had been as good at gathering facts as you are.

Julianna Schroeder said...

Thanks, Anon, for the compliment. I try very hard not to "lie" on my blog, and I hope that when I'm wrong about something, people will let me know.

As for CNN, I don't know--we ditched our cable/TV altogether some months ago, when we concluded, for sure, that the squirrels in our backyard provided more intelligent entertainment. I try to get news from a number of sources, but I have to admit that of the bunch, Fox seems the scariest!

I much prefer to get my information from printed sources, particularly ones from scholarly publishers and/or with notes, than from the Internet, which seems to be just a big "bulletin board in the sky."

Thanks again. (And now I'm curious: how are the "Charleytown" stories you've heard different from mine?)