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In 1937, motorists in St. Louis got their first superhighway

In 1937, motorists in St. Louis got their first superhighway

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1938 Kingshighway

Ten motorcycle policeman start to patrol the three-mile stretch of the express highway. They would enforce the 45-mile speed limit. Post-Dispatch staff photo

ST. LOUIS • Rain slowed traffic to 25 mph. There was a jam at the Vandeventer Avenue stoplight. Motorists couldn't resist the grand opening of the last big stretch of the Express Highway, the city's original superhighway — a road that eventually would become part of Highway 40.

On the morning of July 19, 1937, workers removed barriers to the stretch from Kingshighway to Vandeventer, connecting it to the year-old section that already ran through Forest Park to Skinker Boulevard at Hi-Pointe.

That offered a 3.5-mile shot from midtown to what the newspapers called the "suburbs." Motorists leaving downtown had to take Market Street to reach the new highway, but the new route was a clear improvement to the constant stop-and-go of Manchester, Delmar and Page avenues.

The Express Highway cost about $3 million to build, or $860,000 per mile (in today's dollars, $12.9 million per mile). Today, rebuilding 9.5 miles of Highway 40 (Interstate 64) is costing about $56 million per mile.

Reporters dutifully clocking the new commute said it cut 10 minutes off the half-hour drive from downtown to Clayton.

But not everyone was happy with the 1937 extension, which was built into a cut below neighborhood level. Mayor Bernard F. Dickmann said he was disappointed that it had so many curves and dips beneath overpasses. People who lived along the route complained that drivers honked their horns to bounce echoes from its high concrete retaining walls.

The old St. Louis Star-Times ran an editorial headlined "Speedway or Death Trap," urging construction of a median barrier.

The state built the highway with Depression-era federal money and gave it to the city to maintain. St. Louis organized a special police motorcycle unit to patrol it and kept the speed limit at 30 mph until 1938, when the Board of Aldermen boosted it to 45 mph. It was dropped to 35 mph in 1942 to save rubber for the war.

Six years later, the city renamed it the Red Feather Highway in honor of a community charity drive. A Cold War-minded alderman who objected to calling anything "red" suggested naming it for Gen. George Patton.

The highway's western terminus remained at Hi-Pointe until 1959, when it was formed into the new Daniel Boone Highway being built through the heart of St. Louis County. It became known simply as Highway 40, the old Express Highway pavement long since replaced by upgrades. Stone slopes along the Vandeventer exit are all that is left of the 1930s superhighway.

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