EUREKA • It’s been nearly seven years since the last vehicle traversed the Meramec River on a bridge standing in the hearts of Route 66 enthusiasts, and a position of honor on the National Register of Historic Places.
The eastern entry point to Route 66 State Park is no longer passable.
Deeming the components structurally unsound, the Missouri Department of Transportation in 2009 closed the bridge and in 2010 dismantled the road bed and side rails. The span had served as the gateway to Times Beach, that ghost town that once occupied the state park site.
MoDOT also set a deadline for transferring ownership from the transportation agency to the state park system.
The deadline, Dec. 31, 2016, now looms large.
Absent a hefty infusion of cash, the structural remains of the span will likely be demolished early next year.
“Eventually there is going to be a bridge across the Meramec, so wouldn’t it be better if it is a historic bridge?” asks Ruth Keenoy, preservation specialist with the Landmarks Association of St. Louis and the driving force behind the effort to save the 84-year-old span.
The significance of the bridge extends beyond the celebrated heritage of Route 66.
Before the interstate highway system upended American traveling habits, the byway served as the Route 66 artery connecting Times Beach to points east.
The state converted the area to park land after the cleanup of the dioxin contamination that led to the evacuation and subsequent razing of Times Beach in the mid-1980s.
Until MoDOT shut the bridge, it linked the visitors center and headquarters on the east side of the Meramec to 419 acres of trails and recreational facilities along the west bank of the river.
The bridge deck is gone. But the piers, along with the “Warren trusses” that supported the weight of traffic, remain intact.
Warren trusses are considered noteworthy because, unlike the structural system found on most bridges, the braces support weight from below rather than above the road bed.
Only three other Missouri bridges boast that structural design.
The goal of preservationists is to cap the Warren trusses with a deck to link pedestrians, bicyclists and vehicular park equipment to the trails and amenities across the river.
Great Rivers Greenway has joined with Trailnet and other organizations to push for what Great Rivers spokeswoman Emma Klues calls a “critical connection” in the long-term objective of folding the bridge into a regional fitness network.
Before Dec. 31, the interested parties must come up with $1 million to transfer stewardship from MoDOT to a division of the Department of Natural Resources.
Saved the cost of complete demolition, the transportation department agreed to assist by contributing the $325,000 that was not spent in removing the structurally compromised deck and safety rails.
The state park system further agreed to kick in $100,000.
That $425,000 gave the preservationists a start but left them with the task of raising $575,000 through private donations.
A GoFundMe account has so far brought in about $6,000.
Still $569,000 short and with the clock ticking, the campaign to preserve the bridge has assumed a sense of urgency.
“Route 66 is part of the fabric of the country, and this bridge played a vital role in that,” said St. Louis County Historian Daniel Gonzales.
“Now we could be tearing it down, which is a real crisis in my mind.”
For travelers making the Chicago to Los Angeles pilgrimage along old Route 66, the two-lane bridge in the far reaches of St. Louis County represents a nostalgia for an Americana lost to air travel.
Route 66 State Park on the outskirts of Eureka last year hosted over 216,000 visitors (a 17 percent increase over 2014). A museum and gift shop greet guests to the park visitors center, situated in a former roadside restaurant.
Park officials four years ago posted a map inside the center and invited visitors to mark their hometowns with stick pins.
The map was last refreshed in March. Over the last four months, hundreds of pins have been added — some by tourists hailing from as far as India, Australia, Great Britain and Germany.
“We have a significant percentage of international visitors,” says Don Fink, park director since 2002.
The 2009 bridge closing created logistical problems, forcing visitors and park employees to access the recreational section of the park at a secondary entrance nearly 4 miles away.
While a restored bridge would primarily serve pedestrian and bicycle traffic, Fink said the span also would accommodate park equipment.
The $569,000 required to salvage the Warren trusses is the first step in what promises to be a series of moves to preserve the bridge.
Should a corporation or individuals come forward with money to save the span, preservationists would pursue federal, state and local grants to make the bridge compatible for pedestrians, bikes and park vehicles.
A feasibility study by Great Rivers Greenway placed the cost of such a project at $5 million to $10 million.
Keenoy, out of necessity, is focused on phase one — transferring ownership from MoDOT to the parks.
“MoDOT has been extremely generous in postponing the demolition for six years,” she said. “But after December, that’s it.”