Skip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.
A Look Back • 1950s expressway gave a taste of a bigger system to come
A look back

A Look Back • 1950s expressway gave a taste of a bigger system to come

  • 0
Look Back:  Interregional Highway

The Third Street Highway, looking north toward the Old Cathedral, on the early morning of Oct. 15, 1955, shortly before it was opened to traffic without ceremony at 10 a.m. Motorists said it cut the trip from downtown to Gravois Avenue to five minutes, down from the usual 15 minutes. They approved of the 40 mph speed limit. The 2.3-mile stretch of highway cost $13 million to build. (Lou Phillips/Post-Dispatch)

ST. LOUIS • In the late 1940s, the city's only freeway was the Oakland Express Highway along Forest Park, from Skinker Boulevard to Vandeventer Avenue. Car ownership was growing quickly, and motorists clamored for relief from downtown gridlock.

Progress in concrete began with the short-lived Third Street Highway, called the Interregional, from Washington Avenue at the Eads Bridge south to Gravois Avenue and 12th (Tucker) Boulevard. Only 2.3 miles long, it took seven years to build. A turf-minded state senator got the Legislature to delay it. Condemnation lawsuits in crowded neighborhoods consumed more time. Some of the buildings in the way dated to the 1840s.

When the $13 million Interregional opened on Oct. 15, 1955, there was no ribbon-cutting. Everyone was tired of talk.

But commuters liked it. The six-lane highway reduced drive time between downtown and Gravois to five minutes, a 10-minute savings. Pointlessly short by today's standards, the Interregional gave commuters a taste for a real superhighway system.

In 1948, Third Street was the logical start because it was next to the vacant expanse of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, which had been cleared before World War II and served as a giant downtown parking lot. The idea was to build one highway south to Gravois and another north to Natural Bridge Avenue. Such was the incremental thinking before an interstate system took shape in the public mind.

State Sen. Anthony M. Webbe, representing the neighborhoods south of downtown, pledged to stop the Interregional. Webbe said he was defending the 3,000 people in its path, and he persuaded the Legislature in 1949 to prohibit evictions for two years.

"It would be criminal to put these people, most of them poor, onto the street," Webbe said.

Mayor Joseph M. Darst, who had just taken office, was furious when Gov. Forrest Smith signed Webbe's bill into law. Smith said he wanted to protect Webbe's constituents from "hardship, suffering and probably death."

Sputtered Darst, "That's a pretty big responsibility for him to swallow. I don't know how good his digestive organs are."

Darst's administration had helped find new homes for all but 500 of the affected residents by 1951, when the Legislature declined to renew Webbe's statutory roadblock. And as construction began, the state Highway Commission was planning bigger things - the Mark Twain Highway (Interstate 70), the Ozark Highway (Interstate 55), the Circumferential (Interstate 270) and extension of the Express Highway (Highway 40) into downtown.

In 1963, the Interregional's downtown stretch was dug up to build the much-maligned "depressed lanes" of I-70, eliminating Third Street's traffic lights and linking the interstates. I-55 takes the path of the old Interregional into downtown.

Darst and Webbe died in 1953. The city made them namesakes of adjoining public housing projects near the highway that had divided them.

Dive into hometown history

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Most Popular

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


Breaking News


National News